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Legacy Check: What’s on the line in Super Bowl LVIII?

A lot rides on this game beyond the Lombardi Trophy.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Some Super Bowls matter more than others.

Of course every Super Bowl has a lot of meaning. The league hands out its championship trophy annually. But some shape the league’s historic narrative more than others. I get the feeling Super Bowl LVIII will go down as one of the defining games of this era.

If you study the history of the NFL, you’ll find each era has one defining dynasty along with a handful of other teams that were relevant. You couldn’t tell the story of the NFL of the 1990s without discussing the Buffalo Bills team that went to four straight Super Bowls or Brett Favre’s Packers who won a title and got back to another championship. These were relevant and respected teams. But the defining team of the era was the Dallas Cowboys.

On Sunday the Kansas City Chiefs have a chance to take a possibly insurmountable lead as the favorite to go down as the dynasty of the post-Brady Patriots era. With a victory over the 49ers, they will have taken 3 of the 5 championships since the fall of the Patriots with a pair of head to head wins over their biggest competitor for the crown, the 49ers. The other two teams to win a championship in this era, the Rams and the Buccaneers, might have appearing the Playoffs this year, but neither looks like a major threat to go on a run.

If the 49ers win? Well the Chiefs are still in the pole position for the team of the era title. They still will have a pair of championships to San Francisco’s one. The Chiefs will also have four appearances in the Super Bowl to San Francisco’s two. The teams will have split their head to head meetings. But it at least remains a competition. If a win over Kansas City propels the Niners to a run of titles over the next few years, it’s conceivable San Francisco could snatch the team of the era title when all is said and done.

A lot of people have already given the Chiefs the title. My money would be on them if I had to bet right now, but these things are never set in stone. Around 1974, the Miami Dolphins seemed poised to be remembered as the dominant dynasty of the post-Lombardi Packers era. They had won back-to-back Super Bowls and been to a third. One of their championship teams was the famous club that registered the NFL’s only perfect season. One year later, three of their best offensive players jumped to a new professional league, the WFL. The Dolphins didn’t get back to the Super Bowl until 1984. In that span the Pittsburgh Steelers ran off four titles and went down as the Team of the Decade.

We all remember the San Francisco 49ers as the next great dynasty. They are known for running the 1980s. But as late as 1988, there was a case for Joe Gibbs’ Washington squad to be the dominant team of the post-Pittsburgh era. Both Washington and San Francisco had two Super Bowls in the decade, and Gibbs’ team had a head to head win in an NFC Championship Game.

When the 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game that they, they needed to travel to Soldier Field in Chicago to face the Bears. Mike Ditka’s team had a legitimate shot to claim the mantle. A win over the Niners along with a Super Bowl win would give the Bears a second title in the 1980s, and their first squad was the decade’s best team.

Of course, the 49ers won that game in Chicago, made a famous Super Bowl comeback against the Bengals, and steamrolled to a fourth title a year later, claiming the mantle. The point is a legacy is seldom obvious in the moment.

It’s easy to think the Chiefs will continue to rip off championships. Maybe they will. But it isn’t easy, and there might be a challenger out there that can take the crown from them.

With a win Sunday, they will be on their way to football immortality. With a loss...well they might have just hit a speedbump on their way to football immortality. But maybe it will be the sign of a legitimate challenger for the crown rising.

What else is at stake on Sunday?

Patrick Mahomes

It has felt like people have been trying to compare Mahomes with immortal quarterbacks more or less since he took over the starting job in Kansas City in 2018. This has annoyed me to no end. Nothing against an MVP season or a record setting performance, but people tend to lose track of how long the greatest quarterbacks ever sustained their level of play. We have finally reached a point where Mahomes has the longevity where these lofty comparisons are gaining validity. Quarterbacking a team to a third Super Bowl title would put him in rare air, especially if accompanied by a third MVP. The Greatest of All-Time talk will remain premature, but we will at least be able to start mapping out a path for Mahomes to get into the discussion.

Andy Reid

At least on a superficial level I have always thought Reid’s career has parallels to Don Shula’s. Both coached forever. Both consistently put out winning teams. Because of their respective long runs of success, you couldn’t call either anything other than a great coach. But both also lost an inordinate number of postseason games where they had the better roster.

One of the most delightful parts of the Chiefs’ recent run for me has been Reid rewriting the narrative on his career. He has gone from the guy who can’t win the big one to the architect of what might be the league’s next dynasty. While Shula spent his final days unable to win championships with an immortal quarterback because of ill-advised personnel and staffing decisions, Reid’s partnership with his budding immortal quarterback has taken his legacy to another level.

Either way, Andy Reid will be remembered as a great coach and one of the best offensive minds in the history of the league. But there’s a difference between being a great coach and the architect of the dominant team of an era. With a win, Reid enters the realm of Noll, Walsh, and Belichick. This is a game that could possibly cement his status as a top ten coach of all-time. And since there is no sign he is interested in retiring, it could open up a pathway to the top five if he continues this run going forward.

Brock Purdy

Purdy seems to be the new flashpoint in the never-ending “Winners win baby” vs. “Anybody could win on that team” debate that seems to follow every young quarterback on a team with a loaded roster.

The reality is very few second year quarterbacks would be capable of putting a team on their shoulders. There’s nothing wrong with being a highly efficient supporting player. That’s what Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger were early in their careers. Heck, even Tom Brady didn’t finish in the top five in a major statistical category in New England’s first three Super Bowl years. At the time some questioned whether he would be considered great if he didn’t have Belichick and the New England defense. (How times have changed.) The hope is the quarterback is gradually able to take on more of the load as he develops.

If you put Brock Purdy on the Jets, would the infrastructure be too broken for him to have even passing success? I don’t know to be honest. But that seems besides the point to me. I can guarantee you that if you drop Zach Wilson onto San Francisco, he’s not averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. I’ve seen enough of the Rex Grossman’s and Mark Sanchez’s of the world to know when a young quarterback is being dragged to wins. That’s not the story of San Francisco’s season. Purdy might not be carrying the load, but he’s doing his job effectively.

Of course since this is the Super Bowl, I expect no balance when it comes to postgame Purdy takes. With a win, people will be putting Purdy in top five lists of current quarterbacks. If the 49ers lose, I expect the first article wondering whether they need to upgrade to publish roughly fifteen minutes after the final whistle.

Kyle Shanahan

This is a fork in the road game for many people, and Kyle Shanahan is at the top of the list. Andy Reid might be able to enhance his legacy with a win, but it isn’t that big of a deal if he loses. Everything I wrote about what this Super Bowl can bring him will still be on the table if the Chiefs win it all a year from now.

If the 49ers win on Sunday, Shanahan will have taken a major step towards a Hall of Fame trajectory. He is already known as a top offensive mind of his era, and the early roots of his coaching tree are off to impressive starts (aside from Robert Saleh...sigh). A championship doesn’t punch his ticket to Canton just yet, but it puts him on the path.

On the other hand, Shanahan is close to gaining the, “Can’t win the big one,” tag. Hearing this cliche makes me cringe. For the most part it is lazy analysis. We heard it about Andy Reid forever, and he won his first championship in his 21st season.

I don’t think there’s anything inherent about a player or coach that makes them genetically predisposed to failing in key spots. But I do worry the reputation can have an impact. Players and coaches are human. They hear the criticism. Over and over I have see the, “can’t win the big one,” label get to people. For a coach, maybe they press in the preparation for a big game, pushing their players too hard. Maybe they panic in a close game, making an ill advised decision.

One of the best reasons to root for the 49ers in this game is to avoid all of this from ever happening to Shanahan.

George Kittle

He’s about 100 receiving yards and a 49ers win from becoming the favorite tight end of every hot take artist with an ESPN debate show, sports talk radio show, or podcast. I can already hear the echos in the distance. “Travis Kelce dates Taylor Swift and appears in every commercial on TV. George Kittle just goes out and wins the Super Bowl.” The thought of this might cancel out what I just said about rooting for San Francisco for Shanahan’s sake.

Travis Kelce

This sure has been the Year of Kelce. He wouldn’t have started the season very high on my list of NFL players who would become global celebrities. Now he’s dating Taylor Swift and appearing in an ad every few minutes. At least this is happening to a guy who is a legitimate immortal at his position and not some random third stringer. Most legendary quarterbacks have that one connection in the passing game they are most associated with. Tom Brady had Rob Gronkowski. Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison. Joe Montana had Jerry Rice. If you want to go back far enough, Johnny Unitas had Raymond Berry. Early in his career, it seemed like Mahomes’ guy would be Tyreek Hill, but Kelce has usurped the throne in the last two seasons. Decades from now we will think about the Mahomes-Kelce connection.

For the sake of this game, we will either get the Hollywood ending of Kelce and Taylor Swift on the podium capping off this year with weeks of breathless coverage to follow or a heaping amount of schadenfreude led by the talking heads on ESPN.

Christian McCaffrey

The NFL has an All-Decade Team for each decade (1990s, 2000s, 2010s, etc.). I have always felt like they should also do a parallel All Inter-Decade that spans the last five years of one decade and the first five of the next (for example 2015-2024). Some players’ careers don’t fit neatly into a single decade. Take McCaffrey, who was drafted in 2017. He entered the league as the 2010s were ending. We don’t know how long his prime will last, but it’s possible it doesn’t run deep into the 2020s.

McCaffrey faces some stiff competition to earn a spot on the hypothetical All-Inter Decade Team from the likes of Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor, Ezekiel Elliott, and others. None of the competition, however, has a signature performance on the sport’s biggest stage. It has been over 25 years since a running back took home the Super Bowl MVP. That was Terrell Davis in Super Bowl XXXII. Davis leveraged that award along with just three elite seasons into a spot in the Hall of Fame. A great performance in the big game can take a running back’s legacy to the next level.

Steve Wilks

The last two 49ers defensive coordinators have leveraged the position into a head coaching gig. And history tells us that coaches who cook up gameplans that shut down elite offenses on the big stage become hot head coaching candidates overnight. This coaching cycle might be over, but if Wilks has a big game he will quickly ascend to the top of media hype lists for the next cycle.

Steve Spagnuolo

Spagnuolo was once the coordinator who became a hot head coaching candidate by stifling an iconic offense. The year was 2007, and Spagnuolo was the architect of the Giants’ upset win over the 18-0 Patriots. A year later he was hired as Rams head coach. That didn’t work out. After bouncing around for a while, he seems to have found a home in Kansas City. While the 2023 Chiefs offense might be least explosive of the Reid/Mahomes era, Kansas City has made it back to the Super Bowl in no small part because this is quietly the best Chiefs defense of the Reid/Mahomes era. A win on Sunday earns Spagnuolo a fourth ring as a defensive coordinator. Yes, his career has had some blemishes. Yes, he has benefitted from having a budding immortal quarterback on the other side of the ball. But at some point Spagnuolo will need to start getting some buzz for being one of the league’s great coordinators.

Chase Young

Chase Young is one of those early picks whose career is difficult to articulate. Is he a bust? Well, it’s not like he’s a terrible player. But you also can’t say he’s lived up to his Draft position. It’s undoubtable that some team will roll the dice on his natural talent when he hits free agency. In the past, pending free agents have been rewarded for a big Super Bowl performance. If Young shows up against the Chiefs, he could potentially earn himself millions.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling

On that topic, Valdes-Scantling is a likely salary cap cut for Kansas City this offseason. Guess which quarterback he played with the first four years of his career. It happens to be a quarterback who loves it when his team signs familiar pass catches.

I have this vision of Valdes-Scantling’s agent pulling him aside this week and saying, “Marques, I need you to focus in practice these next few days. If you put up numbers on Sunday I promise you I can talk Joe Douglas into shelling out $15 million in guarantees.”

Harrison Butker

Butker is quietly building a resume of clutch kicks. He won last year’s AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl with a field goal. He also has a couple of last second kicks to send Playoff games into overtime. He might be another game-winner away from getting some buzz as this generation’s Adam Vinatieri, the ultimate clutch kicker.

Rashee Rice

Kansas City has a bit of a no name group at wide receiver, but Rice quietly had a very productive rookie season, falling just short of the 1,000 yard mark. He might be the most likely player to rise from anonymity to stardom on Sunday.

John Lynch

Lynch has done a magnificent job since taking over as 49ers GM in 2017. People tend to forget the depths to which that franchise fell. The team had fallen to the bottom of the league with a dreadful roster. They had just hired their fourth head coach in four years. Working with Kyle Shanahan, Lynch has built the Niners back into a perennial contender. He deserves extensive praise for his work.

Sunday’s game could be the culmination. Lynch could finally arrive as a championship general manager with all of the respect that afford.

Unfortunately there is another storyline lurking. It goes back to the first Draft pick of the Lynch era. The 49ers traded down one slot from the second pick to the third pick, allowing the Bears to trade up for Mitchell Trubisky. At 3, the Niners picked Solomon Thomas. One of the players they passed on was Patrick Mahomes.

While San Francisco has had really good offenses during the Lynch/Shanahan era, there have been questions that linger to this day with Purdy about how the team might look with an elite level quarterback. In 2017, the team passed on the player who became the best quarterback in the league.

More than that, a Kansas City win on Sunday means that the 49ers will have been denied a championship directly by Mahomes for a second time in five seasons.

It isn’t fair, but Lynch would likely be remembered for passing on the guy who kept beating him as much as he is for rebuilding the least until he wins a title.