2020 NFL Preview: Instead of a championship, 49ers try to wash away Super Bowl disappointment

·10-min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Wednesday.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Nothing in the NFL stays the same.

The San Francisco 49ers came a play or so away from a dream season. In a perfect world they’d run it back this season with the same team. That’s impossible.

Receiver Emmanuel Sanders left to the New Orleans Saints. Left tackle Joe Staley retired. Defensive end DeForest Buckner was traded, as was running back Matt Breida. Playoff hero Raheem Mostert wanted a trade, though the 49ers worked it out. Receiver Deebo Samuel suffered a foot injury that will cost him time.

The New England Patriots’ continued dominance has given other NFL teams a false sense of hope. The Patriots are the outlier. For most teams, it’s hard to sustain anything. Rosters change. The rest of the league is competitive.

Of course, nobody thinks that they’re the team whose Super Bowl window will open and shut in one year.

“If you have the mentality of not being satisfied — you got to the Super Bowl, didn’t win it, where do you go from here,” 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said, according to the Mercury News. “It’s all a mentality.”

Niners tackle Mike Mike McGlinchey told the Mercury News a Super Bowl hangover is “not an option, because of who we are and the way we work.”

"I think our team is built the right way," defensive lineman Arik Armstead told NFL Network. "Complete roster from top to bottom. We don't just have a couple guys who we rely on on Sundays to make plays. Guys step up all over the field all the time. Offense, defense, special teams. So I think we're really complete and I think we're built for the long haul.”

Maybe that’s true. The 49ers were fantastic in 2019. Their run-first offense took off with a healthy Garoppolo for a full season. Kyle Shanahan proved he’s a top-tier coach. The defense, with the foundation of a talented line, was marvelous.

But if the 49ers are like most teams and don’t get right back to a Super Bowl, they’ll never live down “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp.” That was the play the Kansas City Chiefs used to turn around Super Bowl LIV. Tyreek Hill caught a 44-yard pass on a key third down. A 20-10 fourth-quarter lead quickly vanished. If the 49ers stop “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp” on third-and-15, at least they’d have a ring as they try to retool for the future.

It’s unfair to say the 49ers blew it. The Chiefs played well down the stretch. They made plays. In the social media era, we’d rather focus on the negative than give credit to players and teams that make the seemingly impossible happen. But it’s not like the 49ers can simply tip their caps to Patrick Mahomes and forget about it. The loss will motivate them, and if they don’t make it back what happened in those final few minutes in South Florida will become a burden.

On paper there’s no reason the 49ers can’t make it right back. They traded for Trent Williams to replace Staley. First-round picks Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk can fill in for Buckner and Samuel. Stars like George Kittle, Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman are still in place.

Yet, everyone should know how the NFL works. The 49ers had a championship in their hands and the Chiefs took it away. Since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only team to lose a Super Bowl and then come back and win it all the next season is the 2018 Patriots. It was a big challenge for the 49ers to make Super Bowl LIV. Making it back is a much different hill to climb.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) stands on the field during the second half of Super Bowl LIV. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo came up short in Super Bowl LIV, particularly on one deep pass to Emmanuel Sanders. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The 49ers had to make a tough decision on DeForest Buckner. They didn’t feel they could keep Buckner and Arik Armstead, so they paid Armstead and traded Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round draft pick. They used that selection on defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw. Buckner is a tremendous player, but you can’t keep everyone. Trading for Trent Williams to replace retiring Joe Staley at left tackle was a sharp move. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders was always a short-term rental, but his departure to the Saints still creates a hole. First-round pick Brandon Aiyuk could help replace him. The 49ers had some significant changes this offseason but did a good job to reload on the fly.


Life as an NFL quarterback isn’t always fair. Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t on the field for “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp,” or Sammy Watkins beating Richard Sherman deep or any other Chiefs offensive plays that helped flip Super Bowl LIV. If the 49ers make one key stop, Garoppolo would be on top of the NFL world. We overrate quarterbacks when they’re on Super Bowl-winning teams and Garoppolo would be treated like a star had the 49ers finished. That didn’t happen, so Garoppolo will never hear the end of overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders, and instead of being treated as a top-tier quarterback there are questions if he’ll even be around with the 49ers in 2021. Garoppolo is probably never going to be a top-tier quarterback, but had he won a ring last season nobody would care to notice. Of all the 49ers, he lost the most during that Chiefs comeback.

The 49ers haven’t always made the best picks in the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch era, but they hit it big with defensive end Nick Bosa last year. Thankfully for the 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals went against conventional thinking and drafted a quarterback in the top 10 for the second straight season. Their pick of Kyler Murray allowed the 49ers to grab Bosa, who was very good as a rookie. He had nine sacks, made a Pro Bowl and was Defensive Rookie of the Year. The 49ers’ defense was already very good, and now they have a player who could compete for Defensive Player of the Year honors over the next few years.

The 49ers’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 10.5, which bakes in some regression after a 13-3 season. I’d lean to over the win total because this is a team that appears to have a solid foundation, but as discussed at length before, Super Bowl hangovers hit everyone. I wouldn’t be excited to wager on 11 or more wins.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “You try to stay emotionally removed from the players you cover, because you need to be objective. But it’s impossible not to fall in love with some players — their games, their backstories, their spirit, who they are and what they represent.

“And that’s why it’s frustrating for me to give out 2020 fantasy advice on Raheem Mostert. I love his story and what he’s overcome. But the flow of his current ADP [a top-50 pick in Yahoo] has me unlikely to sign up.

“Mostert is a wonderful Cinderella story, a guy who has traveled more of the country than Rand McNally. He finally clicked in 2019, thriving in his first true chance to be featured. But sudden breakout years this late in a career are often not repeatable, and we know from history that Kyle Shanahan can find production out of almost any NFL-worthy running back. I’ll root for Mostert with my heart, but I can’t sign off on the current ADP ticket. And I will get some fantasy exposure to the cheaper backs on this roster, looking to find the next Mostert story.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today]

When Pro Football Focus did its top 50 players for 2020 list, 49ers tight end George Kittle ranked fifth. To give you an idea of how lofty that is, the next players on the list are Michael Thomas, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, DeAndre Hopkins and Christian McCaffrey. It’s fine to disagree with PFF’s methodology, but we can all agree that Kittle is a fantastic player. He has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, including an NFL single-season record for a tight end in 2018. With Emmanuel Sanders gone, Deebo Samuel injured and the 49ers unlikely to have as many leads in 2020 (which would mean more passing attempts), Kittle could break his own season record for yardage this season.

How long can Richard Sherman keep it going?

Sherman isn’t the first success story among cornerbacks in their 30s, but it’s rare. Usually when cornerbacks reach 30 they slow down or start to think about a move to safety. Sherman was one of the best in the NFL last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman gave up 27 catches for 227 yards and one touchdown all last season for a fantastic passer rating allowed of 46.8. Of all cornerbacks with at least 300 coverage snaps, only J.C. Jackson of the New England Patriots and Tre’Davious White of the Buffalo Bills were better in passer rating allowed. Sherman’s huge season is even more impressive considering he tore his Achilles in 2017, a tough injury for cornerbacks to come back from. Now age 32, Sherman’s play could fall off soon. But there are no signs of that happening.

Of course the 49ers can win a Super Bowl. We just saw them come a couple minutes from doing it. The 49ers can run the ball with their rotation of backs, the passing game with Jimmy Garoppolo is much better than most want to credit them for and the defense should still be among the best. It is rare for a team to lose a Super Bowl and get right back, but there’s no tangible reason the 49ers can’t do it. Their formula for success is sound.

Maybe we’re underestimating the 49ers’ losses. Trent Williams has been a great player but hasn’t played since 2018. The 49ers are thin at receiver if Deebo Samuel doesn’t come back healthy or someone like Jalen Hurd or Brandon Aiyuk doesn’t emerge. DeForest Buckner is one of the NFL’s best defensive players and the 49ers are asking a rookie to replace him. The 49ers’ formula is good but roster changes might affect the chemistry. And the 49ers wouldn’t be the first team to lose a Super Bowl and fall a lot harder than anyone expects.

I like the 49ers. I also liked the 2016 Panthers, 2017 Falcons, 2018 Eagles, 2019 Rams ... you get the picture. It is hard to get to a Super Bowl. Almost everything needs to go right — the 49ers were 1 yard and a phenomenal tackle by rookie Dre Greenlaw from being a wild-card team last season — and that usually doesn’t happen two straight years. Every San Francisco fan and football analyst can explain why it’s foolish to predict a big fall for the 49ers, yet it happens all the time. I’ll pick the 49ers to repeat in the NFC West and be a factor in the playoffs. And I will try to not be surprised if the 49ers take a big step back like so many non-Patriots Super Bowl participants have.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
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