If there is any team poised for long-term success, it’s the 49ers. The combination of Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh has produced 27 wins, 20 Pro Bowlers, 12 All-Pros, two playoff appearances, and one Colin Kaepernick. Still, despite all that they’re obvious successes, a return to the Super Bowl next season will be difficult. This isn’t just because of the strides made by Seattle and St. Louis. No, the 49ers must overcome history, specifically one that illustrates just how difficult it is for those on the losing side of the Super Bowl to return to the big game.
Of the 47 teams to lose the Super Bowl, only seven returned to the championship. And, of those seven, only two won it. In 1971, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI after losing the previous year to the Baltimore Colts. Then, a year later, those very same Dolphins completed their infamous undefeated season with a Super Bowl victory over the Washington Redskins. No other team has avenged a Super Bowl loss since.
Three other teams returned to the Super Bowl in subsequent seasons only to taste the bitterness of defeat again. The 1974 Minnesota Vikings lost Super Bowl IX to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a season after losing to the Dolphins in Super Bowl VII. In 1987, the Denver Broncos lost Super Bowl XXII to the Redskins after losing Super Bowl XXI to the New York Giants. And, of course, there were Buffalo Bills of the 90s, who lost four straight Super Bowls.
If this is any indicator, then the 49ers have a 14% shot of making it back to the Super Bowl and only a 4% chance of winning it. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be competitive.
29 of the teams on the losing end of the Super Bowl would win at least 10 games the following season, and 32 would actually return to the playoffs. Five would reach the Conference Championship, 13 would get to the Divisional round, and seven would at least secure a spot in the Wild Card round.
Still, as the league has matured so has it’s parity. In every decade since the inception of the Super Bowl, it has gotten progressively more difficult to return to the playoffs.
It is worth noting, however, that the Super Bowl loser has returned to the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. And, Super Bowl XLVI losers, the New England Patriots, made it the Conference Championship the following season.
To be clear, I am not besmirching the temple of Saint Baalke. He and Harbaugh have proven to be deft football minds. Colin Kaepernick and the emerging offense should take strides this season, and the defense is primed to be as stout as ever.
But, even with all they’ve done right, there is an element of luck to football (See: Joe Flacco’s career). Had the infamous simultaneous catch been called correctly, then Green Bay would have won the No. 2 seed, which could have considerably altered the 49ers’ path to the Super Bowl. Or, if Ray Rice didn’t miraculously pick up a 4th-and-29, then the Ravens wouldn’t have even made the playoffs. These are just two examples of a tapestry woven with oddities — moments that defy explanation. So, while logic justifies the fact that the 49ers are Super Bowl XLVIII favorites, precedent does not.