As a Niner fan, I love a good game. But as a writer (of sorts), I love a good story.

Tonight, I'm mourning the losses of both.

I think back to Jim Harbaugh's arrival. What excited me wasn't his coaching credentials, as exciting as those credentials were; what excited me, much more, was his story. If you've read me a while—and if you have, thanks, by the way—you saw me spin it, immediately. Bill Walsh's final protégé comes to the rescue of his woebegone franchise, restoring its glorious roots and then leading it back—to glorious victory.

It was a plausible tale, if maybe a little bit over the top. And I loved it. I loved it because it spoke to who the Niners are. The Niners, see, are very special. We aren't like the Seahawks or the Broncos, or nearly any other franchise. Those franchises might have their moments, but that's just it; their moments are just moments. To them, every year without a title is just another year. They've got no cross-generational identity, no long-term sustainable brand. Since Walsh came along, the Niners have been the NFL's flagship; over that period, their five titles are still the most. But that flagship spent a decade adrift, and Harbaugh's promise to get it sailing back on course....

Well, friends, that was a story.

And the stories only got better from there.

Appropriately enough, they began with Year One. Exactly three decades after Walsh, an ex-Stanford coach with an innovative offense, shocked the league by winning it all with a band of misfits who'd gone 6-and-10 the year before, Harbaugh was poised to do the same thing. Having played up the Walsh's-footsteps angle, for me the story became gargantuan, poetic enough to be almost absurd. And the ending was there, right there for the taking.

And you know the rest. One fumble, then another, and the most painful loss—to that point—in franchise history. Oh, sure, previous losses might've cost us titles. But this one also cost us a story.

Amazingly, though, an even better story awaited. Halfway through Year Two, Colin Kaepernick, Harbaugh's Chosen One, made one of the most astonishing debuts in the history of the game, and then from there he just kept going, immediately becoming the league's most dynamic all-purpose weapon. The notion that this precocious kid, with only a handful of NFL starts, could take this team all the way to the end...well, now, that was a story. And he did take us to the Super Bowl, where after a wild 58 minutes, there he sat, five yards away, not only from a redeeming title but also from instant immortality. The ending was there, right there for the taking.

And you know the rest. He focused only on Michael Crabtree—more to come, unfortunately—and three incompletions later, a painful loss nearly 50 times worse, and the loss of a story a hundred times better.

But I couldn't stop, and in my irrepressible way, I found a story to tell for Year Three. See, we overachieved in Years One and Two, so we shouldn't have taken those losses so hard. Our window was really just opening now, and with the lessons of those near-misses learned, now we were genuinely ready to win. Not as dramatic a story maybe, but certainly enough I'd say, to put those first two years in acceptable context—to find a way to redeem them both.

And sure enough, going into the playoffs, the Niners were a team on fire, having won 11 of 13 and 6 in a row. They won one road-game, then another, and rode into Seattle on a towering wave. Despite their recent horrors there, their confidence—or at least mine—had never been higher. And that confidence proved to be justified. The Niners took control immediately, silencing Seattle's despicable crowd. Kaepernick produced two of his most spectacular plays—a 58-yard run and one of the most athletically awesome passes ever—and the Niners looked like they'd stay in control all the way to the end.

Seattle was afraid, all right.

But then things changed, starting of course with another blown call. Having been given an undeserved drive, Seattle turned fourth-and-7 into the go-ahead touchdown. And once the Seahawks went ahead, predictably the roof caved in. Thanks to our D—and despite the most utterly demoralizing injury since Joe Montana's in ‘91—a fumble and an interception cost us only three points, and Kaepernick was all set up to drive the field for the winning score. He'd saved our winning streak time and again in conditions like these. But now with the Super Bowl on the line, this was a genuine shot at redemption. The ending was there, right there for the taking.

And you know the rest. After smoothly driving 60 yards to Seattle's 18, Kaepernick made the same mistake. He decided, before the snap, that he'd be throwing to Crabtree again, and in so doing he validated every "one-read" complaint that his critics had ever made. Ignoring at least two better options, he lofted a pass into the end zone, and to make matters worse he underthrew it, allowing an absolute son of a bitch to make the play that sealed the game.

Ever since his first appearance, I have defended Colin Kaepernick. And to some extent, I'll defend him now; if it hadn't been for his first three quarters, we wouldn't have had a shot in the fourth. But in that fourth, despite last year's lessons, he simply gave the game away. There isn't any escaping that.

And there they are. Three stories, each offering a perfect ending. Three games, each offering a championship. Three chances, to win the game with the final drive. And three losses, each a shot, straight through the heart.

Sad, to be sure; sad those stories should end that way. But what's sadder still, is in a sense, Harbaugh's story has ended too.

Don't get me wrong. Harbaugh is still the league's best coach, and still the perfect coach for this franchise. The proof is there in his dazzling record; no coach had ever gone to three conference-title games in his first three seasons, and no coach will ever do so again. My faith in his leadership—that he'll always do whatever it takes to maximize our chances to win—continues unabated, and a good thing, too. Without that faith, the pain would be unbearable.

But that story he arrived with—the student on the master's trail—that tale won't hold up anymore. Walsh lost plenty of big games too, three playoff games in a row at one point. And in retrospect, that only seems fitting; every great story requires adversity. But like any great hero, Walsh never stopped redeeming himself. After he completed the miracle of ‘81, ‘84 redeemed ‘83, and ‘88 redeemed ‘87. That's what makes him more than a genius. That's what makes him the stuff of legend.

As great a coach as Harbaugh is, he hasn't kept up his end of the deal. He failed to complete his miracle, and then he failed to redeem that failure. And now, in a way, it's too late. Once again, don't get me wrong. We're just beginning what's likely to be a solid decade of constant contention. The Quest for Six will continue, and eventually, Harbaugh will win it.

But these first three years were very special. The Niners seemed to ooze with magic, just as they did those decades ago. Sometime during these first three years, the Niners should've won a Super Bowl, maybe should've won all three. The story simply demanded it. Instead they came away with nothing. The weight of opportunity lost is nearly overwhelming, and nothing that Harbaugh goes on to do will ever take that weight away.

A story ended on Sunday night. And the ending, despite its perfect potential, instead was unendurably sad.