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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

49ers vow to be back but lament missed opportunity with ‘special group’

Jan 29, 2023 at 6:04 PM

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The San Francisco 49ers will have more than enough pieces in place to be a Super Bowl contender once again next season, but Sunday's NFC Championship loss against the Philadelphia Eagles will sting for some time considering how much talent the team had on the roster.

The 31-7 loss to the Eagles was the second consecutive NFC Championship defeat for the 49ers, who were looking to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2019. After the game a few 49ers players spoke about the future, which remains bright but also carries a little uncertainty considering the fact some key pieces may not return.

"Guys are obviously emotional," linebacker Fred Warner said. "I've been here before where you lose in the biggest moment and it's a hard pill to swallow. You want to talk about how we'll be back next year and all those things, but I think more than anything, just guys kind of just reflecting and being with one another today in there."

Among those not expected to be back are defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who is expected to move on to a head coaching job with the Houston Texans, along with a number of players who are in the final year of their contract. Defensive end Nick Bosa told reporters after the game he felt like the 2022 49ers had the best roster of talent he's seen in his three seasons with the team, while also saying Sunday's loss was tough due to the fact this particular collection of players won't get another opportunity.

"It's hard to discuss that. A couple of guys did," Bosa said. "But the thing about the NFL is you never have the same group. You might have the key guys, but it's just sad. And when you go through all this and this exact group doesn't get another day together, so that's what makes it hurt."

Making things particularly difficult on Sunday was the fact the 49ers lost starting quarterback Brock Purdy due to an elbow injury early in the game. The fact the team didn't get the chance to play at 100 percent Sunday made this year's defeat a tough one to deal with.

"How does that feel to losing an NFC Championship game because I don't have a quarterback? Pretty sh***y, to be honest," tight end George Kittle said. "Yeah, it's about it.

"I mean, losing sucks regardless. Last year, I mean, fight just to get in the playoffs, upset some teams, and this year we had all the momentum, played well in the first round, played well in the second round, and you didn't really get to see all the 49er football that we wanted to put out there on tape. But life kind of just punches you in the face sometimes, and it is what it is."

The 49ers wouldn't have been in the NFC Championship without Purdy, who stepped into the starting lineup in December in place of the injured Jimmy Garoppolo and led the team to an undefeated finish over the final two months of the season. His thoughts after the game were with the team's veterans, who missed out on a golden opportunity in part due to circumstances beyond their control.

"Yeah, it just hurts. I'm just so sad for the older guys. Fred, Trent [Williams], George Kittle, Arik Armstead, everyone," Purdy said. "All the guys that have been through this. They've obviously been to the Super Bowl in 19 and then last year in the NFC Championship. And then for this to happen -- it's in the first drive, really -- man, like, this is the kind of game we have to play after the first drive. And I'm just frustrated. But more sad for those guys than anything because they deserve to go, to win and to win the whole thing. And so when that happened, man, I'm just more frustrated with that and sad for them."

But despite the injury to Purdy and the ensuing injury to his replacement, veteran Josh Johnson (concussion), the 49ers remained confident they could find a way to pull through against the Eagles due to the players they still had on the field.

"I mean, you always have confidence you're going to win," Warner said. "I think this was a really special group. Not to say that the teams that we've been a part of, that I've been a part of have not been special before. It was a special group. It wasn't even about the match ups. It was about us."

Eventually, the 49ers will turn the page and start looking ahead to 2023. Some players and coaches will move on, but most of the team's stars will return, putting the team in good position for more success next season.

"I think we'll definitely come back. I mean, we have a great foundation in this team, great locker room. So just onto the next one," Kittle said.

And despite the fact they've fallen short over the past few seasons, the 49ers will surely remain optimistic about 2023 being the year they break through and win a Super Bowl. It remains to be seen if next season will finally be the one where everything falls into place, but they can at least be expected to be driven to make it happen.

"I mean, my goal in life is to win a Super Bowl, so I'm going to do everything I can," Kittle said. "I know coach [Kyle] Shanahan's goal is to win a Super Bowl. We've been close multiple times and unfortunately we haven't been able to do that. But I still have the confidence in this team."
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