LAS VEGAS — Kyle Shanahan doesn’t like to play “What if?”
The 49ers’ head coach leaves that up to the rest of us.
And for the last four years, Niners fans have been dutifully taking up the task.
What if in Super Bowl LIV — four Niners quarterbacks and a world-changing pandemic ago in 2020 — the Kansas City Chiefs had not converted that third-and-15 in the fourth quarter?
What if the referees had actually flagged Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher for holding Nick Bosa on that play?
What if Jimmy Garoppolo hadn’t overthrown Emmanuel Sanders on the deep post route with 100 seconds to play and the Chiefs up four?
What if the Niners, up 10, had just held their nerve for seven more minutes instead of allowing 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points?
If any of that happened, would the 49ers be the team at this Super Bowl on the verge of a dynasty?
Would Shanahan — an undisputed football genius whose offensive scheme has revolutionized the NFL — already be considered one of the NFL’s all-time great coaches at only 44 years old?
Would Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes be just another guy and not The Man?
The rabbit hole of questions is endless, but those moments in South Florida in February 2020 linger today.
And they’ll continue to do so until Shanahan and the 49ers lift the Lombardi Trophy.
It’s easy to forget, but seven years ago, Shanahan took over a franchise that had run through three coaches in three seasons — the biggest sports team on the West Coast had become a laughingstock. Shanahan was walking into a trap.
Team CEO Jed York recently recalled the opening minutes of his 2017 interview with Shanahan.
“He was pretty clear: ‘This is one of the worst rosters I’ve ever seen,’” York said.
And yet in Shanahan’s third season at the helm, the Niners found themselves playing for a Super Bowl title. It’s a status they’ve flirted with ever since.
Under Shanahan, the 49ers are a team that has won just about everything except the thing that actually matters. They’ve dominated their division, they’ve played in four of the last five NFC Championship Games, they’ve had a steady stream of coaches poached, and they’ve acquired some superstar players along the way.
By any logical metric, Shanahan’s tenure as the Niners’ head coach has been wildly successful — 95 percent of NFL teams will gladly trade places.
But the standard for the 49ers is, well, gold.
And that makes Sunday’s Super Bowl anything but a celebration of success.
It’s a mission.
Because Shanahan and the Niners players who were on that Super Bowl LIV field might not want to admit it, but they have been asking “What if?” for years, too.
It has been the fuel to take them back to the precipice of the big game three times since — adding more hypotheticals, like “What if Brock Purdy’s elbow hadn’t exploded on the first drive of last year’s NFC Championship Game?” to the mix. This season, it has helped carry them back into the arena.
The 49ers have waited four years since South Florida, six months since the start of the season, and two weeks since their incredible NFC Championship Game comeback win for this opportunity. They stand 60 minutes away from glory.
But for the tortured Shanahan — a perfectionist whose preparation for every game is so intense you can see the physical toll it takes on him over the course of a season; a man who, despite his success, is still in the shadow of his multiple-time-champion father; a man whose football legacy has been that he can’t get it done in the big one — a title would change everything.
As Mahomes’ coach, Andy Reid, can attest, that first Super Bowl win is the toughest. Reid spent 14 years in Philadelphia, losing four NFC Championship Games (including three in a row) and a Super Bowl. Then, in his first five years with the Chiefs, he lost playoff games in downright absurd fashions.
It looked like Reid was never going to reach the mountaintop.
Then Mahomes arrived. They’ve since been to six consecutive AFC Championship Games — despite that conference being markedly better than the Niners’ NFC — and now four Super Bowls, winning two with a third on the line.
Reid was one of the greatest coaches in football history before the titles. Now, that status is unimpeachable.
Shanahan’s legacy can reach the same heights on Sunday. Don’t let the flat-brim hat and joggers fool you. In seven years, he’s changed the game.
And there’s so much more to come. There’s no plush media job escape route for the 49ers’ coach, like his protégé, Rams coach Sean McVay had. Shanahan would be awful on TV the same way he’d be awful as a college coach — he’s not a politician.
No, Shanahan is this game for the long haul, with likely more than 20 years to go in his NFL head coaching career.
So sure, there will likely be other chances to claim the game’s top prize.
But he needs to get over the hump now. This defining burden he carries is the only thing that can drag him down.
Just one — No. 6 for the Niners overall — and the floodgates might open for Shanahan and the Niners.
Just one perfect 60-minute game in Las Vegas, and we can all stop asking, “What if?”