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Armor of Legends: Can The 49ers Channel More Than Nostalgia?

June 8, 2018

 

The 1994 season was the 75th Anniversary of the NFL.  All teams were encouraged to pay homage to this occasion by wearing an alternate set of vintage jerseys of their choice.


The San Francisco 49ers chose a version of the 1955 team uniform which featured white jerseys with drop shadow numbers and three red stripes on the sleeve, along with white pants carrying red-black-red striping and red socks.

 

Originally, teams were only to dress in their vintage uniform sets occasionally.  But, after the 49ers wore theirs for big wins during Weeks 3 and 4 and then took an embarrassing beating at home in Week 5 with their regular uniforms on, superstition forced San Francisco’s hand.   

 

The 49ers put back on the throwbacks and won their next three games.  They then appealed to the NFL to keep the vintage set on the remainder of the season (for luck) which was granted.  

 

San Francisco went on to win seven of their last eight games for a 13-3 record overall in the regular season.  Their only loss while wearing the throwback uniforms was the last game of the season when most of the team’s starters were rested in preparation for the playoffs.

 

Three wins later, the Niners were Super Bowl XXIX Champs and the first team to have five championship wins in history.  

 

Ironically, the 1955 49ers team was not very good.  It had a 4-8 record, finished last in the division and was outscored by an average of almost two touchdowns in its losses...  

 

Fast forward to the 2018 season, the 49ers have announced they will replace their black alternate uniforms with a new throwback version modeled after the 1994 team.  Likely, the good memories tied to that championship season is meant to inspire the fans and players alike.  

 

Which begs the following questions:  If history repeats itself and the 2018 Niners win with the all-white jerseys on, could Coach Shanahan petition the NFL to keep them all season?  Does he even believe in luck?

 

Well, whether or not the 49ers are able to somehow channel the success of the 1994 team, it’s up to the football gods.  

 

But, it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question if Shanahan’s team did live up to the legacy of Coach Seifert’s champs from twenty-five years ago (with throwback jerseys on, or not).

 

Comparisons - QB

 

The 1994 Niners featured quarterback Steve Young, who had the best season of his career.  He had the highest passer rating ever recorded at the time (112.8), the highest completion percentage of the 1990s (70.3), received his second NFL MVP Award, and was named Super Bowl MVP.

 

It’s a tall order to expect Jimmy Garoppolo to live up to those expectations.  Yet, there isn’t any football expert alive who doesn’t think he has that kind of potential.  


The small sample size we have of the 26-year-old is impressive so far.  In two games started with the New England Patriots in 2016, Garoppolo completed 68.3% of his passes for 502 yards and 4 touchdowns.  He also had a 113.3 passer rating, and an 86.0 QBR.

 

With San Francisco in 2017, he completed 67.4% of his passes for 1560 yards in five games started, had 7 touchdowns, a 96.2 passer rating, and a 78.2 QBR. 

 

Beyond the numbers, Garoppolo is known to have a high-level football IQ, a lightning quick release, ability to read coverages, poise in the pocket, mobility, and leadership skills.  He also backed up one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game (Tom Brady) for over three years.

 

Now only time will tell how Garoppolo does after a year spent learning the 49ers playbook and a full season under center.   The 2018 season could be his big break out.

 

Comparisons – Offensive Crew

 

The main receiver for the 1994 Niners was Jerry Rice, the greatest wideout of all time.  That year was one of his best, as he was targeted 151 times, had 112 receptions for 1,499 yards, 13 touchdowns, a 74.2% reception rate and he averaged about 93.7 yards per game. Incredible.

 

His very worthy counterpart was the 2018 Hall of Fame nominee John Taylor.  A two-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl winning champ with the 49ers, he was speedy, dangerous and a talented punt returner to boot.   

 

The team also had help from then-rookie fullback William Floyd, the last fullback to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.  The 22-year-old helped the team win the Super Bowl with his rushing and receiving abilities, along with running back Ricky Watters.  He had a total of 1,596 scrimmage yards in the regular season alone.

 

This fruitful offensive crew is a nice model for what San Francisco could be like in 2018.  

 

While they don’t have the likes of Jerry Rice on the roster, there are similarities in how the 1994 team mastered the use of the West Coast-style offense and Coach Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling abilities.

In fact, Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator back then.  The common thread of a versatile, faster offense and the potential to score a lot of points will be unmistakable.  

 

On the current 49ers roster, wide receiver Marquise Goodwin thrived during his first year working with Shanahan and looks to improve in 2018.  The 27-year-old was targeted 105 times, had 56 receptions for 962 yards, and saw a career-high 70% of offensive snaps.  

 

Fellow wideout Pierre Garcon is expected to recover well from a neck injury that capped his season at eight games in 2017.  He has one of the lowest career drop rates amongst all wide receivers and was a star with the Redskins just two years ago when had 79 catches for 1,041 yards and averaged 65.1 yards per game.  

 

The 49ers will also have at their disposal sophomore Trent Taylor, who was a nice surprise in 2017; and the dual-threat running back Jerick McKinnon, who played with the Vikings for four years.  

 

Additionally, like the 1994 Niners, Shanahan also has himself a full-time fullback in Kyle Juszczyk.  Signed as a free agent on a four-year contract last off-season, the former Raven provides more diversity in the backfield.

 

Combined with newly drafted tackle Mike McGlinchey, it looks like the 49ers will have just what general manager John Lynch recently predicted as a “dynamic” offense and one that will most certainly give opposing defenses fits. 

 

Comparisons – Defensive Crew

 

The 1994 Niners defense was a rebuild project.  The team made some drastic moves in the off-season with the main objective: to beat the Cowboys.  

 

After losing the NFC Conference Championships to Dallas for two straight years, Coach Seifert and then-president Carmen Policy brought in a bounty of players considered by some to be best “free-agency haul” of all time.  

 

By acquiring linebackers Gary Plummer, Ken Norton Jr., and Rickey Jackson, plus cornerback and 1994 Defensive Player of the year Deion Sanders, San Francisco’s defense finally stood up to the Cowboys and did even further damage… all the way to the championship.

 

That talented defense also had great depth in their secondary including Eric Davis, Merton Hanks, and Tim McDonald.  Add on defensive tackles like Dana Stubblefield and NFC Rookie of the Year Bryant Young, that team was stacked on both sides of the ball.

 

Similarly, for the 2018 Niners defense, it was an off-season characterized by adding more depth, continuing to build stability, and improving what was considered a below average unit last season.  

 

In this year’s draft, San Francisco used six of nine picks on defense and made some key free agency acquisitions like veteran cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, both of whom will provide leadership and much-needed swagger.

 

And while, there’s no denying that the Niners have a long way to go to build an elite defense, they are on their way towards moving the needle in the right direction.

 

The defensive line, for one, is evolving, and led by elite interior defender DeForest Buckner, who is incredibly durable and considered one of the top 50 players in the league according to Pro Football Focus.  

 

The Niners also still have confidence in defensive lineman Arik Armstead.  If he stays healthy, there is belief he can be very productive.  There was also enough praise for rookie Solomon Thomas after his performance in 2017 to think he’ll take a step forward.

 

Attaochu was brought in the off-season from the Chargers on a one-year deal with help for the pass rushing.  The 25-year-old is a former second-round draft pick and had a great college career and 2015 season in San Diego before injuries and Joey Bosa took over.

 

As for linebackers, Reuben Foster has recently been cleared in his personal legal situations, which bodes extremely well for San Francisco.  He had a great season in 2017, leading all interior defenders with 19 quarterback hits and was top sixth in combined sacks and hits.

 

Another bright spot on the 49ers defense is cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who has impressed defensive coordinator Robert Saleh with multiple breakout performances in 2017.  Working with his idol Richard Sherman will also be extremely good for him.

 

Overall, there is reason to believe the 49ers defense will continue to improve with moves made in the off-season and more experience under this young team’s belt.  

 

Like the 1994 team, the offense will likely carry this team until the defense makes a major move towards ranking in the top 10 in all categories.  

 

Comparisons – Intangibles

 

It’s fitting that the 49ers chose to emulate the 1994 team two years into the rebuild.

 

That team of yesteryear had a great roster and coaching staff, but most importantly: it had heart and the uncompromising desire to be the best.

 

These essential qualities are what make good teams play great.

 

If San Francisco wants to win its sixth championship, it’ll have to continue to channel these traits to make it all come to fruition.

 

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If San Francisco wants to win its sixth championship, it’ll have to continue to channel these traits to make it all come to fruition.

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