Thompson: For Christian McCaffrey, this wasn’t how his 49ers Super Bowl debut was supposed to go


LAS VEGAS — Christian McCaffrey barely moved as he sat in his cubicle in the visiting locker room of Allegiant Stadium. Paralyzed by the pain. His eyes widened, locked straight ahead, as his mind processed the agony. His shoulders slumped as reality wrenched his gut in real-time. Visceral enough to be visible.

The San Francisco 49ers lost Super Bowl LVIII, 25-22, but not before being close enough to taste it. Not before squandering multiple chances to win it. The heroics of Patrick Mahomes, and the latest chapter in his growing legend, again left the 49ers slumped.

This is the fourth time in five years they were Super Bowl-caliber and wound up shy of Super Bowl-worthy. 

But it was the first time for McCaffrey. This defeat hit harder than any linebacker. And all he had to comfort his crushed spirit in this moment was Kyle Juszczyk. His fullback. His friend.

“It’s hard. It’s really hard. I feel for him,” Juszczyk said. “I’ve said since two years ago: Nobody’s harder on Christian than himself. And I hate to see that because he’s absolutely the reason we’re here. Did a lot of really great things in that game. He’s the best football player I’ve ever seen.”

Juszczyk was hurting in his own right. But he’s been through something similar before. 

For McCaffrey, this is a foreign feeling. Last year’s loss in the NFC Championship Game was rough because it felt like the 49ers didn’t get a fair chance. They could leave in the plausible deniability of injury. But this? He’d never felt anything like this in football. 

“Never,” he said, his words buried beneath an avalanche of fresh emotion. “… It hurts the most.”

Most of McCaffrey’s career was losing before the 49ers rescued him from Carolina. Still, no loss with the Panthers compares. This loss wasn’t supposed to be. 

McCaffrey was the difference-maker for the 49ers. Their quarterback’s safety blanket. Their offense’s magic stir stick. He was the rebuttal to the hill they couldn’t crest. 

The 49ers became Super Bowl contenders with homegrown stars. They kept hitting on draft picks until they found themselves with a serious team. Then they hit the market and added some more. Trent Williams. Charvarius Ward. Javon Hargrave. And with all their big names on both ends, the 49ers piled a Hall of Fame running back on top. 

McCaffrey was supposed to shift the balance of top-end talent so it favored the 49ers. Make it so they had so much greatness that no other team could be greater. And it did tip the scales. It got them the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and back in the Super Bowl. 

Sunday, though, McCaffrey learned the hard way that not even his greatness could undo what feels like a curse. He’s everything the 49ers hoped for, an all-world back who will wear a yellow jacket one day. He’s the newly minted Offensive Player of the Year. He finished the Super Bowl with 160 yards from scrimmage on 30 touches and a touchdown.

Still, he was helpless against the inevitability of their demise. And that he was bested by arguably the greatest quarterback ever wasn’t softening the blow. Not now anyway.

These 49ers are perennially just short of glory. Their torment is being good enough to make it possible, fathomable, tangible, only to be thwarted by their own insufficiency. They’re always a decision off. A ligament short. A tackle away from completion. A catch shy of the finish. A play call away from the solution. A throw short of the answer. A read off from the right spot. A big break from finishing.

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The question they must grapple with, as the cold winter unfurls into the 49ers’ long offseason, is this: If they can’t win when they’re loaded with stars, how can they win?

The 49ers had the better season. They had the better team. It could be argued they played the better game. But something always happens. Always. Even to McCaffrey.

First thing I think, I can’t put the ball on the ground on the first drive,” McCaffrey said of his first-quarter fumble. He repeated it multiple times, fitting it into his answer no matter the question. Can’t put the ball on the ground. Can’t put the ball on the ground. Can’t put the ball on the ground.

His fumble came on the opening drive. The 49ers got the ball first and marched 46 yards in four plays. The vaunted Chiefs defense, which stopped Josh Allen in Buffalo and shut down Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, was on its heels against the 49ers. McCaffrey finished the regular season with 12 career fumbles in 1,806 touches. That’s one fumble every 150.5 touches. McCaffrey entered the Super Bowl having never fumbled in 112 touches over six postseason games.

But McCaffrey, taking a handoff on first down from the Chiefs’ 29, had the ball ripped out by Kansas City linebacker Leo Chenal. The statement opening drive was ruined.

More importantly, it proved the secret weapon was just as fallible. The 49ers’ armor against disaster actually broke the dam on self-inflicted wounds. What followed was drive-killing false starts, questionable play calls, leaks in pass protection, forced throws, a muffed punt, a blocked extra point.  

“If you look at the self-inflicted wounds we had,” McCaffrey said. “We just beat ourselves.”

The simple answer is the 49ers will be back next year. They’re still loaded. Some key players got Super Bowl experience — including McCaffrey, Brock Purdy, Brandon Aiyuk and Trent Williams. They should be good again next year.

But that pacifier doesn’t soothe that ache as well anymore. Next year keeps coming, the motivation keeps accruing, and they end up back in this same place. By failure or by fate. It was Mahomes in 2020. It was Nick Bosa’s ACL in 2021. It was a dropped interception by Jaquiski Tartt in 2022. It was a torn UCL for Purdy in 2023. It was Mahomes again in 2024.

The 49ers, until they break through, are a team of the wrong kind of destiny. Their greatness never seems great enough. Fate or Mahomes will find a way to rob them of glory.

“It hurts deep,” McCaffrey said. “It’s something you dream about as a kid and (something) you’ve worked so hard for all year. And to come up short. Think you just have to go through all the emotions as they come. Each day just chip away at getting back to normal. I don’t know how long it’s gonna take. It’s still fresh and it still sucks.”

Eventually, Juszczyk got up from his friend’s side and started to disrobe from his uniform. McCaffrey, with no one else to lean on, slumped against the wall of his cubicle. He wasn’t yet ready to hold himself up.

Maybe his greatness responds with another level, one that gets them over the hump. Maybe he’s their anti-Sisyphus. Maybe he’s the star of stars who makes sure they never feel this way again.

Or maybe, on this night, in the city of crushed dreams, McCaffrey truly became a 49er. Initiated in the fellowship of heartbreak.

“I hate to see him hurt,” Juszczyk said, “and I’ll be there for him.”

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(Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)





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