Road To Super Bowl LIV: A Long Time Coming

By Curtis Clayton
Jan. 24, 2020

As we count down to the 54th installment of the Super Bowl, there are stories within the specter of the game. From dynasties being built and enhanced to Cinderella stories writing their happy endings, the final NFL game of the season can the tone for years to come with the outcome of this one game. But as the football world descends upon Miami to take over the city, the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs each have unique stories around the shared theme of redemption. Each have endured long durations without championship glory. Each of the head coaches have their own Big Game demons to exercise. And many players are looking to not only make a childhood dream come true, but to validate their respective franchise's faith in them.

Kansas City's 50 years in the wilderness

In the early years of the Super Bowl, the Chiefs became the second team behind the Green Bay Packers to make a second trip to the Lombardi stage. After being soundly defeated in Super Bowl I by the Packers, KC returned the favor to the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV as the American Football League would be absorbed by the NFL in the final phase of their historical merger after that game. But that Super Bowl title at the conclusion of the 1969 season would be the zenith for this franchise, one that was an AFL power in the second half of the 1960's. Many of those key players were inducted into Canton, such as QB Len Dawson, DT Buck Buchanan, OLB Bobby Bell, & MLB Willie Lanier, as well as head coach Hank Stram. As it would occur, the swan song for Stram's Chiefs would be in the 1971 AFC Divisional Playoff game, which was a double overtime loss to the eventual conference champion Miami Dolphins in the longest game in NFL history. The Chiefs would begin to decay after that, triggering a 15 year playoff drought where Kansas City would post 3 winning seasons in that time. They would catch lightning in a bottle in 1986 to snag a wild card berth, only to be throttled by the New York Jets 35-15. In the two years after, the Chiefs would go 8-22-1. Owner Lamar Hunt knew there had to be fundamental change to reverse the fortunes of the franchise he founded. Hunt would hire Carl Peterson as team president and general manager in December 1988. While his NFL experience was limited to being a Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach under Dick Vermeil in the late 70's and early '80's, Peterson made an impression as an executive as president & GM of the United States Football League's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, where his management made the Stars into the defunct league's most prolific team by playing in all three USFL championship games, winning two of them. Once the '88 season ended, Peterson hired Marty Schottenheimer as head coach. Schottenheimer parted ways with the Cleveland Browns after 4 1/2 years as head coach, leading them to the AFC Championship Game in 1986 and 1987, but left one year later due to philosophical differences with owner Art Modell. After a promising 8-7-1 maiden campaign, the Chiefs would make the playoffs six of the next 7 years, winning the AFC West three times (1993, 1995, & 1997) in that span. To put that accomplishment into perspective, earning the division crown in '93 was the franchise's first in 22 years. But as successful as they were in the regular season, the postseason was marred with heartbreak. Their exits in 1995 and 1997 were particularly painful, as they were the AFC's top seed. Despite enjoying a bye week and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Chiefs were upset by Indianapolis and Denver respectively in the divisional round. After an uneven 7-9 showing in 1998, Schottenheimer resigned. His legacy was defined by bringing credibility back to the Chiefs organization, as his 101-58-1 regular season record would attest. But a 3-7 playoff mark would serve as a strike on his resumé. Throughout the 2000's and in the early part of the 2010's, KC would fall back into mediocrity, qualifying for the playoffs 3 times in a 13 year span. But in 2013, the Chiefs would hire another head coach whose success seemed to hit a ceiling in Andy Reid. In Reid's 14 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, he took them to five NFC Championship Games and to Super Bowl XXXIX. He never won the big one, and many detractors made that point plainly clear. But he did make the Eagles into a respected franchise on the field, and he could do the same for KC. And Reid did exactly that, making a nine game turnaround and earning a wild card berth in his first year with the Chiefs. Reid has yet to post a losing season in Kansas City, but in 2017, the addition of one player would transform the franchise. In the draft, the Chiefs would engineer a trade that would move them up in the first round from the 27th selection to the 10th, while surrendering a second round and 2018 first round picks. Their target was Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Sammy Baugh award winner, given to the nation's best collegiate passer while setting five NCAA records. Mahomes was seen as the future as veteran Alex Smith was the incumbent starter under center. This would hold during Mahomes' rookie year, as he only would start a relatively meaningless Week 17 while the experienced Smith would lead them to a playoff berth. That would change as soon as the 2018 offseason, as Smith was dealt to Washington, leaving Mahomes to begin his pro football journey. Mahomes would take the NFL by storm, leading the Chiefs to a 12-4 regular season mark, win the AFC West, and earn home field advantage throughout the playoffs, while becoming the first passer in NFL history to throw for 5000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season en route to winning league MVP honors, the first member of the Kansas City Chiefs to do so. The Chiefs would conclude the 2018 season on their own field, defeated by the New England Patriots in overtime in the AFC Championship Game. KC would not be denied in 2019, as they are now on the Super Bowl stage. A victory would end a half century of championship glory while adding another seven pounds of sterling silver to the hardware case in the form of the Lombardi Trophy.

A seven year journey for the San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers dynasty in the 1980's would blaze new trails, from introducing the world to the West Coast offense to becoming the first franchise to win five Super Bowls, the final triumph a drubbing of the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. The good times would eventually end, as the Niners would gradually degrade to playoff contender through the late 1990's and early 2000’s, then hitting rock bottom in 2004. They would end the decade in veritable obscurity. In 2010, team president Jed York decided to take action to revive the franchise. He wanted Stanford University head coach Jim Harbaugh to lead the Scarlet and Gold. But scuttlebutt had it that the coveted coach would only select a club who had a traditional general manager in place. That led to the promotion of vice president of player personnel Trent Baalke into the GM position, and Harbaugh was signed to a five year contract in January 2011. Success came immediately for the duo of Baalke and Harbaugh, as their maiden campaign was a 13-3 regular season record that net the Niners the NFC's 2 seed. This playoff appearance would an 8 year drought from postseason play. After defeating the New Orleans Saints in an instant classic in the divisional round, the 49ers would lose to eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in overtime in the conference championship game. The new standard had been set for the Niners, who made it to Super Bowl XLVII the next year and lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC title game the year after that. But amidst this incredible run, animosity was building between Harbaugh, Baalke, and York. In 2014, amidst a tough 8-8 campaign, York had to make a decision, as he could retain his head coach or general manager but not both. York opted to dismiss the highly effective but abrasive Harbaugh, leaving Baalke in control of football operations. Harbaugh would land on his feet in coaching his alma mater, Michigan. Baalke would promote defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to supplant Harbaugh. In the 2015, many key players left. Retirement would claim defense captain LB Patrick Willis, leading tackler LB Chris Borland, and veteran anchor DT Justin Smith. A series of legal entanglements would force top pass rusher DE Aldon Smith to be released. Free agency would see leading rusher RB Frank Gore go to Indianapolis, interceptions leader CB Perrish Cox head to Tennessee, and G Mike Iupati sign with division rival Arizona. And trades would see the departures of P Andy Lee and TE Vernon Davis. That mass exodus of talent reflected in the standings, as the 49ers would go 5-11 in 2015, which would cost Tomsula his job. Former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was hired for 2016, and San Francisco cratered, going an ignominious 2-14. York had seen enough. He cleaned house, firing Baalke and Kelly, taking personal responsibility for the Niners woes over the last two years, and proclaiming that he was committed to the 49ers becoming winners once again. The coaching hire was no surprise. Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was a highly sought after candidate, and his family history with the 49ers franchise made it an organic fit. But bringing in retired safety and color analyst John Lynch to be general manager raised a few eyebrows, as he did not have any previous executive experience. And success would not be quick, as the inaugural season in the Lynch/Shanahan era in 2017 would begin with 9 straight losses. A ray of light would shine on this franchise in the form of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. A trade deadline acquisition from New England, Garoppolo would be given a start in Week 12 against the Chicago Bears. He proved to be a spark for the entire roster, winning all 5 games he started for the 49ers to finish the season 6-10. A plethora of injuries would derail a promising 2018 campaign with San Fran going 4-12. The silver lining to that dark cloud of a season would be parlaying the #2 overall draft pick into Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who would make an immediate impact as a disruptive pass rusher on the NFL's best passing defense in 2019. Combine the defense with an offense led by the three headed rushing monster that is running backs of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, & Matt Breida and complemented with pass catching talents like rising star tight end George Kittle, veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders, and rookie speedster WR Deebo Samuel, and it made the San Francisco 49ers the best team in the NFC. They defended that title with two convincing playoff wins to make the Niners' seventh Super Bowl appearance as they try to become the first NFC club to win six Lombardi Trophys to join the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers with that same franchise tally. The Niners have proven to be the most complete team in the NFL in 2019. One more victory will cement their dominance forevermore.

When these two teams take the field at Hard Rock Stadium, they each fought through hell to play on the grand stage of the Super Bowl. It is a regret that only one can be vindicated by the Lombardi Trophy, while another adds another chapter to their story in their championship quest. But such as the existence in this sport. One organization and its members will exalt in victory while another walks away with the bitter taste of defeat. It promises to be a close, enthralling contest, one that could easily decided by who has the final possession. And we'll all be there watching with baited breath as to witness the outcome.