Down But Not Out: How The San Francisco 49ers Will Make it to the Super Bowl in 2021

Down But Not Out: How The San Francisco 49ers Will Make it to the Super Bowl in 2021

Photo Courtesy of US Air Force

Just over a minute remaining in the final quarter of Super Bowl LIV, the San Francisco 49ers have the ball on 2nd and 10 at their own 25-yard line and down 20–31. Their quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, snaps the ball, takes a five-step drop, and, while trying to get the ball downfield to his primary offensive weapon and wide receiver Deebo Samuel, gets picked off by Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller. 

With that late game pick, the 49ers sealed their fate and lost the game, and the Chiefs were less than a minute away from securing their first Super Bowl title since 1969. As the Chiefs’ offense took their kneel-downs to run out the clock, NFL Mic’d Up heard 49ers tight end George Kittle repeating, “I will be back here. I will be back here, and I will be back with a [motherf——] vengeance.”

Unfortunately for George Kittle and the 49ers, a Super Bowl return is unlikely. At least not right away. Since 2000, only two teams have managed back-to-back Super Bowl appearances: the Seattle Seahawks (2013-2014) and the New England Patriots (2004-2005 and 2017-2019). The last three NFC representatives in the Super Bowl — the Los Angeles Rams, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Atlanta Falcons — have not been back. The Rams, after capturing the league by storm with their high-flying offense, failed to even make the playoffs this season after getting to the Super Bowl last year. In a league that has a salary cap, a short average career lifespan, high injury rates, an unpredictable draft, and free agency, it is difficult to sustain success. This off-season, the 49ers will have to confront these challenges if they hope to extend their Super Bowl window and make an unlikely return to the title game.

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The 2020 49ers will look different from the 2019 49ers. For the first time in a long while, the 49ers have cap issues. The team enters the off-season with just $19.6 million in cap space — the 8th lowest in the NFL — to resign upcoming free agents. Two key defensive players set to become free agents are free safety Jimmie Ward and defensive lineman Arik Armstead. Both are former 49ers first-round picks who broke out late into their tenures in San Francisco. Ward, tasked with playing the single high safety in the 49ers’ 4-3 cover 3 Seahawks defensive scheme, excelled and was a contributor to the 49ers’ top-ranked passing defense. After adjusting to his role as an outside rusher, Armstead had a key role in the 49ers’ dominant pass rush, racking up a team high 10 sacks. As it stands now, it is unlikely that the 49ers are able to keep both players. There is some cap flexibility. The 49ers front office can restructure contracts and there are a few obvious cut candidates whose release could free up cap space, like running back Jerick McKinnon and wide receiver and kick returner Marquise Goodwin, or Garoppolo depending on your thoughts on his performance this season — his contract does have an out that would save the team $22.4 million with only $4.2 million in dead cap.

Normally, when a team is tight on cap space, they look to the draft as a means to replace departing talent. However, the 49ers do not have much draft capital either. The 49ers spent a lot of their draft picks to get to the Super Bowl, namely, by trading a second rounder to the Chiefs for pass rusher Dee Ford and also a third and fourth rounder to the Denver Broncos for wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Because of that, the 49ers have just six draft picks: one first-round pick and five picks in rounds five through seven. Based on history, general manager John Lynch will likely flip the first rounder for more later picks. The 49ers will need to draft some immediate-impact players in the late round in order to replace the talent they will lose in free agency. There is a small silver lining since the 49ers under the current regime have had a knack for unearthing talent on Day 3 of the draft, like tight end Kittle in the 5th round and defensive tackle D. J. Jones in the 6th round, while they have not had as much success with their Day 2 picks, like quarterback C. J. Beathard in the 3rd round and running back Joe Williams in the 4th round.

In addition to players, the 49ers are losing a few key assistant coaches at two positions the 49ers improved the most at: secondary and pass rushing. The Cleveland Browns — after considering 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for the head coaching position before they hired Kevin Stefanski — poached defensive backs coach and passing-game coordinator Joe Woods to be the Browns’ defensive coordinator. Woods, who joined the 49ers before the 2019 season, elevated their secondary to become the best passing defense in the league. He also helped develop players like 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley. Pass-rush specialist Chris Kiffin — who star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner called a huge addition to the coaching staff — is also leaving the 49ers to be the defensive line coach for the Browns.

The 49ers had one of the most difficult schedules in the NFL because they not only faced off against NFL powerhouses, like the Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints, but also because they played in the most competitive division in the league: the NFC West. Next season, the division will become even more competitive. The Seahawks ended the 49ers’ undefeated season in week 9 and were mere inches away from stealing the division title away from the 49ers in week 17. With quarterback Russell Wilson at the helm, the Seahawks will always be playoff contenders and the biggest obstacle for the 49ers. The scariest part is that the Seahawks’ 2019 season seems to be the floor of this team’s ability. Head coach Pete Carroll’s old-fashioned “establish-the-run” philosophy effectively limits the Seahawks’ best weapon. If Carroll decides to opt for a more forward-thinking offensive system, like letting Wilson throw the ball, the Seahawks could really rise to be one of the most explosive teams in the NFL. In addition, the Arizona Cardinals, though they finished at the bottom of the NFC West, are on track for a massive leap in quarterback Kyler Murray’s and head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s sophomore seasons. Murray was an absolute difference maker, showcasing his accuracy, athleticism, and decision-making at the NFL level. As they add talent to surround Murray, the Cardinals will become a much bigger threat to the 49ers than they were last year.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the 49ers. For once, the team has stability in the front office and coaching staff, and the team’s owner has decided to remove himself from all football operations. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is still one of the best offensive football minds in the game. Garoppolo will continue to develop and learn from Shanahan’s scheme and improve. This season, the team saw tremendous contributions from their rookies — like Samuel, defensive lineman Nick Bosa, and outside linebacker Dre Greenlaw — and their homegrown talent — like linebacker Fred Warner and running back Raheem Mostert. Next season, wide receivers Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor will come back from injuries. Hurd, a 2019 third-round pick, has yet to take a regular season NFL snap. After seeing what Shanahan did with Samuel by lining him up at wide receiver and at running back, it will be fascinating to see what he does with Hurd, who has a bigger build but the same profile, as a wide receiver with running back skills with the ball in his hands. Though they face a series of challenges, I believe and hope the 49ers are positioned well to make another championship run.

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    Bob JonesMar 25, 2020 at 7:27 pm

    Great Article!

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