Back in February, after the 49ers lost the Super Bowl, I wrote an article titled “Down But Not Out: How The San Francisco 49ers Will Make it to the Super Bowl in 2021.” Despite the title, the article spends most of its time detailing reasons for a 49er decline and pessimism about their future. But at the end, I offered a glimmer of hope. In spite of a lot of evidence of how challenging it is to repeat Super Bowl trips, I thought the 49ers were the exception. They had a fantastic season and were returning with most of their key pieces still in place. And most importantly, they’re the team I root for. Of course, they had a shot at running it back this season. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
The 49ers have gotten off to a frustrating 2–3 start to the 2020 season. All three of their losses were to teams they should have beat. Against the Arizona Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles, the 49ers made mistake after mistake to give away the games, but at least they were close. Their most recent matchup with the Miami Dolphins was a train wreck: a 17–43 blow out, where the offense and defense looked dazed and confused. It’s fair to wonder: if not for two early back-to-back matchups against the New York football teams, the worst teams in the NFL, would the red and gold be winless right now?
San Francisco is not thinking of a Super Bowl run this year. It’s doubtful they’ll make it back to the postseason, even with the expanded playoffs. Though we’ve just passed the quarter mark of the season — five games are a small sample size — it’s clear that this team is not the 2019 49ers, in fact, they have much more in common with the 6–10 2017 49ers. Certainly, injuries have played a significant role in the 49ers’ disappointing start. But even considering the injuries, the 49ers have underperformed.
First, there’s the defense, which has been decimated by injuries. On the defensive line, Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, and likely Dee Ford are out for the season. The players who have stepped up in their place — Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, and Kerry Hyder — have been playing decently. The defensive line has 10 sacks, 23 tackles-for-loss, and 31 QB hits.
But the defensive line needs to be elite to cover for the secondary, which has been just as injured as the defensive line. The secondary has had so many injuries that the 49ers have had to start a different set of cornerbacks every game. This team is built front to back, relying more on their pass rush than their coverage ability. Even with the secondary healthy, the 49ers need top tier play on the defensive line. Without that, the secondary is getting exposed. There is no more egregious example than Brian Allen, a practice squad player elevated to play against the Dolphins. Allen got toasted by Ryan Fitzpatrick, giving up 124 yards in just 5 series before being benched. Sure, Allen’s not the most talented player, but the coaching staff didn’t do much to help and kept putting him in tough situations. Too often, Allen was isolated against Dolphins receivers with no help. Knowing that Allen was fresh off the practice squad, why didn’t the team rotate coverage to his side or give him safety help over the top? They threw him out on defense and acted like he was Richard Sherman.
Short term, the 49ers need to evolve their defensive system to help the players who are filling in. Granted, wholesale change to a different scheme in the middle of a season is impractical, but they could introduce smaller changes to reflect their lineups. They cannot keep throwing players into a vanilla 4–3 Seattle defense who are not talented enough to succeed in it. Long term, the team needs to stop overinvesting in the defensive line at the expense of the secondary. Drafting one in the 5th or 6th round every other year and re-signing Dontae Johnson when someone gets injured is not enough. They need to create a more balanced defense.
The offense is not doing much better. They have not been spared by the injury bug. Deebo Samuel broke his foot in the offseason, George Kittle hyperextended his knee in Week 1, and Weston Richburg has been out since December of last year. In Richburg’s absence, the offensive line has not performed well. Per Football Outsider (FO), the line ranked 29th in the NFL. Trent Williams has not integrated into the 49ers offensive line as easily as predicted; there’s a noticeable lack of cohesion between him and Laken Tomlinson that led to a few sacks and pressures. On some plays, it seems like he doesn’t know the protection schemes. But Williams is still the most reliable pass blocker on the line. From backup center Daniel Brunskill to right tackle Mike McGlinchey, almost all the other linemen are liabilities in the passing game.
The line isn’t doing much better run blocking. According to FO, 27 percent of the Niners’ run plays are stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage, the highest rate in the NFL. Raheem Mostert, largely thought of as a system running back, is quietly dispelling the notion that any running back can look good in a Shanahan zone run scheme. He has broken off big runs in each of the games he’s been active, something his backups have struggled to do.
This finally brings us to James Richard Garoppolo. Because of a high ankle strain, Jimmy has only played one full game and two separate first halves. Even in limited action, the handsomest man in the NFL has gotten off to an ugly start, marred by poor decision making and inaccuracy. The same poor decision making that lost the 49ers the Super Bowl is resurfacing. Garoppolo is staring down first reads, throwing into double coverage, and taking unnecessary sacks. In his third year under Shanahan, we expected Garoppolo to continue developing and build off last season, but it looks like he is stagnating. Moreover, his characteristic short- to mid-range accuracy has degraded. On the last drive of the Cardinals game, Garoppolo had two shots to first win and then extend the game. He missed on both. He underthrew a deep TD pass to a wide-open Kendrick Bourne, then overthrew a first-down pass to Trent Taylor in the flat. On both plays, Garoppolo was not under pressure. Contributing to his inaccuracy are his throwing mechanics. Garoppolo has gotten into bad habits. He’s throwing flat-footed, relying too much on his arm to make throws and not using his lower body to drive balls on target.
The pessimistic and reactionary part of me wants to wallow in negative criticisms of the season, declared that the season is finished, and start a #tankfortreylance movement. But the fatalistically optimistic fan in me always wins out and I can’t give up on this team. This team, no matter how much they looked against Miami, is not the 2016 49ers; they are so much better than that. The 49ers will get players back from injury. Young players, like Kinlaw, will continue to develop and get better as the season goes on. Garoppolo will eventually recover from his ankle injury and he will improve as the rest of the team improves. And Kyle Shanahan, one of the greatest offensive minds, is still the head coach. Are they down? Absolutely. But this team isn’t out yet.
Photo courtesy Flickr/AlexanderJonesi