Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the San Francisco 49ers organization, Niners fans around the world and those who are here just to see if I’ll predict that this team will finish 3-13 again:
After a few seasons in the wilderness, the 49ers are again one of the NFL’s model organizations. They have a bright young coach leading the charge and a defense that is the envy of most of the league. While they fell just short of capturing their sixth Lombardi Trophy last season, they served notice that they were not only back, but as good as ever. And while the latest reboot hasn’t achieved the success of the teams that were regularly winning titles in the 1980s and ’90s (at least not yet), there is much to look forward to in San Francisco.
Let’s take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2019:
- Making it to Super Bowl LIV. The San Francisco 49ers were in the Super Bowl again!
- Having great battles with the Seahawks. There weren’t many missteps in 2019, but one that stuck with the Niners was a 27-24 overtime loss to the Seahawks in Week 10 — their first defeat of the year after starting out with eight consecutive wins. It set up a thrilling win at Seattle in Week 17, in which San Francisco avenged the previous loss and secured home-field advantage during the playoffs. Sadly, the Seahawks’ loss at Green Bay in the Divisional Round of the playoffs kept us from getting to see the rubber match in the NFC Championship Game.
- Crushing the Packers. Twice. Speaking of the NFC title match … In Week 12, the 49ers humiliated Green Bay, 37-8, on Sunday Night Football. And in the postseason rematch absolutely nobody wanted (outside of 49ers fans dreaming of an easy victory), they again made quick work of Aaron Rodgers and Co. and coasted to the Super Bowl.
- George Kittle snuffing out the hopes and dreams of a few Saints defenders on a fourth-down play to set up the winning field goal in an impressive comeback victory in New Orleans. The Niners were able to both shake off a tough loss in Baltimore the previous week and establish themselves as the best team in the NFC.
- Losing in Super Bowl LIV. The 49ers winning the Super Bowl seemed like an annual tradition when I was in elementary school. But the first franchise to win five Lombardi trophies has not won a title since the 1994 season. Which is legitimately a lifetime ago for many young 49ers fans, who are no doubt tired of hearing their parents talk about watching Joe Montana dominate.
Head coach: Kyle Shanahan. A year ago, Sean McVay was the hotshot coach teams were trying to emulate, with McVay’s Rams coming off a Super Bowl appearance in his second season on the job. That time is past. Now teams have been looking for young hotshots with trucker hats and hoodies underneath their sweatshirts. Or, at least, they should have been. Shanahan won a combined 10 games during his first two seasons with the franchise, and some wondered if his abilities were really going to translate at the head-coaching level. Those doubts were put to rest with San Francisco’s 13 wins last season. Of course, people will still point out that Shanahan has now coached two teams that coughed up leads in the Super Bowl (between the Niners last season and the Falcons, for whom he was serving as offensive coordinator, in Super Bowl LI), but anyone who dings him for that is overlooking the fact that you’ve got to do something right to get to that stage in the first place. And I’m telling you right now, if Shanahan was available on the coaching market, he would be hired in about 6 minutes.
Something else that should be considered good news: Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is returning. Meanwhile, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are entering the fourth year of their initial six-year contracts, and it might be time for the organization to extend these guys right now.
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo. You would think a guy who overcame a significant ACL injury and took his team to the Super Bowl would be beloved, but, yeah … not so much.
Garoppolo was ridiculed for this screenshot, in which it appears his eyes were closed when he threw an interception in the Super Bowl. Then you had folks who spent the offseason working on conspiracy theories about Tom Brady joining the team as a free agent. Spoiler alert: Brady went to Tampa Bay. I just don’t understand the Garoppolo doubt. He was a defensive stop or two away from being named the Super Bowl MVP (though Raheem Mostert would have had a claim), and he’s certainly a franchise quarterback.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement, but he’s coming off his first full season as a starter. Give him a chance to grow. He’s following in the footsteps of other quarterbacks who leaned on strong defenses early in their careers and eventually ended up being the leaders of their teams (Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh or Russell Wilson in Seattle). Shoot, even Brady himself went through that early on in New England. So back off. Jimmy G. completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. Ranked third in yards per attempt (8.4). Threw for 27 touchdowns. Out-dueled Drew Brees in New Orleans. Stop being ridiculous, people.
Projected 2020 MVP: Nick Bosa, pass rusher. There were high expectations for Bosa coming into the league as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, because his brother Joey Bosa had been so dominant for the Los Angeles Chargers. And then Nick looked even better than Joey, ranking fourth in the league in quarterback pressures as a rookie. If he’s healthy and not the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, I’m going to be shocked.
2020 breakout star: Deebo Samuel, receiver. If there is one player I’m looking forward to seeing take the leap in the coming season, it’s Deebo. (Who, yes, is nicknamed after the character from Friday. Samuel caught 57 passes for 802 yards and three touchdowns (with 14 carries for 159 yards and another three scores on the ground) as a rookie in 2019. This is the year for him to step up as a presence on offense, and it will be incumbent on Shanahan to find different ways for him to get his hand on the football.
New face to know: Brandon Aiyuk, rookie receiver. Loved this pick for the 49ers. I had San Francisco taking Javon Kinlaw and Denzel Mims in my mock draft, but I really do believe Aiyuk, selected 25th overall, is a better fit for them. (I had him going to the Packers at No. 30 in front of the Niners at 31, before San Francisco traded up to 25.) He’s got a monster reach and is one of the best route-runners in this receiver-heavy draft. Aiyuk excels at running after the catch, and he’s going to be very dangerous to pair with Samuel and Kittle in the passing game. The team will miss the veteran Emmanuel Sanders, who left in free agency, but the impact of Sanders’ absence will be lessened as Aiyuk gets up to speed.
The competitive urgency index is: EXTREMELY HIGH. The 49ers need to win the Super Bowl this year. Just think of what recently transpired with Jim Harbaugh, who put together a 44-19-1 record from 2011 to ’14 as the Niners’ head coach, including a 2012 run to Super Bowl XLVII — in which San Francisco was bested by Baltimore. Two seasons and one 8-8 finish later, Harbaugh was done, and the Super Bowl window slammed shut, with plenty of potential remaining untapped.
It’s hard to look back at those great teams and not be disappointed at the missed opportunities. Especially with Harbaugh’s 2011 team, which was one muffed punt away from facing off with the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. I don’t want to speak for 49ers fans, and I know it’s tough losing in the Super Bowl. But I thought that 2011 team was the best of the Harbaugh era, and that would be the one that brought me the most regret. Honestly, you don’t want to get into a similar situation five years from now, wondering how you had all of this talent and couldn’t get it done.
- Week 4 vs. Eagles (Sunday night): The Eagles should be a contender for the NFC title this year, and this Sunday night game should be exciting. The 49ers will be home for the first time since playing back-to-back road games against the Jets and Giants.
- Week 10 at Saints: The 49ers and Saints played perhaps the best regular-season game of 2019 in New Orleans. We were robbed of an encore in the playoffs, but we’re excited for this one, which should again impact home-field advantage.
- Week 15 at Cowboys (Sunday night): Of the top three non-divisional NFC teams the 49ers play this year (Eagles, Saints and Cowboys), they have to face the Saints and Cowboys on the road. And once again, this should be another game that has a huge impact on home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Will the 49ers be able to …
Deal with raised expectations and the Super Bowl hangover? Last year, Richard Sherman called out those in the media who doubted the 49ers at the beginning of the season. Like me. Here is the thing, though. Nobody is doubting the 49ers this season. San Francisco will be the favorite to not only go to the Super Bowl, but to win it. The Niners are no longer that 4-12 underdog. It’s going to be a big test, knowing that every team is going to circle the calendar wherever San Francisco appears.
And then there’s that Super Bowl hangover. Some teams work through this better than others. The Patriots lost Super Bowl LII to the Eagles and came back the following year to defeat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. The Rams, meanwhile, failed to make the playoffs in 2019. Which way are the 49ers going to go?
Get another great season from Richard Sherman? Speaking of Sherman, he’s one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game. A member of the 2010s All-Decade Team, Sherman was listed as Pro Football Focus’ top-rated cornerback of 2020 for good reason. Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 42.8 when targeting him last year, per PFF. But there were a few plays where he was beaten deep by the Packers’ Davante Adams, which sparked some Twitter heat with Darrelle Revis. There were also a few misses in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs, where Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins repeatedly beat him. You don’t want to use a few isolated plays from the postseason to wipe out an entire year where he was the best in the business. But my guy turned 32 in March. That has to be something the 49ers are looking at.
Maintain a top-notch defense? Let’s spread this out. As I mentioned earlier, Nick Bosa is amazing. The Niners did a great job keeping players like Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward. That was awesome. DeForest Buckner was traded for a first-round pick that the team used to snag a cheaper replacement in Kinlaw, who I believe will be a Pro Bowler sooner rather than later, given the talent around him.
But — and I hate to point this out — we’ve seen in recent years that teams with dominant defenses seem to eventually run out of steam. The Jaguars were great in 2017, reaching the AFC title game with the No. 2 ranked defense, and they’ve won a total of 11 games since. The Bears of 2018 had the top defense in the league in terms of points allowed. And while they were very good last year, the team finished 8-8. The good news for the 49ers is that their offense is ahead of where the Jaguars’ and Bears’ were. Which leads us to …
… people are overlooking: How good the offense really was last year. The 49ers’ defense was lauded for how well it played. And it should have been. But don’t sleep on how well the unit was complemented by the offense. San Francisco ranked eighth in points allowed and second in yards allowed, while the offense was second in points scored and fourth in yards gained. The Niners were second in rushing offense last year using players like Raheem Mostert — no disrespect to Mostert, but he had been cut from just about every team in the league, or at least it just seemed that way. He was like the guy who was a co-star in all of these big films and then became a leading man on his own. Like looking back on Seth Rogen’s early work and being like, wow, now that dude is in everything. And you also have the best tight end on the planet in George Kittle. Who no doubt is one of the best-pass catchers in the game. But he also probably loves blocking even more. Which is amazing. It’s one of the aspects people overlooked about Rob Gronkowski’s career — and I’m glad Kittle is getting love for it.
The bottom line is, I feel like modern NFL fans equate good offense with throwing the ball all the time. But believe it or not, there are times when teams actually want to run the football. And few do it better than the 49ers.
… people are overthinking: Shanahan’s play-calling in the Super Bowl. I’m serious. You all need to stop with that stuff. If Shanny had gone conservative and Mostert had been stuffed three times, he would have been criticized for that. He went for the win. It didn’t work. Move on.
For the 2020 season to be successful, the 49ers MUST:
Win the whole thing. Yes. It’s tough to enter the season with the expectation that anything less than winning a Super Bowl will be an utter failure. But here we are. Windows like this close quickly. You should know this, having lived through it in the previous decade. You need to take advantage.
I doubted you last year, and you made me eat my words. I’m sure you’d love for me to come disrespect you again. But I can’t do that. The 49ers have one of the best rosters in football. You have great football minds leading you, both on the field and in the front office. It’s all set up for you. The question is, can this team take the next step? I’ll tell you, I’m done doubting it.