MIAMI — In 2017, the San Francisco 49ers didn’t win until Nov. 12.
It was Kyle Shanahan’s first season as head coach, and when the 49ers finally broke through with a victory against the New York Giants, they enjoyed it. They didn’t give Shanahan a full Gatorade bath, but he got a couple of cups dumped on him.
The 49ers were 1-9, celebrating like they’d climbed a mountain.
“It did feel like we won the Super Bowl,” Shanahan said. “We were pumped. It wasn’t just me, it was everybody.”
“That win meant so much to us,” tight end George Kittle said. “Losing nine straight isn’t really fun, but the way the team stuck together ... just have to keep playing football, and that’s what we did a good job of. That win was definitely incredible. It was so much fun.”
That was a little more than two years ago when improving to 1-9 was a big deal. On Sunday, the 49ers play in Super Bowl LIV.
“It feels a lot longer than two years ago,” defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said.
The 49ers are an extreme and rare example of a total turnaround to become a championship team. But if your favorite team wasn’t very good in 2019, the 49ers’ story can give you hope.
How did the 49ers turn things around so fast?
The 49ers’ breakout might have happened in 2018, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL early in the season. The 49ers still battled but finished 4-12.
It was a tough season but it resulted in the 49ers landing a huge piece to their puzzle. They got the second pick and took Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who is a virtual lock to win NFL defensive rookie of the year. He was a difference maker, pushing San Francisco over the top.
The 49ers’ turnaround, like any improvement, had many different pieces to it. But it isn’t impossible to replicate for any team.
San Francisco found a coach in Shanahan it believed in, and stuck by him despite two losing seasons. They stockpiled high draft picks and mostly hit on them, including Bosa. They hit one grand slam draft pick with tight end George Kittle in the fifth round. The spent wisely in free agency, adding key pieces like cornerback Richard Sherman — who was a gamble coming off Achilles surgery, and that paid off — and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Then they caught one enormous break when the New England Patriots called out of the blue, offering Garoppolo for a second-round pick.
A lot of things had to go right for the 49ers, and they did. They’re the first team to post four double-digit loss seasons in a row and go to a Super Bowl the following year. So they’re a historical anomaly. But it’s a reasonable path for any other team, though finding a competent quarterback is a necessity and not that easy. And it’s unlikely Bill Belichick will gift your team its next starter for far below market value.
Even teams that have been incompetent for years — like the Detroit Lions, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins, to name some — can believe they’re just a year or two from being in a Super Bowl. The 49ers did it, after all.
49ers turned it around in close games
The edge the 49ers had is that in 2017, they really weren’t as bad as their 0-9 record.
They lost an astonishing five straight games by three or fewer points in that 0-9 start. They weren’t as far off as their record would indicate.
“We weren’t getting blown out by anybody,” Kittle said.
Still, it was a young team with lessons to learn about finishing in close games.
“We always knew that we were so close and we just had to figure out how to get over that hump,” Kittle said. “How to win instead of lose by three points. I think that started this season.”
The 49ers won a close opening game this season at Tampa Bay, putting it away with a late defensive touchdown. They won five games decided by five or fewer points, including a Week 17 win to clinch the NFC West on an amazing tackle in the final seconds by rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
The 49ers went from a team that couldn’t figure out any way to win to a team that has won 15 of its 18 games so far this season. Maybe your favorite team can do the same.
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