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The improbable run that fell just short

The 49ers went above and beyond expectations this season, despite the final result in the NFC Championship game

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

That was a gut punch. There is no other way to look at what transpired at Lincoln Financial Field other than with a harrowing sense of what could have been. A 49ers season that has had more than its fair share of twists and turns comes to a screeching halt, with an anticlimactic 31-7 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The writing was on the wall that this game all but over midway through the first quarter. That’s when Brock Purdy exited the game and let it be known vocally that he was having trouble gripping and throwing the football after a hit from Eagles star edge rusher Haason Reddick.

Any sane fan of any normal team would probably have thrown in the towel at that point. Chalk it up as a great season and watch the last 50 some odd minutes in futility knowing that your fate was all but sealed.

But not this team. Not the squad that defied the odds all season and looked poised to make a serious run at the ever elusive sixth Lombardi they have been searching for going back nearly three decades.

That’s what makes a loss like this so hard to swallow. Even when journeyman quarterback Josh Johnson took the field, a player who had bounced around the league for 15 years and was effectively the 49ers fourth string option at the position this year, there was still an internal glimmer of hope that this 49ers team was going to find a way to do the impossible and win this game.

That hope was amplified even further when the 49ers defense settled in and held the Eagles to three straight drives that ended in a punt, which was followed by an emphatic Christian McCaffrey touchdown run that saw the star running back bowl over an Eagles defender in the secondary to tie the game at seven points apiece.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, this was the closest they would ever get in this game, as Philadelphia answered immediately with a 14-play, 75-yard drive that was extended by a questionable pass interference penalty on Jimmie Ward on a critical third down that would have gotten the 49ers defense off the field at the Eagles 39-yard line.

That glimmer of hope soon flickered into near nothingness when Johnson fumbled what appeared to be a routine snap during a two-minute drill to close out the first half, giving the Eagles a short field, which they quickly capitalized into a 21-7 lead heading into halftime.

Yet still, despite the fact it was clear the 49ers were at a severe disadvantage at the most important position in the sport, and the fact they were facing a double-digit deficit in one of the toughest venues in the league, still there was that slight sense of belief that maybe just maybe they had enough in them for one more act of the impossible.

Then the unthinkable happened. On the first possession of the second half, Johnson left the game with what was later diagnosed as a concussion, leaving the 49ers without an able-bodied quarterback in the most important game of the entire season.

Things got so dire that McCaffrey had to switch helmets, so he could have the microphone to relay play calls should he be thrust into the role of emergency quarterback, which he did later in this game.

The toughest part about this was not the fact that the 49ers lost this game. The Eagles were a formidable opponent who had earned home field advantage for a reason. There would be no shame in getting bested by a team that is as complete and well-rounded as Philadelphia is.

Many of us will spend the entire offseason struggling to cope with the fact that this 49ers team was not taken down at its best. Their final gasp effort was made by a team that was a shell of the dominating force that had entered this contest by winning 12 consecutive games.

The high-flying offense that lit up scoreboard after scoreboard was reduced to rubble, agonizingly forced to continue to run into loaded box after loaded box because they literally did not have a quarterback that was capable of throwing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.

A team playing in a conference championship that did not have a quarterback capable of throwing the football. I have never seen anything like it, and I hope we never have to see anything remotely close to it ever again.

This team scratched and clawed and fought their way to 13 wins, a division title, and two playoff wins, only to have their improbable season unceremoniously ended by a historically bad run of injury luck at the most vital position on the entire field.

There are so many things about this season that should leave you with your head hanging high. Losing Trey Lance in Week 2, losing Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13, and rallying around a seventh round rookie quarterback to reclaim the NFC West crown and win a couple of playoff games to boot.

Most teams are finished when they lose their starting quarterback. The 49ers lost two of them, and somehow found a way to come together and continue to give us the best gift that you can ever receive in this world. Hope.

Despite all the adversity they had faced, the 49ers continued to give us a realistic expectation that our Sunday’s would be filled with the incomparable high that comes from seeing your favorite team win meaningful football games.

Unfortunately, what’s true in life is also true in sports, some things truly are just not meant to be, for reasons we will not ever fully understand. Given the way this 49ers season ended, I can’t help but feel like this was one of those situations where the universe simply had other plans, after all, how else can you explain the unimaginable injury luck the 49ers had with their quarterbacks?

It reminded me of the famous quote of longtime NFL coach Tom Moore, who was Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis for a number of years. While observing a practice, Jon Gruden asked Moore why Manning’s backups weren’t getting more work and reps under center. Here is how Moore responded:

“Fellas, if ‘18’ goes down, we’re f*****. And we don’t practice f*****.”

That kind of feels like where the 49ers ended up when it was all said and done. A team that had shown resiliency all year long was finally faced with a level of adversity that nobody could have adequately planned for.

And as I think back on this season and all the twists and turns it took, the most difficult thing to comprehend is that we will never get the closure that this 2022 49ers team deserved. After all the struggles and changes they had to fight through this season, this team deserved to be knocked out of this postseason while at least having a punchers chance.

Instead, we are now saddled with the curse of hypotheticals, an unfortunate feeling of “what if” that will likely never fade away. There were a lot of things to feel good about this season and so many happy memories that were made along the way, something that should not be overlooked or forgotten.

However, what is not clear now, is how this season will be remembered in the long run. Will it be celebrated for the improbable run that led us to this end result, or will it be remembered for the Murphy’s Law conclusion that fell just short of the ultimate goal.