Thompson: 49ers heartbreak community writes new chapter

PHILADELPHIA CREAM – Discuss content stood about 10 feet from his locker, the sleeveless white t-shirt he wore under his towels draped over his gold gaming pants. His arms were crossed behind his back, his hands clasped. His face pointed to the ground as he swayed gently. Left. Right. Left. Right. Like a pendulum, tapping with each swing. The rhythm in place seemed to tap into his swirling emotions as if he wanted to feel the pain flowing through him but also needed to control it.

Shirtless defensive lineman Arik Armstead came to put his arm around Hufanga’s neck and said a few words in his mind. Before long, linebacker Fred Warner, still in pads and a grass-stained jersey, made his way to sophomore safety. His embrace is also accompanied by words of encouragement. After each embrace, after the two moments of consolation, Hufanga used her T-shirt to wipe away her tears. Then he put his arms behind his back and started rocking again. Left. Right. Left. Right. His head tilted, his lips moving as he muttered to himself.

“I really enjoy those moments,” Hufanga said. “These are tough times, though.”

Hufanga is now initiated. He is fully in the communion of grief after the 49ers’ 31-7 loss to the Eagles in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

He was a rookie last season when the 49ers got robbed of a trip to the Super Bowl late. But he only played 21 snaps, just two on defense, when the host Rams came back in the fourth quarter. It was then much more transient. This time he was the starting safety, a Pro Bowler, and one of the top defensive playmakers. Now he knows what a crushed soul feels like.

The 49ers might have lost to the Eagles. But go out like this? Without even a fair fight? Disappointment has levels. The 49ers have found a new low.

“Losing is horrible,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was famously bayoneted from a 28-3 Super Bowl lead as offensive coordinator. “This one was more difficult. This one was more difficult. This one was much more difficult, I thought.

In February 2020, the 49ers were outscored 21-0 in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. In 2022, they lost a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. But this year’s defeat is on a debilitating new level. Because their greatest adversary seemed to be fate.

They entered the game with the taste of anger. How could they not feel destined to Brock Purdy as a quarterback? But they left Lincoln Financial Field feeling like a cosmic force is determined to keep them from winning a championship.

“I was just thinking how hard it is,” Purdy said, “how it takes every little thing to line up the right way to win, to go all the way. I was thinking back earlier in the season, to what had happened with all the injuries and everything, and then we get hot and we win games, and how hard even those games are to win. Last week, how hard it was to win. You get into a environment like this, locked in and ready to roll, and then an injury comes in and the way the game is going totally changes in a different direction. All of those emotions.

On the 49ers’ sixth offensive snap of the game, Purdy threw play action and backed up. His target, Brandon Aïyuk, opened. Purdy thought he was about to hit him for a big play. He had no idea the writers of Final Destination were about to script the rest of the 49ers season.

Philadelphia Stud linebacker Haason Reddickwho had 16 sacks in the regular season, blew around a Tyler Kroft block and interrupt Purdy’s pass. Not only was he ruled a sack and a fumble, recovered by the Eagles, but Purdy injured his elbow on his throwing arm. after losing Trey Lance in week 2, and Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13, the 49ers lost the No. 3 quarterback in Week 21. One game before the Super Bowl.

who did his duty Josh Johnson, the 36-year-old fourth-string quarterback the 49ers signed in early December. Not only did Johnson take his first meaningful snaps since Boxing Day 2021 with Baltimore, but it was his playoff debut. The 49ers’ offense ended in an immediate three-and-out, capped by a late game penalty.

After the 49ers punt, Nick Bosa stood aside, ready to defend himself, when Tarvarius Moore turned the Eagles machine gunner Josh Jobe. Bosa saw two men charging towards him, so he leapt into the air. But Jobe’s cleat caught Bosa in the right calf. Randomly, and shortly after Purdy fell, Bosa was on the ground, injured.

“It was kind of a sign of a tough day when you get injured on the sidelines,” Bosa said after the game. “I have an inch or two cleat in my leg.”

Adversity had come for the 49ers all season. In addition to their two best quarterbacks, they also lost two cornerbacks to season-ending injuries. They had productive starters, like Armstead and running back Elijah Mitchell, missing pieces of the season. They had first-time starters at cornerback (Deommodore Lenoir) and right guard (Spencer Burford). But none of that seemed to deter them from trying to win a title. They seemed motivated by the challenge.

But that’s what made Sunday’s thump sound like an anvil dropped from the sky. They were blinded by the cascade of misfortunes. Eventually, they succumbed.

“It was a bit difficult to talk right after the game for everyone,” Shanahan said. “I thought they were dealt a pretty tough hand. But I just feel bad for these guys. We felt really good in this game. It was difficult. Difficult circumstances.

The opening drive was ominous. Warner had a sting on the second game. AJ Brown made a minimal 10-yard catch on third-and-8. Then on fourth-and-third, the 49ers kept the Eagles quarterback Jalen hurts jamming. But he found DeVonta Smith deep in the left sideline. His one-handed hitch seemed like a headline grab. But he got up and immediately started signaling to the Eagle attack to hurry.

Replays would later show that Smith was unsuccessful. But neither the 49ers nor the NFL had time to see the necessary angles before the Eagles snapped the ball again. Shanahan never threw the challenge flag. Two plays later, after what should have been a turnover on the downs, the Eagles struck.

“I was going to throw one anyway,” Shanahan said, “just to hope, to take a chance. But they showed (a replay) on the scoreboard… and it looked like a trap. We didn’t want to so no timeouts, which we would have done if we hadn’t seen that.

A replay on the scoreboard showing a favorable angle for the Eagles was the difference between a turnover and a touchdown. And just like that, dismay took over, hijacking a season that Purdy had made feel like a constellation in their favor. But that’s how it goes when it’s time for the 49ers season to end. No matter how good they are, how healthy they are, the agony that pursues them will cause them to stumble from behind.

That’s the only way to explain Sunday. Three years ago, it could be attributed to the inexperience or the size of Patrick Mahomes. Last season they had the game and another trip to the Super Bowl, under Jaquiski Tartt. All the 49ers needed was their reliable, veteran safety to catch a pop-fly interception. But he let him down.

Those 49ers were even better. They were even more brilliant in defense. But their offense has never been better thanks to the addition of Christian McCaffrey. Then, as if the football gods were paying a debt, they delivered Purdy, the first quarterback who felt he could really bust Shanahan’s offense. These 49ers were so good that adversity had to work overtime.

“That’s what makes it suck,” Aiyuk said. “We’ve been through so much.”

The Eagles were already a handful to manage. Their crowd was in turmoil, their faithful preventing 49ers fans from taking over the stadium. They had a lead and Purdy was out. And the 49ers still had a chance.

McCaffrey broke four tackles on an epic 23-yard run to tie the game at 7. The 49ers were still not dead.

“I have more love for these guys than I could possibly have,” Shanahan said. “And they got it for each other. I was really proud of how they fought there. Our guys didn’t hesitate.

But the grief was still there. There are so many things a team can endure. The 49ers seemed to have been hit by it all on Sunday in Philadelphia. Some self-inflicted. A punishment from the football gods.

Then three penalties by the defense helped Philadelphia take a 14-7 lead.

Then Johnson, after completing an 11-yard tilt, fumbled for the snap in the shotgun and failed to get it back. The Eagles turned that into a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.

Johnson was then leveled by Ndamukong Suhhis head slamming on the turf, and was knocked out with a concussion.

It was so bad, so extraordinary that Purdy had to come back. He couldn’t get the ball to the sticks. He even risked further injury to his right elbow. With four quarterbacks injured, the 49ers offense — which had scored 33 or more points in six of Purdy’s eight starts — was reduced to a predictable ground game.

But that was all they had left. A season that relentlessly attacked their chances finally whittled down the mighty Niners.

“I’m so sad for the older guys,” Purdy said. “All the guys who have been there. They were, of course, in the Super Bowl in 2019 and then last year in the NFC championship. And then for that to happen, in the first drive, really like, ‘Man, is this the kind of game we need to play?’ I’m just frustrated but sadder for these guys than anything. Because they deserve to go out there and win and win it all.

That’s how it goes in the 49ers grief community. Until one day, if ever, they break it.

(Picture: Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

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