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Can the 49ers Get Back to the Promised Land?

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Fans watch the NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions near Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Jan. 28, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

The San Francisco 49ers are back in the Super Bowl, and fans are chomping at the bit for the team to bring home its first championship since 1994. They’ll be facing the Kansas City Chiefs, who defeated them in the Super Bowl 4 years ago.

David Lombardi with The Athletic breaks down why the Niners have a great chance of winning it all this time.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Alan Montecillo: Just a h eads up, the introduction to this episode contains explicit language. Hi, I’m Alan Montecillo in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. And welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Bay area sports teams have done very well over the last decade or so. The Warriors have won four titles since 2015 and the Giants won three in the early 20 tens. But if you grew up in the Bay during the 80s and 90s, the truly great pro sports team was the San Francisco 40 Niners.

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Alan Montecillo: 40 Niners won five Super Bowls between 1981 and 1994. But it’s been a minute since they’ve won at all, and fans are chomping at the bit for another one.

Bobbie Lince: I was born and raised in San Francisco with two older brothers, and they were all in sports, and 40 niners just became a thing, a household thing.

Fernando: We’ve endured so much in the last few years, not just in sports, but in life in general. We’re looking for a reason to celebrate.

Jeff: The bay prevails. We always do. Everyone doubts us throughout the nation. But you know what? At the end of the day, we step up and we. We go above and beyond and we fucking win because we’re winners. And that’s what the Bay does.

Alan Montecillo: On Sunday, the 40 niners will face off against the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a rematch from four years ago, which the Niners lost. But today we’ll talk about why this could finally be our year. So David, you are in Vegas for the Super Bowl. What has it been like these past few days in the run up to the Super Bowl?

David Lombardi: Well, it’s the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, which is a spectacle in and of itself.

Alan Montecillo: This is David Lombardi. He covers the 40 niners for The Athletic.

David Lombardi: I have some friends who live about 20 minutes off the strip, and they came in for one of the events last night, and they told me that it took them an hour and a half to drive home. It’s a massive convention combined with a party. And I’ll tell you what. There are a lot of 40 Niners fans in town because it’s only a 50 55 minute flight. There’s a lot of pent up energy from 40 Niners fandom, just because they have been so close, but haven’t yet smoked the cigar you have when it comes to winning that Super Bowl here over the past few years.

Alan Montecillo: I want to ask a little more about you and your backstory. What are some of your earliest memories of the 40 niners?

David Lombardi: My earliest memory of the 40 niners came in January of 1993, when I was about four and a half years old, and I remember sitting on the couch in our old house in Visalia, California, Central Valley town. I remember my dad upset as the Dallas Cowboys were scoring a long touchdown to put away the NFC Championship Game at the end of the 1992 season.

David Lombardi: The 40 Niners actually beat Dallas and won the Super Bowl two seasons after that. I don’t remember that though. I remember when they lost to the green Bay Packers and the playoffs to close out the 1995 season, so I remember that that one moment against the Cowboys when I was about four and a half. And then I remember very vividly the games against the Packers, Steve Young against Brett Farve, and the end of the 40 Niners dynasty there in the 1990s.

Alan Montecillo: Well, fast forward 30 years later. You’re now covering the 40 niners and they are back in the Super Bowl. How would you characterize this version of the 40 niners?

David Lombardi: I think this version of the 40 Niners has a lot in common with the past teams that were great. They’re tremendously balanced. They obviously have the number one offense in football. Brock Purdy and Christian McCaffrey are both MVP finalists. There are only five MVP finalists in the whole NFL. Two of them are on the 40 Niners offense. But even though that offense is, you know, borderline historically good this year, the defense is also a top five defense.

David Lombardi: And that defense may not be playing as well as it had been at points of last season and even 2019 when this team last reached the Super Bowl. But it’s still really good. And when you have both sides of the football performing at a top five level, you have a really good chance to win the Super Bowl.

Alan Montecillo: Let’s talk about Purdy and McCaffrey, and let’s begin. Starting quarterback Brock Purdy. Tell me a bit more of his backstory before he joined the Niners and how he got to this point.

David Lombardi: Well, he was fairly lightly recruited out of high school and the Phoenix area, Arizona. He ended up going to Iowa State, which is not a small program. It’s not a top tier program, but it’s a it’s a mid tier program, right. And what really, you know, resonates about the Brock Purdy story is that he he held onto that job for all four years at Iowa State.

David Lombardi: You talk to people around that program and they’ll tell you that he transformed the Iowa State program. The experience that he got playing from freshman year to senior year. There’s a lot of repetitions under his belt. And that made his assimilation into the 40 Niners offense all the more fluid.

David Lombardi: Even though a lot of outsiders thought that he just came out of nowhere. The 40 Niners knew that they had a really experienced quarterback. I don’t think that they quiet grasped, but his upside was and we’re seeing that upside. So I mean it’s the astounding people right now right. But they did know that they had a high floor quarterback coming out of college. And you ask about his background, I think that’s the most important thing to note that he had that experience, and he was ready to take it and translate it to the NFL level.

Alan Montecillo: And what about Christian McCaffrey? You know, one of the league’s best running backs joined the 40 Niners relatively recently, I think 2022. Tell me more about him.

David Lombardi: Well, Christian McCaffrey, I think is the best player in football. I think that brought Brody is the most valuable player in football. And I think Christian McCaffrey is the best player in football. And the reason that those two things are different is because different positions on the football field carry different value, and the way that the sport is now set up. Quarterback is the most important position. But you can’t say enough about the greatness of Christian McCaffrey.

David Lombardi: His impact because of his adaptability on the field has been one of gravity. You’ll see the defense step toward him even if he’s not getting the football. It’s like Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. People are stepping toward him, even if he’s not shooting because they’re so afraid of his ability to kill you from three point range. So McCaffrey’s done that for the 40 Niners. He’s opened stuff up for other people.

David Lombardi: And then when he’s gotten the ball well, he’s gotten himself open too. I mean, he’s he really is something. And he’s the only player in the NFL this year with over 2000 All-Purpose yards, which means rushing and receiving combined. And the next highest running back on that list is at like 1500 yards. So McCaffrey is leaps and bounds ahead of the next highest qualifier.

Alan Montecillo: I want to ask about defense a little bit more I think for for casual fans. And I think this is true of sports in general. I think it’s a little harder to grasp, like what makes a defense strong and what to look for. What parts of their defense are going to be really important.

David Lombardi: Well, that they’ve got stars across the defense too. So Nick Bosa is one of them. He was the defensive player of the year last season Fred Warner who’s probably the best linebacker in football. The 40 Niners have legitimate voices on this defense with experience. They also have big time athleticism, big time talent. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re without a weakness.

David Lombardi: The run defense has struggled a bit because they’re they’re extremely aggressive. So if there’s one misstep that there is a little bit of vulnerability to a counterattack. But ultimately when push came to shove, the 40 Niners have clamped down defensively. I just think they probably need to do that earlier in this game because they’re facing one of the best ever. Do it in Patrick Mahomes.

Alan Montecillo: Well let’s talk about Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. They’ve been to I believe three out of the last four Super Bowls. They’ve won two of them including one against the 40 Niners. tell me a little bit more about the Chiefs and what they’re bringing to the table.

David Lombardi: Well, the Chiefs are different than when they beat the 40 niners four years ago. I think a lot of people still think that Mahomes and this offense, just by reputation, is this extremely explosive offense that’s going to be able to score on, on any given down from any point of the field. But the Chiefs aren’t doing that nearly as prolifically as before. It’s almost like these two teams have traded places over the past four years.

David Lombardi: The 40 niners have been the most explosive offense in football for the Chiefs are more of the methodical. They run the ball a lot. Mahomes has been precise and short range this year. He’s really good, but they’re different and they’re different than I think what they’re often advertised to be. So if they have the Championship pedigree but the 40 niners have the statistical advantage.

Alan Montecillo: Well, it’s interesting you say that, David, because I think that’s how I was coming to this Super Bowl before I really dove into it. And I sort of assumed, well, the Chiefs have won. They have Patrick Mahomes. Surely they must be favored. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t quite seem like that. Who and what do I need to be most afraid of on the Chiefs side? I’m guessing it begins with Patrick Mahomes.

David Lombardi: Well, yeah. Of course. On on offense you’re going to have to look out for Patrick Mahomes. But in football it’s so much deeper than that because everybody’s got you’re reliant on other players to to execute their job. So for example Isaiah Pacheco who’s the Chiefs running back.

David Lombardi: If he has a big game that’s going to open things up for Patrick Mahomes because he won’t have to worry about the 40 Niners pass rush as much. Travis Kelce is one of the greatest tight ends to to ever do it. And he’s got a tremendous rapport with Patrick Mahomes. They improvise. They know they’ll run off script a lot. He’ll find open space and it’s really hard to defend that.

Alan Montecillo: I want to take a quick detour to talk about some aspects of the Super Bowl that aren’t the game itself, because another reason why many people watch the Super Bowl is the halftime show, which is headlined by usher. I know you’re there for the game, but anything you’re looking forward to, or are you going to be nose to the grindstone during halftime?

David Lombardi: I had no idea that it was usher even playing at the halftime show, so I probably have to ask your question. Yeah, but it’s funny that I am so locked into the game, and I’ll probably be catching up on stuff at halftime.

Alan Montecillo: Coming up who David thinks will win on Sunday. And yes, I will ask him about Taylor Swift. Stay with us.

Alan Montecillo: I do have to ask you about the world’s most famous Kansas City Chiefs fan, Taylor Swift, who is, of course, dating tight end Travis Kelce. She’s expected to be at the game on Sunday. Has that extra attention you think factored into these playoffs at all, especially for the Chiefs?

David Lombardi: I don’t I don’t think it’s factored into anything from a football perspective. I do think it’s good for the league. I think it’s put more eyeballs on the NFL. This is the entertainment industry, right? So it’s it’s the ultimate entertainment industry collaboration here where you have the most famous musical artist in the world, at some of these games. And it obviously is just a recipe for social media to completely blow up.

David Lombardi: So I think it’s been great for NFL engagement. I think ultimately when you play football. To be able to step in between those white lines. In the sport that’s so violent, so dangerous. You have to have tunnel vision. And these guys are professionals that they have to enter a different head space in order to perform at their best. In order to keep themselves as safe as possible.

David Lombardi: You’re gonna get run over out on that field. If there’s stuff outside of you is a distraction. So I don’t think that’s impacted the game at all, because I think all of these guys are professionals. I do think it’s been good for the sport, though, just because this is the entertainment industry again, and we’ve seen so many more people interested in football as a result of all this.

Alan Montecillo: As we’ve talked about. And as many listeners probably know, the Chiefs and 40 Niners played in the Super Bowl four years ago. The Chiefs won 31 to 20. Is this a rematch or does this feel different?

David Lombardi: Well, it’s a rematch, but it’s a it does feel different. And I think both can be true at once. The the same head coaching matchup pits Andy Reid against Kyle Shanahan 40 Niners have a different quarterback now and Brock Purdy but Patrick Mahomes is still there. Travis Kelce is still there. The NFL as you know stands for not for long. So they over four years there’s going to be a lot of turnover.

David Lombardi: And there hasn’t been a lot of turnover. But one thing that I don’t think has turned over on either side is the culture. And there’s a reason why both of these teams have been probably the two most successful teams in the National Football League. The Chiefs definitely have been over the past five years. They’ve won those two Super Bowls. I’d put the 40 Niners a second because they keep on going back to the NFC Championship game or the Super Bowl.

David Lombardi: Even through a league where nothing, everything seems ephemeral, both of these teams have figured out a way to maintain that vibe, that success and, you know, set their rosters up for prosperity. And, and that way this is a rematch. But because it is a fundamental truth of the league, that stuff changes so rapidly, it’s going to feel different than that 2019 game.

Alan Montecillo: Are you someone who makes predictions? Do you have thoughts on who you think is going to win?

David Lombardi: Yeah, I think ultimately the 40 Niners are better this year. I think that they’ve improved since 2019. I think that the main key is that the Chiefs since then have lost Tyreek Hill, and the 40 Niners have added Christian McCaffrey. Those are two of the creamier offensive weapons in the game. And the Chiefs have seen subtraction on that front. And the 40 Niners have seen additions on that front. And obviously Brock Purdy is sensational.

David Lombardi: So that gives the 40 Niners an upgrade at the most important position as well. So ultimately I do think that the 40 Niners have an edge. I’m going to say 28, 27, 40 Niners. That’s an iconic score in 40 Niners history. That’s the the score of the game where they beat the Cowboys in the 1981 season NFC Championship Game with the catch from Dwight Clark. So I think a little fun with the history. There are 28 2740 niners.

Alan Montecillo: David, I do want to end by asking about the fan base. Obviously every fan base wants to win the championship, and I’m sure Chiefs fans would love to add another one. But how badly do Niners fans want this? What would a win on Sunday mean to people here in the Bay area and, you know, across the region.

David Lombardi: And not just the region, I think the nation and the world, the 40 niners are the 80s and the 90s were the standard bearers of the NFL, especially in the 80s. And they won those five Super Bowls over that, what, 15 years stretch and developed a truly an international fan base. And they have now not won for 29 years. The pent up frustration, the pent up longing to get back to the promised Land and actually win it is real.

David Lombardi: I don’t think a lot of sports reporters do this, but I really try to get out into the community and get a feel for what this means. And back in one of the 40 niners won their first Super Bowl in 1981. You could talk to politicians. Diane Feinstein used to talk about it a lot. How much that meant for the city of San Francisco, particularly after the tragedies of the late 70s with Jonestown and with Harvey Milk and George Mosconi being assassinated.

David Lombardi: Chichi Dianne Feinstein for years would talk about how much that that 40 Niners win meant for rallying the community and bringing something that people truly bonded over. I think that a 40 niners Super Bowl championship to do something similar for the community and the Warriors winning championships, that was great.

David Lombardi: The Giants winning championships, that was great. But let’s be honest, the 40 niners are more deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Bay area. They’re so ingrained in the fabric locally that a win could mean, you know, just it would be a massive, massive boost to, toto a lot of people.

Alan Montecillo: David, thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it.

David Lombardi: All right, man, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Alan Montecillo: Thanks again to David Lombardi, who covers the 40 niners for The Athletic. This interview was cut down and edited by me, Alan Montecillo. Dana Cronin scored this episode and added the tape. Music courtesy of First Cut Music, Universal Production Music, Audio Socket and Audio Network. Special thanks as well to KQEDs Brian Watt and AzAzul Dahlstrom-Eckman. Thank you as well. To the fans. You heard at the top of the show, that was Bobby from San Mateo and Fernando and Jeff in San Francisco.

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Yes, the Bay is made by me, senior editor Alan Montecillo. Maria Esquinca is our producer, and Ericka Cruz Guevarra, our host. Jen Chien is KQED s director of podcasts. Katie Sprenger is our podcast operations manager. Cesar Saldana is our podcast engagement producer. Maha Sanad is our podcast engagement intern. And KQED s chief content officer is Holly Kernan. I’m Alan Montecillo: in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Go, Niners.

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