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Aging stars and a murky future: The 49ers are thinking about their shrinking title window

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For the San Francisco 49ers, the grief that comes with arriving at the doorstep of football immortality only to be turned away empty-handed has become all too familiar.

The Niners have advanced to a Super Bowl and two other NFC Championship Games in the past four seasons without taking home that elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Defensive tackle Arik Armstead estimated it takes him roughly three weeks to put the pain behind him and move on. Defensive end Nick Bosa said he needs a week on his boat back in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and refuses to watch Super Bowls that he’s not playing in.

Days after the latest postseason loss, 31-7 to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game, 35-year-old offensive tackle Trent Williams, who has been named a first-team All-Pro in back-to-back seasons, spoke for the first time like retirement might be on the table, noting how daunting the climb is to even get close to championship.

Whether it’s at the dinner table, via texts and calls from friends and family or inside the walls of their locker room, one topic dominates the 49ers’ universe.

“Every year I always talk about goals with my wife and I have individual goals and I have team goals,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has been to seven straight Pro Bowls. “And those individual goals definitely used to have a bigger weight than they do now.

“Now, it’s like, I really don’t give a s—. I just want to win the Super Bowl.”

That’s not a unique thought in the NFL, but in the 49ers locker room it’s a notion that comes with additional urgency. In the past four seasons, the Niners have had a 42-24 regular-season record, six postseason victories, two NFC West division titles, three NFC Championship Game trips and a Super Bowl appearance. There have been plenty of All-Pro nods, Pro Bowl berths, statistical milestones and awards.

The one thing the 49ers haven’t done in this current run is win it all, with their last championship coming after the 1994 season. The Niners have a loaded roster rapidly approaching its expiration date but remain a favorite, with Caesars Sportsbook giving them the second-best odds in the NFC to win Super Bowl LVIII. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 22% chance to make it there, which is second highest in the league behind the Eagles (23%).

While the 49ers have the most players (eight) in the top 100 of ESPN’s NFLRank project, they no longer have youth on their side. Foundational players such as Armstead, Williams, Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave will all be 30 or older by season’s end. And while the Niners have made a habit of paying big money to their stars, they’re starting to feel the squeeze of the salary cap.

That cap crunch included Bosa’s lengthy holdout, which ended Wednesday when Bosa agreed to terms on a five-year, $170 million extension. Of course, if the Niners’ big bet on second-year quarterback Brock Purdy pays off while he’s still on a rookie contract that pays him less than $1 million this season, they’ll have one of the league’s biggest roster bargains.

All of which begs the most important question these Niners face as they open the 2023 season Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m. ET, Acrisure Stadium, Fox): How much longer will that championship window be open?

“We understand that we have a fantastic football team,” Kittle said. “We have great core guys at really important positions. We understand that the window or whatever that is could be closing. We’re going to try our best to keep that window open as long as we possibly can, but we’re going to try to sneak out some wins while that window is still open.”

THE NOTABLE HEARTBREAKS of the past four years and the anguish that accompany them have created equally indelible images for the Niners and their fans.

The missed deep ball from Jimmy Garoppolo to Emmanuel Sanders for a potential winning touchdown in the final minutes of their Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. At the end of that loss, cameras caught Kittle vowing repeatedly that he would be back.

Safety Jaquiski Tartt’s dropped interception of an errant Matthew Stafford pass in the fourth quarter of the 2021 NFC Championship Game as the 49ers were nursing a 17-14 lead over the Los Angeles Rams. After eventually falling 20-17, receiver Deebo Samuel fought back tears as Rams wideout Odell Beckham Jr. consoled him.

Purdy’s tearing of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow early in last season’s NFC title game after taking a big hit from Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick, essentially eliminating any hopes of knocking off the Eagles on the road. Head coach Kyle Shanahan got choked up at the podium talking about the lost opportunity.

For the remaining Niners, it’s not so much about forgetting the past as finding motivation in the pain.

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“It’s something that hardens you,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “I think it makes you a better person, a better player. Having that experience is only going to help us going forward.”

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