Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey Nov 19, 2023; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (13) hands off the ball to running back Christian McCaffrey (23) during the first quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The road to the San Francisco 49ers’ possible first Super Bowl victory in almost 30 years hasn’t always been smooth, but far more things have gone right than wrong.

In recent years there have been quarterback questions and a number of trades and free-agent deals that critics blasted, but in the end turned out great.

The bottom line: In the past five years, the 49ers have averaged 11 regular season wins, been to four NFC Championships, and now their second Super Bowl.

Here’s a look at how the 49ers got to this point as they face the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of their Super Bowl loss four years ago.

Free rein

The 49ers’ march to Super Bowl LVIII began quietly in early 2017. Coming off a 2-14 season, the 49ers hired former NFL star John Lynch as their general manager on Jan. 29. Eight days later, the team hired Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He had actually reached a deal with the 49ers first and asked Lynch to join him as the GM.

Imagine an NFL team today losing its first nine games with a new coach. Then the team opens the next season 2-10. That coach would be looking for a new job, possibly along with the GM and everyone else.

That’s how the Lynch/Shanahan era opened. Both men credit 49ers CEO Jed York for allowing them free rein and not panicking, giving them plenty of time to rebuild the franchise. Shanahan told the 49ers Game Plan podcast in 2023 that York made it clear he would stay the course regardless of the early results.

“What Jed told us through the interview process, he made us believe in all of that,” Shanahan said. “That we would have that time, that we could think that way, and he wouldn’t pressure us when things went bad, and we started 0-9, he was never going to come down to me and say ‘you need to fire this coordinator’ or stuff like that. It allowed us to go through what we did for two years, and what I like to say is, build it the right way.”

The 49ers won 13 games in 2019 and made it to the Super Bowl. Four years later, they’re back and looking for revenge.

Draft kings

The 49ers have done very well in the NFL Draft in recent years, although there have been notable misfires. Take a look at 2021. The 49ers selected quarterback Trey Lance No. 3 overall, then drafted running back Trey Sermon in the third round. Both players are on different teams and still trying to jump-start their careers. Yet even in that draft, the 49ers struck gold elsewhere, picking up four 2023 starters. They got guard Aaron Banks in the second round, and somehow drafted three starting defensive backs in Ambry Thomas (third round) and Deommodore Lenoir and Talanoa Hufanga (both in the fifth round).

The 49ers made their early picks pay off in other drafts, selecting stars Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk in the first or second rounds, while adding key pieces much further down, including TE George Kittle, right tackle  Colton McKivitz, and linebacker Dre Greenlaw, all in the fifth round.

Linebacker Fred Warner went in the third round (No. 70 overall) in 2018, a huge value for a three-time first-team All-Pro.

Which brings us to Brock Purdy, selected by the 49ers with the final pick in the 2022 draft, earning the ugly “Mr. Irrelevant” title. Giving the 49ers credit for selecting him there might seem a stretch. Obviously, if they, or anyone else, had suspected Purdy had a bright future in the NFL, he would have gone higher in the draft. So in some respects, the 49ers got lucky.

Yet any other team could have taken him before that point. They all passed. So give credit to the 49ers for not allowing Purdy to fall into the UFA market. Lynch points to three men for influencing the decision to draft Purdy: Quarterbacks coach Brian Griese, 49ers scout Scott Slowik, and Purdy’s coach at Iowa State, Matt Campbell.

“Brian comes to coach, and Brian just falls in love with this kid,” Lynch told The Pivot podcast recently. “There’s another guy … Steve Slowik, who (scouted) Iowa State, and he’d go in there, and Matt Campbell was a really good source…He would say this guy changed this entire program.”

Purdy stepped in late in the 2022 season after injuries to quarterbacks Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo and has surprised everyone. It’s hard to believe it’s barely been more than a year since he stepped out of obscurity into the limelight.

Purdy earned Pro Bowl honors and led the 49ers to a 12-5 record this season, although not without a few bumps along the way (more on that later).

Let’s make a deal

When it comes to trades, Lynch is like that guy who seems to be in everyone’s fantasy league. He’s the one who keeps making deals some people think will backfire, but they all seem to turn out fantastic.

Case in point: The huge trade the 49ers made that brought superstar running back Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers in October 2022. The 49ers gave up four draft picks in the second, third, fourth, and fifth rounds.

Many NFL analysts and fans blasted the deal, pointing out McCaffrey’s age and injury history. No one is criticizing the 49ers anymore. After 26 games in a 49ers uniform, McCaffrey has more than 3,200 total yards and 31 touchdowns, including 21 this season.

The Trent Williams trade in 2020 also worked out great. An 11-time Pro Bowl selection, Williams had a cancerous growth on his head that forced him to miss the entire 2019 season. He wanted out of Washington. The 49ers picked him up for third and fifth-round draft picks. That’s it, to acquire one of the NFL’s best left tackles. It was a classic low-risk, high-reward trade, and the 49ers are reaping the benefits.

How about the draft-day trade to land Aiyuk, who racked up 1,300-plus yards this season? The Packers were widely expected to pick Aiyuk No. 30 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. They traded up to No. 26 to make sure they could get him. Instead, the 49ers traded for the No. 25 spot and nabbed Aiyuk (the Packers then made an unconventional pick that has paid off, Jordan Love).

The 49ers have proved the critics wrong in their free-agent moves, as well. When they signed former Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward to a three-year, $42 million deal in early 2022, critics noted he had only four interceptions in four seasons and couldn’t get after the ball. This season, Ward picked off five passes, and led the NFL with 23 passes defended. He’s a second-team All-Pro this year.

Even when the 49ers personnel moves haven’t worked out, they’ve somehow come out okay. Picking Lance in 2021 looks even worse considering the team traded with the Miami Dolphins to move up from No. 12 to No. 3, giving up three No. 1 picks and a third-rounder.

“We got lucky on Brock, but sure that set back our team,” Lynch told reporters during the preseason. “It would’ve been nice to have those picks and all that, so we do own that. And fortunately, we still have a really good football team that I think has a legitimate shot. … we have a championship-level roster.”

‘The best game manager in the league’

The 49ers clearly appeared to be the class of the NFC from the start of this season, especially after they obliterated the Dallas Cowboys 42-10 to improve to 5-0. A three-game losing streak immediately followed, and the team bottomed out when Purdy threw interceptions on consecutive passes in the second half in a loss to the Bengals. Purdy threw five interceptions in those three losses. To complicate matters, he went into the concussion protocol during that stretch.

Even in his sensational rookie season, there had been doubters, but more fans and media began questioning whether he was a legitimate QB1. On ESPN’s First Take, Stephen A. Smith brought up the prospect that Purdy was “a quarterback problem” for the 49ers.

But the 49ers stuck with Purdy and the winning resumed. They went 7-2 the rest of the way, including a loss to the Ravens that saw Purdy toss four interceptions against that tough pass defense. Purdy went on to lead the NFL in passer rating, throwing for almost 4,300 yards and 31 touchdowns, with 11 picks.

In some ways, Purdy is in a no-win situation when it comes to his situation in San Francisco. He’s surrounded by such dynamic playmakers, even when he’s played well, some have attributed it to his supporting cast. No NFL quarterback has faced more derogatory “game manager” and “system quarterback” barbs the past two seasons (actually, didn’t some people once say that about Tom Brady?).

Purdy has let his play do the talking. He had a great performance in the NFC Championship against the Detroit Lions. Trailing by 17 points at halftime, Purdy rallied the 49ers to 27 unanswered points in the second half. Most impressively, he scrambled around to extend plays, and took off on three long runs, showing surprising quickness and agility.

“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” Shanahan told reporters, regarding Purdy’s scrambling. “He made some big plays with his legs. Getting out of the pocket, moving the chains and some first downs, getting some explosives.”

Rival players and coaches can see what’s special about Purdy. Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni praised him before the two teams met in Week 13.

“I think he’s got good athleticism, I think he knows where to go with the football in a timely fashion, and I think he is accurate going there,” Sirianni told reporters. “Those are the things you want in a quarterback, and so hats off to him and Kyle and their staff for putting him in good positions and continuing to develop this guy.

“Again, I just think the guy is a winner, and I have a lot of respect for him, and you can see that on tape.”

Sirianni said all that before Purdy lit up Philly for 314 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-19 win.

The 49ers coaches and players have never doubted Purdy. After the NFC title win, Bosa trolled the media about their criticism of his quarterback.

“(Purdy’s) the best game-manager in the league,” Bosa said.

‘Unfinished business’

The 49ers’ transformation from NFL jokes to the Super Bowl took less than three years from the arrival of Lynch and Shanahan. But the Chiefs scored 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to beat the 49ers, 31-20, in Super Bowl LIV. Fans and media shredded Shanahan afterward. He’d been the offensive coordinator for the Falcons when Brady and the New England Patriots rallied from a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl three years earlier to win.

Shanahan said he didn’t pay attention to all the flak on Twitter (now X). And he didn’t back down from any of his decisions, including a questionable move late in the first half where he did not call a time-out.

“I was very happy with how the game went from a management spot, calling the game,” Shanahan told reporters a few days after the game.

Kyle Juszczyk, San Francisco’s perennial Pro Bowl fullback, agreed.

“I would never second-guess anything that Kyle called,” Juszczyk said on Good Morning Football a few days after the game. “I think he called a phenomenal game, and really, it was just up to us to execute it.”

Shanahan’s work in San Francisco hasn’t been defined by the big one that got away, but by the team’s incredible run of success in the past five seasons. The 54-29 record and four NFC Championship games in that stretch speaks for itself. The 44-year-old coach grew up watching his father, two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan, walk the sidelines. Kyle obviously took notes.

“He’s been really good at it for a long time,” Sirianni said. “I think he does a really good job, as I watch, meshing his system together. There are things that look alike that — you know, one thing looks like this and it’s a play-action pass or a shot or a run, and they all marry together really good.

“He’s an outstanding coach. The other thing is I look at myself. I grew up going to football practices. I’m sure he did the same, and he’s been around this sport for a long time. So, just a ton of respect for him and the job he’s done and continues to do over there.”

Now, Shanahan and the 49ers get their chance at revenge against the Chiefs. He said recently the team has “unfinished business.” He also understands 49ers fans expect a record-tying sixth Super Bowl championship. Getting to the big game isn’t enough.

“There’s been a lot of good things, but the ultimate goal, we always say it, there’s only one team happy at the end of the year,” Shanahan said during a Super Bowl media session. “We’re real proud of a lot of things that we’ve accomplished here in the last five years or so. We still want to be that one team that’s happy.

“No matter what you accomplish, if you don’t win that Super Bowl, it’s always disappointing … We’ve felt that, we’ve gotten close and we’re real proud that we’re back in this situation. But we also know how it feels when you don’t get it done. So we want to go and make sure to get it done this year.”

With stars such as McCaffrey, Samuel, Bosa and Warner — not to mention “The best game manager in the league” in Brock Purdy — Shanahan has the talent to put the 49ers back on top.

About Arthur Weinstein

Arthur spends his free time traveling around the U.S. to sporting events, state and national parks, and in search of great restaurants off the beaten path.