As people poured off both sidelines and a makeshift stage rolled onto the field at Levi’s Stadium, John Lynch just wanted someone to hug. The 49ers general manager moved from player to player, embracing each along the way. First it was Dee Ford, the pass rusher acquired in a high-profile trade this offseason. Then it was Mike McGlinchey, the right tackle taken ninth overall in the 2018 draft. As he let McGlinchey go, Lynch shook his head and sighed. “Oh, man,” he muttered to no one but himself.
It wasn’t long ago that doubt surrounded Lynch’s future in San Francisco. In his first two seasons with the franchise, the Niners went 10-22. Despite making aggressive forays into free agency and the trade market, they had failed to put together a single winning season. And with Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan both approaching the back halves of their unofficially linked six-year contracts, it had become fair to wonder how much time their partnership might have to right the ship. Yet here Lynch was, wandering his home field in a euphoric haze, basking in the glow of an NFC championship win.
The Niners didn’t just beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night—they dismantled them. San Francisco’s 37-20 triumph was a total organizational victory, and a culmination of what this franchise has spent the past three years building. Few may have seen it coming through the fog of losses, but Lynch and Shanahan had been constructing a juggernaut in Santa Clara. After a nearly perfect offseason, the Niners transformed into the most complete team in the NFC. And in securing a spot in the Super Bowl, they played like it.
Standing a few feet from Lynch during the on-field celebration, Laken Tomlinson couldn’t help but cry. The left guard was traded to San Francisco on the eve of the 2017 season, barely two years removed from when the Lions drafted him with the 28th pick. The Duke product never found a foothold in Detroit, and was shipped out of town for a measly fifth-round selection. When he arrived in the Bay, Tomlinson saw both a franchise and a situation that he knew could resurrect his career. “I told myself that this is something I wanted to be a part of, and be a part of for a really long time,” Tomlinson said. “So I worked my butt off to stick around as long as I could.”
Tomlinson started 15 games in 2017 and 16 in each of the past two seasons. Now, he’s part of an offensive line that mowed down the Packers for four straight quarters en route to the Super Bowl. As he tried to express his emotions in the locker room, Tomlinson nodded to the sacrifices he and his family have made to get here, but kept the particulars to himself. “The journey has been long,” he said. And it’s been longer for some than others.
In a night full of reflective moments, none was more powerful than Raheem Mostert standing at the podium, saying that he looks at the dates he was cut by six other NFL teams before each game. The 27-year-old running back has spent his entire career clinging to his football life; a little more than three years after being cut by the Bears, he’s an NFC title game hero. It’s not just that Mostert rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns against the Packers—it’s the way he and the Niners made it look downright easy. Every time Mostert or wide receiver Deebo Samuel touched the ball, a huge, soul-crushing gain was sure to follow. San Francisco moved the ball at will with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempting a total of eight passes—only one of which traveled more than 10 yards in the air. It was the type of dominance typically reserved for a college paycheck game, except this was a matchup between the NFC’s top two seeds with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. “It’s got to be horrible [for the defense],” McGlinchey said. “I’ve never been on the receiving end of that. But it feels really good as an offense, I’ll tell you that. You could kind of feel when we took control there at the start of the second quarter.”
It didn’t seem to matter how the Niners were handing the ball off: tosses, power plays, reverses. Their offense and the outcome felt inevitable. As the game wore on, each huge gain had a compounding effect. Green Bay’s defense had fallen into quicksand, and its struggle to climb out only made things worse. “If you can get 8 yards a clip, or 6 yards a clip, that kind of hurts a defensive coordinator’s pride,” McGlinchey said. “I think when you do that, you start making guys panic, and you start making them do things they’re not comfortable doing. That’s where we excelled today.”
Mostert and Samuel have emerged as the perfect playmakers for San Francisco’s offense. Do-it-all fullback Kyle Juszczyk has blossomed as an ideal piece in Shanahan’s multiformational approach. Garoppolo has led this group with a steady hand, and tight end George Kittle has acted as the perfect blocker-and-receiver combination, the queen on the chess board within Shanahan’s system. The Niners offense is a machine of individual mechanisms that each serve its own purpose. One complements the next, allowing the others to better function as part of the whole. Every component fits together. And the same goes for San Francisco’s defense.
When Lynch traded for Ford in March (and subsequently handed him a five-year, $85 million deal), he thought that the former Chiefs pass rusher could be one of the final pieces of the Niners’ defensive puzzle. A month and a half later, the franchise used the second overall pick on Ohio State pass rusher Nick Bosa. Lynch hoped adding two edge terrors could invigorate a unit that had languished during his first two seasons in charge. It did just that: After finishing 23rd in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in 2018, San Francisco ranked second this season, and several of its most important acquisitions came through again Sunday. There was Richard Sherman, in the right place at the right time to corral the game-sealing interception. There was cornerback K’Waun Williams, delivering a pivotal stripsack in the second quarter. And there was Ford, who dropped into coverage across the formation to check a wide receiver. “You see how [Ford] kind of unlocks the rest of the D-line,” Lynch said. “Again, you go back to speed. When he’s on the edge, and Bosa on the other side, and the twin towers in the middle, that’s tough to deal with.”
Most of the Niners’ high-profile moves this spring focused on defense, because their biggest addition on the other side of the ball was already on the roster. San Francisco may have turned its $137 million quarterback into a well-coiffed handoff machine in the NFC championship, but it’s important to remember what this team looked like without Garoppolo in the past two seasons. The Niners were the highest-scoring offense in the NFL during Jimmy G’s five starts in 2017, and their 2018 was lost after he tore his ACL three games into the season. San Francisco finished eighth in passing DVOA in 2019, with Garoppolo averaging 8.4 yards per attempt.
When the Packers dared the Niners to throw on a first-and-10 after cutting the deficit to 14 late in Sunday’s fourth quarter, Garoppolo was happy to check the play, walk back into the shotgun, and fire a missile to Kittle for a 19-yard gain. It was almost like he did it just to show everyone he could. The 49ers’ performance against the Packers wasn’t a victory lap for running game truthers; it was a victory for an offense designed to be whatever it wants, whenever it wants. “That’s what’s really cool about the way our team is built,” McGlinchey said. “We have the ability to throw it, stretch the field all over the place with weapons when we need it. But the easiest formula is to keep the ball on the ground, run-block your ass off, and control the game the way that we did today.”
After Mostert tore off the left side for his third touchdown of the night in the second quarter, McGlinchey and left tackle Joe Staley broke into a dance that the former still couldn’t explain more than an hour after the game. On Mondays, Shanahan often points out the importance of what a team’s film looks like with the sound off—whether it feels like the players are having fun, even in silence. “When there’s nobody commentating on it, when you can’t hear the crowd, when you can’t hear anything, you can feel the energy that our football team has,” McGlinchey said. “You can see it all over the tape.”
As Staley stood in the locker room Sunday, he considered how close he came to never being part of this. The now-35-year-old had just finished his 10th season in San Francisco when the 49ers officially hired Shanahan in 2017. The team went 2-14 the previous year under Chip Kelly, and after a decade in the league and five trips to the Pro Bowl, Staley wondered whether it was time to hang it up. “I was pretty close to retiring before he got here,” Staley said. “Just sitting down with Kyle and seeing his vision for this franchise, it was huge for me to be able to ride it out, see it through.”
Shanahan’s vision lies at the heart of the Niners’ ascent. San Francisco has collected the right pieces to make this unit hum, but the league’s preeminent offensive mind understands the connective tissue between them all. He seemed to be a step ahead of Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine all of Sunday, varying his rushing concepts while calling a flawless game. His best choice of the night may have come on the Niners’ opening drive. Facing a third-and-8 from the Green Bay 36-yard line, he called a Mostert trap play out of a shotgun formation. For some coaches, that might have been considered cautious. For Shanahan, it was one of many moves that left the defense playing catch-up. “All across the board, whether it’s coaches or us, we get to a certain point where it’s, ‘OK, well, we ran that coverage, let’s run a different coverage,’” Packers linebacker Blake Martinez said afterward. “And then all of a sudden, they do something that hurts that coverage. So it’s, ‘OK, then let’s try this one.’ You just bounce back and forth, and we never really got back to our game plan.”
As Shanahan stood on the stage amid the confetti to receive the George Halas Trophy, the vision he and Lynch had for the franchise was complete. And Shanahan’s accepting the hardware from his father, Mike, was more than just a touching father-and-son moment; it was a symbolic nod to how the elder Shanahan built two Super Bowl champions in Denver. Those 1997 and ’98 Broncos teams were finely tuned machines, with every part moving in unison—ruthless devices constructed to chew up yards and spit opponents out. Two decades later, Shanahan has built a machine of his own, and two weeks from now it will play in Miami for the sport’s ultimate prize.