• Travis Hawkins

One Game at a Time: Why the 49ers Are Not Thinking Playoffs And Why it’s Working for Them


Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

In the NFL, twelve of the thirty-two teams make the playoffs each year and roughly half of them weren’t in the playoffs the previous year; that level of parity is what the folks in the NFL offices dream of. The fact that nearly half of the playoff teams turnover from year to year is what gives NFL fans hope that this year will be the year their team makes the playoffs.

Having not made the playoffs since 2013, the 49ers are off to a 5-0 start and teams that start 5-0 have a ninety-one percent chance of making the playoffs. Yet, there isn’t any talk of playoffs (playoffs?) coming out of the facility in Santa Clara, at least not publicly.

In 2015, Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for an Atlanta Falcons squad that got off to a hot start, winning their first five games and six of their first seven; they then lost their next six games, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs.

Since his arrival, Kyle Shanahan, along with general manager John Lynch, has done his best to manage expectations, even when a gift was dropped in their lap. Following the news that the 49ers had traded for Jimmy Garoppolo, 49er fans were positively buzzing with excitement at the prospect of seeing Garoppolo in action, but Shanahan was quick to say that Garoppolo might not see the field at all during the 2017 season; four weeks later C.J. Beathard injured his thumb and Garoppolo took over as the starter for the final five games.

The five consecutive victories that followed once Garoppolo assumed the starting role gave the 49ers organization (and its fans) hope. Surely the 49ers were going to carry that momentum forward into a playoff berth in 2018.

Any chance the 49ers had at the playoffs were dashed by injuries to Garoppolo and others, but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for those who stayed healthy either. In going 4-12, the 49ers got inconsistent performances from several young players who figured to be pieces of a contending team going forward. Perhaps some had believed too much of their own hype.

Coming into 2019, there was not much hype surrounding the 49ers, at least not outside of the Bay Area, but after five straight victories the hype train is beginning to pick up steam, and Richard Sherman, one of the few veteran voices on the team last season, has been both conductor of the hype train talking up his teammates in the media as well as operating a release valve that keeps the hype in check.

Sherman has had a consistent message this season when speaking to the media: “stay humble.” Sherman has repeated the message asking the fans to stay humble once during the preseason and again following the victory against the Bengals. Sherman is a savvy communicator and his reminder to stay humble is not only for the fans but he is speaking to players in the locker room as well.

On paper, the remaining schedule for the 49ers is littered with “trap games,” starting this week against a 1-5 Washington team. If this week’s media sessions are any indication, the coaching staff will have the players fired up on Sunday.

There is no love lost between the Shanahans (both Kyle and Mike) and the Redskins front office, clearly, but personal vendettas aside there are plenty of story lines to keep the 49ers players motivated against the lessor opponents on the schedule.

Wrapped around the Monday night showdown with the Seahawks are two games with NFC West cellar-dweller Arizona. The 49ers were the only team to lose to the Cardinals last season, and they did it twice, and Arizona remains the only NFC West team that the 49ers have not beaten since Shanahan took over as head coach so there should be no overlooking those games. After a two-game road trip to Baltimore and New Orleans in early December, the 49ers return home against the Atlanta Falcons (who are currently 1-5), but its unlikely the 49ers will take Kyle Shanahan’s former employer lightly. The 49ers will then finish up with division foes Los Angeles and Seattle.

As difficult as it was to manage expectations after the Garoppolo trade and the win streak that followed, keeping this team focused on the task at hand in the face of the first playoff berth in six years might be more difficult. As the idiom goes, “experience is the best teacher,” and Kyle Shanahan has experienced the lows of what it’s like to miss the playoffs after a 5-0 start and its safe to assume he won’t want to experience that again, so expect the team to remain focused on today and not what comes next.

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