Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Before the start of last season, 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan had the pieces in place to field a considerably better offense than the one he inherited in 2017. Franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had just led the team to a five-game win streak to close out 2018 and now had a full offseason to study and learn Shanahan’s complex playbook. To go along with Garoppolo, Shanahan acquired a shiny new running back during free agency in the form of Jerick “Jet” McKinnon. The 49ers were a dark horse choice to make the jump from worst to first mostly due to Jimmy and the Jet.
Then, suddenly, the last play of the team walkthrough before the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings happened. McKinnon tore the ACL in his right knee and was immediately relegated to the injured reserve before ever playing a meaningful snap in red and gold. To add injury to injury, Garoppolo would follow suit and tear the ACL in his left knee against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3. While fans were busy Googling if they were able to donate their own ACLs, Shanahan’s offense had lost two of its most dynamic players before the quarter pole of the season.
The rest of the year was a mixed bag of success and failure as backup QB C.J. Beathard was the first to take the reigns of the offense. Beathard once again looked overmatched and unable to make proper reads in a timely manner. A hurt finger kept Beathard out of the matchup against the Oakland Raiders and forced undrafted free agent Nick Mullens into the starting role; it would be a role that Mullens would never give back. Mullens performed better than anyone could have expected but still looked like a UDFA at times.
The running back position was led by second-year player Matt Breida, journeyman veteran Alfred Morris and special teams ace Raheem Mostert. After Mostert went down for the year with a gruesome arm break, UDFA Jeff Wilson Jr. stepped into the primary backup role. Breida was very solid but could not stay on the field consistently as injuries nagged him all season long. Morris was inconsistent and appeared to be outright benched during certain games. This running back-by-committee was missing its chief committee member badly at times.
Now that there are reports of Garoppolo and McKinnon working out together on the team practice field, it is time to look forward to what Shanahan’s offense will look like when they return.
The biggest difference will be Garoppolo’s return. While Mullens was serviceable during his time as a starter, Garoppolo does just about everything better. Garoppolo’s quick release and strong arm leave very few throws on the field that he cannot make. In the past, he had used his mobility to extend plays and sometimes scramble for critical first downs. Returning from a devastating knee injury may adjust how aggressive Garoppolo decides to be in the future.
Another noticeable change will be McKinnon’s activity in the passing game. Used primarily as a change of pace and scat back in Minnesota before signing with the 49ers, he will retain that mantle. A willing and aggressive pass catcher, Jet’s versatility out of the backfield will be a very important chess piece for Shanahan to move around the field. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk has run multiple routes including wheel routes far down the field, a role that McKinnon could take over.
Breida proved that when healthy, he was absolutely a starting quality running back. Joining him with McKinnon will result in one of the best running back tandems in the league. Shanahan’s creativity as a play caller will be on full display when he can trot out both players in the backfield on any given play. The offense is predicating on scheming pass catchers wide open and the addition of two running backs that can both run the ball and perform as capable receivers must have coaches salivating.
Every offense in the league lives and dies by the trenches. While the return of Jimmy and the Jet are important, the return of the entire starting offensive line may prove to be the most pivotal part in the success of the offense. Right guard Mike Person was just inked to a three-year extension meaning that the OL will maintain the most important aspect: consistency. Offensive linemen that are comfortable with one another do a better job at keeping their quarterback upright and paving lanes for the running game.
It is impossible to talk about the 49ers offense without speaking about the player that was the driving force in 2018. Tight end George Kittle will be reunited with Garoppolo after the two had previous played eight games together. In those eight games, Kittle was able to haul in 27 catches for 415 yards and a touchdown. Now that Kittle has really come into his own and developed into one of the premiere tight ends in the league, Garoppolo will have a field day with his new favorite target.
All told, Kyle Shanahan’s offense will have a completely different look to it once the new season rolls around. Free agency and the draft are still yet to come and will certainly bring new players into the fold. However, the most important pieces will be the return of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon.
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