2019 49ers Surpassed Expectations, Set Up Bright Future

February 14, 2020

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

 

 

 

 

 

“I hate losing, period.”

 

“Losing this one, we definitely…our mentality was that we were going to finish this one out.”

 

“We played hard, but we didn’t finish.”

 

The above quotes, given to the media by George Kittle and Kwon Alexander, in the aftermath of a stunning 31-20 Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, perfectly illustrated the mood in the 49ers’ locker room, a somber cocoon of dejection and regret located in the bowels of Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium while pandemonium and confetti rained (and reigned) outside.  This was a game that saw the 49ers up by 10 points early in the fourth quarter, and when backup safety Tarvarius Moore unexpectedly intercepted a Patrick Mahomes pass with twelve minutes to go, quelling a Kansas City uprising, it looked as if the 49ers had seized the momentum.  The game was far from over, but a long scoring drive, even if it ended in a field goal, would all but salt the game away.

 

It didn’t happen.

 

Instead, all hell broke loose.

 

There’s no need to rehash what happened hence with the wounds still fresh; that’s not what this article is for, and if you watched the game, you probably can still mentally picture what transpired in the game’s final ten minutes, and it likely won’t pass from memory for a long time.  

 

The purpose of this article is not for levying criticism. Nor is it a querulous plea for sympathy.  This is a document of appreciation of a 49ers squad that gave us a thrill-ride unlike anything we had seen since Jim Harbaugh and his $8 Walmart khakis were prowling the sidelines.

 

Yes, it was only seven years ago since the 49ers’ last Super Bowl appearance, also a defeat, one that followed an equally-scintillating eleven-win campaign.  This drought certainly doesn’t rank with other, more longstanding absences (such as the one the Chiefs just ended), but time is, has been, and always will be a human construct, malleable to the whims of sentiment and human experience.  

 

We saw the 49ers-Harbaugh relationship (cough, cough) “mutually” end, for reasons we can attribute primarily to implacable egos.  We were treated to a season’s worth of Jim Tomsula huffing and puffing and (allegedly) gassing his way through media appearances.  The roster was hemorrhaging talent, as players retired or left for pastures that were greener and devoid of manure.  

 

The 49ers were the most dysfunctional team in the Bay Area.  Quite possibly, they were the most dysfunctional in all major U.S. sports, bumbling at warp speed like the Three Stooges on amphetamines.  

 

We also had a year of Chip Kelly, which amounted to a year of Chip Kelly. 

 

When Kelly was let go, general manager Trent Baalke, mercifully, was also shown the door.

 

Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch were hired to replace Kelly and Baalke, respectively, given identical six-year deals.  The first two years were rough sledding, replete with a few botched draft picks, one of whom was let go after a multitude of off-field issues; they got their franchise quarterback via a surprise trade, only to watch him shred his knee to ribbons the following year.  The 49ers’ composite record through 2017 and 2018 was 10-22.  Supposedly, there was “friction” developing between the two men as 2019 got underway. 

 

Yet, in 2019, we witnessed a momentum shift in Santa Clara.

 

 

It started with the draft, as it often does with bad teams trying to ascend the ladder to relevance, along with some shrewd selections via other channels. The 49ers had succeeded in unearthing the likes of Kittle, Moore, Fred Warner, and Mike McGlinchey from the collegiate ranks in 2018; in 2019, they would strike gold with Nick Bosa at number two overall, plus Deebo Samuel and Dre Greenlaw in subsequent rounds.  They snagged a couple of backup offensive linemen who would go on to be unsung heroes as 2019 unfolded: Ben Garland, who had played for Shanahan in Atlanta, and Daniel Brunskill, a refugee from the tried-and-failed Alliance of American Football.  They traded a second-round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford; he and Bosa would become running mates on the pass rush ticket.  The front office opened up the checkbook for free-agent linebacker Kwon Alexander, who would become the defense’s spiritual leader, ably complimenting the older and wizened Richard Sherman, in his second year as a 49er after being unceremoniously cast adrift by the Seattle Seahawks.  They also took a flier on Tevin Coleman, who also had a history with the Shanahan system, giving the 49ers a three-headed monster of running backs that included returnees Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, with enough varying skill sets to keep opposing defenses guessing.

 

Assistant coaches are the unsung heroes of any football operation, and the 49ers picked up a couple of good defensive assistants in Kris Kocurek and Joe Woods, whose jobs were to help third-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh make adjustments to the team’s philosophy on that side of the ball.  Kocurek, a defensive line specialist who briefly enjoyed a cup of coffee as a player in the early 2000s with the Tennessee Titans, replaced the Seahawks-style 4-3 Under scheme with the Wide-9, in which a speed-rushing defensive end is aligned well to the outside of the offensive tackle, in the so-called “9 technique.” Woods, the defensive backs coach, helped Saleh transition from a pure Cover 3 zone into flashing multiple looks, sometimes employing variations of a Cover-1 man, other times showing a two-safety look.  For the most part, the Niners’ cornerbacks stayed on their respective sides of the field, but in the playoffs, Saleh and Woods occasionally had Richard Sherman “travel,” that is, shadowing a particular receiver regardless of which side of his team’s formation he lined up at.  Under the tutelage of Woods and Kocurek, the 49ers’ defense had a significant uptick in quarterback pressures, which helped lead to a greater amount of sacks and takeaways.  

 

 

Raise your hands.  Who honestly believed that the 2019 San Francisco 49ers would win more than eight or nine games?

 

Back in August, this was a hard team to handicap.  On one hand, there was an obvious abundance of talent.  On the other, a notable lack of experience.  If you sorted the roster by age in descending order, you would have to scroll awhile to find someone older than twenty-five.  

 

You also had to consider the role of injuries.  The Niners were among the NFL’s most banged-up teams in 2018, so believing that 2019 would be better required a daring leap of faith that would make Jeb Corliss blanch.

 

A number of folks (me included) just shrugged and went with the safe 8-8 pick.  Such a lukewarm result would be enough to provide hope for the future, even if it meant a fairly lackluster place in the next draft.

 

As it turned out, these 49ers defied all those expectations, and accomplished some things that would put them in heady company in stark contrast to the franchise’s dyspeptic recent history.  

 

They won their first eight games, ensuring they would finish at least even, before they finally lost one.  One of those wins, against Pittsburgh, was despite the fact that the 49ers gave the Steelers five extra possessions via turnovers.  Another came against the overhyped Cleveland Browns, champions of the offseason, on the Monday Night Football stage.

 

They played a brutal three-game stretch against the Packers, Ravens, and Saints, winning two and sticking very close to the Ravens, holding that high-powered Baltimore attack to under 20 points for 59 minutes and 57 seconds.  

 

They swept the Arizona Cardinals in a pair of tough, hard-fought contests, notable because Cardinals could be a pain in the rear to deal with in the near future.

 

They also swept the Rams. For now, the luster has seemed to worn off Sean McVay, as his 2019 squad bore more of a resemblance to the old Jeff Fisher “seven-and-nine [expletive]” than the NFC Champion team of a year prior.

 

Finally, the Niners won up in Seattle for the first time since Herodotus published his tome on the Greco-Persian Wars, giving the 49ers the NFC West crown and a first-round bye.

 

They finished 13-3.  All three losses were in the final moments.  Two of them were due to field goals.  The other was a Julio Jones touchdown that was ruled as such only upon review, which showed the nose of the ball oh-so-barely crossing the front line of the end zone as Jones held on to it for dear life.

 

The 49ers were maybe five seconds (if that) away from being 16-0. 

 

 

They also dealt with a lot of adversity.

 

There was the aforementioned five-turnover game against the Steelers, back in Week 3. That kind of ineptitude would sink most any other team, but not these 49ers, who nonetheless prevailed 24-20.  (It no doubt helped that the Steelers take to West Coast travel in the same manner a six-year-old takes to bed time.)

 

The Niners also dealt with their usual share of injuries.  They also endured an unspeakable tragedy when the C.J. Beathard’s brother, Clayton, was fatally stabbed in Nashville.  Typical of the 49ers’ close-knit nature, Beathard’s teammates openly expressed love and support for the quarterback, with Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens posing for a photo in the CenturyLink Field locker room moments after the incredible Week 17 victory over the Seahawks, which they sent to Beathard, who was at home with his family for Clayton’s memorial service.

 

“It was really cool, just to see the guys not only get the win but how everyone was after the game,” Beathard said afterward. “Kyle’s speech after the game was great. He had me and my family crying. And seeing guys like George (Kittle) and Fred (Warner) in interviews after the game, and how much it affected them, too. It meant a lot to me.”

 

Much like last year, the injuries cropped up, and some unsung heroes stepped up into the fray.

 

Linebacker Kwon Alexander tore his pectoral muscle in the Week 9 tilt at Arizona and missed the rest of the regular season.  Weston Richburg, who was quietly having a bounce-back season at the center position, tore his patella tendon in Week 14 against the Saints and was likewise invalidated for the balance of the year.  Dee Ford had problems with his hamstring. George Kittle had knee and ankle afflictions.  Jaquiski Tartt missed several games with a broken rib.  Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, the two bookends on the offensive line, both missed time.  So did right guard Mike Person.  Kyle Juszczyk missed several weeks with a knee injury. Ahkello Witherspoon got off to a fantastic start playing the cornerback spot opposite Sherman, but suffered foot and quad injuries midseason, was shut down for a few games, and struggled greatly upon his return.

 

Having so many players shuffling in and out of the lineup would destroy another team, but somehow, the 49ers kept winning.  Ben Garland replaced Richburg and finished the season on a high note.  Justin Skule, a late-round 2019 draft pick, and Daniel Brunskill briefly took over the tackle spots for Staley and McGlinchey, respectively.  When Person injured his neck and shoulder, Brunskill slid over to the guard spot.  Ross Dwelley, a nominal tight end, took over fullback duties for Juszczyk, and while he held down the fort as best as he could, the running game’s effectiveness did take a noticeable dip.  The absence of Kittle, who is actually a very good blocker, was also a factor in the Niners’ midseason rushing slump.  

 

Rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw filled in for Alexander and over time emerged as a valuable piece of the puzzle, playing faster and with more confidence as the season went along.  He will never need to buy a drink in the Bay Area again after his incredible game-saving goal-line stop in that season finale in Seattle, channeling Dan Bunz and saving the defense’s buns as the 49ers locked up the conference’s top seed by a scant few inches.  

 

The biggest surprise was the once chronically-peripatetic running back Raheem Mostert, who found a home in San Francisco’s backfield after signing with, and subsequently being released from, six other teams over 2015 and 2016. He signed with the 49ers in November 2016 to be on the practice squad.  He played primarily as a special-teamer and sporadically as a running back in 2017, before being placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.  He played primarily as a special-teamer and sporadically as a running back in 2018, before breaking his forearm after scoring his first career touchdown in Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders.  He was on the roster bubble going into 2019, but his outstanding ability as a kamikaze gunner on kick coverages earned him one of the final spots.  When Tevin Coleman missed a few weeks early in the season with a high ankle sprain, Mostert was elevated to backup duties and played well.  When Coleman came back, Mostert remained the second option, pushing fumble-prone Matt Breida to afterthought status.  Despite not starting a single game, Mostert became San Francisco’s leading rusher, with 772 yards on 137 carries, an average of 5.6 yards per attempt.  He also scored 8 touchdowns.  In the NFC title game, Mostert erupted for the best game of his career, gashing the feckless Green Bay Packer run defense for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns on 29 carries. 

 

 

It was a season of nicknames.  

 

They were “pretenders,” in the words of former NFL player and current television analyst Ryan Clark.  Yes, they were 8-0, folks said.  But who have they played? By, God, let me know when they beat someone.  In Week 2, the 49ers were one-point underdogs to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that would ultimately end up capturing the first-overall pick in 2020 draft, but at the time, the Niners were playing their second consecutive game in the Eastern time zone and very few people outside the Bay Area were swayed by their 31-17 takedown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Their 20-7 defeat of the Rams in Week 6 also didn’t convince many people outside the 49ers’ fan base.  Shellacking the 4-2 Carolina Panthers by a 51-13 tally also didn’t alter anyone’s perspective, especially after the Panthers proceeded to drop eight of their remaining nine games.  The Panthers were even bigger frauds.

 

The Seahawks came to town.  Finally, that “someone,” had arrived, a team against whom the Niners can finally gain some credibility with the critics with a simple, stupid victory.

 

Except that Jadeveon Clowney spent more time in the Niners’ backfield than their running backs did, as the Seattle defensive end hit Jimmy Garoppolo five times and recorded one of the Seahawks’ five sacks on the evening. He also forced a fumble.  Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey had just returned from their injuries and both linemen showed visible signs of rust.  The 49ers were without Kwon Alexander, and they were missing kicker Robbie Gould, who was replaced by a rookie signed off his couch, Chase McLaughlin. 

 

Yet, despite all that, San Francisco nearly pulled it out.  McLaughlin hit a 47-yard field goal to tie the game and sent it into overtime.  He missed another 47-yarder in the extra period, setting up Seattle to win it as the OT expired with a made kick.

 

Still pretenders, until the august court of public opinion states otherwise.  Part label, part prison term, all conjecture.

 

A more uplifting development was the emergence of the “Hot Boyzz.” That’s “Boyzz,” with two Zs, mind you.  Inspired by Lil Wayne, a Kyle Shanahan favorite (he named his son Carter after the rapper, whose given name is Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.), and the brainchild of Kwon Alexander, Hot Boyzz became the collective nickname for the linebacker group, though it eventually spread to include the entire team.  Alexander even went so far as to identify himself as hailing from “Hot Boyzz University” for the prerecorded introduction leading up to the playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings.  He had hoped to trademark the moniker, only to meet with resistance from a clearly-aggrieved DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys linebacker who coined “Hot Boyz” (one Z) for his pals.  The Dallas defensive star went on the offensive, calling Alexander and crew “imposters” and hinting at the possibility of legal action. 

 

Professional wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, known during his wrestling days as “The People’s Champion,” bestowed that honor upon George Kittle, a huge fan of the sport, dubbing him “The People’s Tight End.”  Kittle had a chance to meet Johnson in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, and was understandably star-struck.  “[H]e’s just really big and he’s really sweaty,” Kittle recalled in a television interview. “He goes, ‘What’s up brother?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness...’”  The Rock gifted the People’s Tight End with a bottle of tequila and promised they would “raise a glass” some time down the road.

 

 

History isn’t kind to champions; in the Super Bowl era, there have been only eight repeat winners.  For the Chiefs, it is not so much history that they will butt heads with, but the simple fact that repeating is, well, hard.  As Bill Walsh said many years ago, on the eve of Super Bowl XXIII, “you have to have everything go right for you during the year.  Players have to have their best years, and you have to escape key injuries.  That isn’t likely to happen two years in a row.”[1]

 

(Naturally, the George Seifert-led 49ers went on to pull off the repeat the following year, trouncing the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.)

 

Despite losing the Super Bowl, the 49ers are not immune to Walsh’s theory.  A failed encore by Kansas City won’t necessarily guarantee a parade down Market Street in February 2021.  This next season will be a true test: can they sustain the volume of injuries that they endured in 2019 and still be a top seed in the NFC?  Will they be able to cast aside the disappointment and focus on the rigors of another regular season?  In light of all the talk about the 2019 49ers being “pretenders,” their appearance in Super Bowl LIV means that they will not be sneaking up on anybody.  Whatever aspects of the game that the Niners were deficient in will need tightening up if they are to take the field in Tampa for Super Bowl LV on February 7, 2021.

 

The majority of the Niners’ roster should remain intact.  Beginning last month, the front office began the process of restructuring contracts so that the 49ers will remain comfortably under the NFL’s salary cap, which should increase by ten- to twelve-million dollars for the 2020 league year, allowing them to offer extensions to the likes of Kittle and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.  The perpetually-injured Jimmie Ward managed to stay healthy, enjoyed a career year as the team’s free safety, and, now a free agent, he has expressed a desire to return.  Emmanuel Sanders, one of nine 49ers to have been to a Super Bowl before, is also a free agent, and is open to returning.

 

Given the paucity of picks that the Niners will have in the upcoming draft, the front office likely won’t add much via that route, and salary cap concerns could preclude any splashy free-agent signings.  The 49ers should have nearly the exact same roster going into next season, one that is still young, but now battle-tested, and eager to demonstrate that their excellent 2019 season was no fluke, and that their late fourth-quarter performance in Super Bowl LIV is not who they really are.

 

Optimism abounds.  

 

[1] Dickey, Glenn "Tough Act to Follow." San Francisco Chronicle 27 Jan. 1989: 80. NewsBank. Web. 17 Dec. 2019

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