Dre Greenlaw's injury encapsulated the anguish inside the 49ers' locker room
LAS VEGAS — Christian McCaffrey looked like he’d seen a ghost in the San Francisco 49ers’ locker room. He sat, upright and stone-faced, facing away from his stall. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, seated next to the running back, whispered occasional words of commiseration to McCaffrey. But it clearly did little to soothe the pain. McCaffrey remained rigid. He moved once over several minutes, to rest his head against his locker.
Nothing could alleviate the agony so soon after that Super Bowl LVIII defeat. In a city that’s hosted so many heavyweight bouts, the 49ers had lost a 15-round slobber knocker to the dynastic Kansas City Chiefs, 25-22.
The fact that it took nearly 75 minutes of football to reach a decision only made it hurt more for the 49ers.
Across the way from McCaffrey, left tackle Trent Williams operated in slow motion. First, the left tackle slumped down in his folding chair. Then, as he rose to pack up his bag, Williams gazed up at his locker and back toward the floor, shaking his head as he went through the motions.
There was nothing to say in this tormented space, and even the words that did come out were nearly impossible to hear.
“I didn’t hear,” cornerback Deommodore Lenoir said of coach Kyle Shanahan’s postgame talk. “I was crying.”
Tears had began flowing far before this game was over. Dre Greenlaw ruptured his Achilles in the second quarter. Fred Warner broke down when he entered the locker room at halftime and saw his hobbled teammate.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Warner said after the game. “I’m still sick. I seen him at halftime and I’m just, I’m crying because I’m so hurt for him. And obviously I wanted to win this for him. Sickening.
“He’s just been dealing with that same Achilles injury for the last few weeks. So when we ran out on the field together and I see him drop down, I knew exactly what happened.”
Greenlaw’s injury, which came as he took the field for a defensive series, was a clear turning point in this Super Bowl.
Dre Greenlaw appeared to injure himself jogging back onto the field pic.twitter.com/p3nwmTUsfO
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) February 12, 2024
The linebacker had been particularly effective early on, racking up three tackles. The Chiefs hadn’t scored prior to Greenlaw’s exit in the second quarter. And outside of a 52-yard gain on a pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes to receiver Mecole Hardman which 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. seemed to lose in Allegiant Stadium’s ceiling, Kansas City had managed only 2.5 yards per play over that initial stretch.
But the Chiefs capitalized on the speedy Greenlaw’s departure, attacking the field with short crossing routes over the rest of the game. Mahomes threw for 333 yards, including the 3-yard touchdown pass to Hardman that was a walk-off winner in overtime.
THE CHIEFS ARE BACK-TO-BACK SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS! pic.twitter.com/ZzfhTyUXg9
— NFL (@NFL) February 12, 2024
There were, of course, many other components to the 49ers’ loss, which was low-lighted by a litany of mistakes and missed opportunities in all three phases of the game. But Greenlaw’s injury was the most apt encapsulation of the emotional tenor of this defeat.
“That’s depressing, to get injured in the Super Bowl,” tight end George Kittle said. “Hopefully he hits up Aaron Rodgers and figures out how to heal that quickly. Besides that, Dre’s the heartbeat of our team. Him and Fred in there — they feed off of each other. When you lose a guy like Dre, it’s tough. He’s just a fantastic football player. He’s everything the Niners stand for. So to lose him, it really, really sucks for him.”
The image of Greenlaw leaving Allegiant Stadium with a boot on his left foot and crutches, wading through the anguished silence of the locker room, will become yet another scar in an era of 49ers football that’s seen a staggering amount of them.
Dre Greenlaw in a boot and crutches after the game 😢 pic.twitter.com/29hsZhcBBv
— 49ers on NBCS (@NBCS49ers) February 12, 2024
The team has undoubtedly seen a bevy of success over the past half-decade, but it’s also lost two Super Bowls and two NFC Championship Games over that stretch. The franchise’s title drought will now stretch at least three full decades — January 29, 2025, will mark the 30th anniversary of the 49ers’ last Super Bowl victory.
“It hurts,” McCaffrey said. “It hurts deep. It’s something that you dream about as a kid. You’ve worked so hard for all year and come up short. I think you just have to go through all the emotions as they come, but each day just chip away getting back to normal. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. It’s still fresh and it still sucks.”
The coping and recovery process will undoubtedly vary from individual to individual.
Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek ambled aimlessly around the locker room, his eyes welling with tears. The biggest star in Kocurek’s position group, Nick Bosa — who’d sobbed four years ago after the 49ers lost to the Chiefs at Super Bowl LIV — looked off into space as he collected his belongings.
“I couldn’t really look anybody in the eye, especially all my teammates,” Bosa said. “I could have done more. Everybody could have done more. There’s really not much to say at this point. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hit in waves. But that’s life.”
A reporter asked rookie Jake Moody about some of the big kicks he made for the 49ers this season. But Moody was in no mood to reminisce on positives.
“As of right now, the only thing I care about is this game,” Moody said. “I feel like crap right now. Not much else to say.”
There will come a time when the 49ers can turn the page, appreciate the good memories of the past and shift their focus to the future. With quarterback Brock Purdy, McCaffrey, Bosa and a host of other stars under contract for 2024, it does remain promising.
But Sunday was not that time. The wound is open. It is still fresh. And it is still excruciatingly painful. The time to heal will have to wait for later.
The 32-year-old Juszczyk — thanks to his 11 years of NFL experience, which include the entirety of this roller-coaster 49ers era under Shanahan — knows this well. That’s why Juszczyk, moving around his area of the hushed room, approached a handful of his teammates and expressed gratitude for having shared this season’s journey with them.
The 49ers will fly back to the Bay Area on Monday. They’ll clean out their lockers for the offseason. And they’ll trust that this latest Super Bowl wound will become a scar that hardens them for their next attempt at climbing the mountain.
But they know that the clock just began ticking much louder.
“We’ve been so close so many times that there’s only so many more opportunities that we have,” Bosa said. “We have amazing core players that are going to be back, and we have to be better.”
(Top photo of Dre Greenlaw: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)