Every year, the Super Bowl losers spout the same, collective message in the aftermath of the game: “We’ll be back.” Making it to the Super Bowl is hard. It requires an almost magical recipe of talent, luck, and a few cosmic breaks. By the time teams have fought their way to February, they have every reason to believe their group is special. And one defeat, no matter how crushing, doesn’t shake that feeling. To guys like Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy Garoppolo, and George Kittle, the 49ers are a 13-win team that fell just short of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Why wouldn’t that group make it back next season?
As we’ve learned over the past decade, though, that’s rarely how this works. Since 2010, only one team—the Patriots—has lost the Super Bowl and returned to win it the following season (in 2016 and 2017). The Seahawks (2013-14) are the only other team that’s made it in back-to-back years during that stretch, win or lose. Success breeds opportunity in the NFL. Excellent seasons usually lead to players cashing in big free agent deals or coaches getting promotions elsewhere. Shanahan parlayed the Falcons’ historic 2016 season into his job with the Niners. Frank Reich used the Eagles’ Super Bowl LI championship to springboard himself from Philly offensive coordinator to Colts head coach. Both Atlanta and Philadelphia have struggled at times since retooling their offensive brain trusts, and the Niners will face similar challenges this offseason with both their staff and roster. The road back to the Super Bowl won’t be easy, but there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about San Francisco’s chances heading into 2020.
First, the players. Only three of the Niners’ 22 starters are set to hit unrestricted free agency this spring, which means the majority of the NFC’s best roster will remain intact. San Francisco’s pass rush should still be among the league’s best with Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, and Dee Ford in the fold. Young pieces like Emmanuel Moseley (who’s an exclusive rights free agent and should be back) and Fred Warner have a chance to get even better. Center Weston Richburg will return after he missed the final three games of the regular season and all of the playoffs with a torn patella tendon. And breakout star Deebo Samuel should be even better next year with an entire offseason as a starter.
The Niners will also bring back most of their excellent coaching staff in 2020. After interviewing for the Browns’ head-coaching position, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will return. Longtime Shanahan confidants Mike McDaniel and Mike LaFleur are also back, despite some reported interest from other teams. And most importantly, Shanahan is still in charge of the ship. Narratives aside, Shanahan is still the best offensive coach in the NFC, and this group will get the most out of its talent for as long as he’s around. Now … to the bad news.
Talking about injury luck is never fun. Pointing out that successful teams are usually healthy and tend not to get those breaks the next year isn’t interesting. But it matters. The Niners had a few injury issues last season. Key players like Ford, Richburg, Kwon Alexander, Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszczyk, Marquise Goodwin, and Jaquiski Tartt all missed at least four games. But by the Super Bowl, Marquise Goodwin and Richburg were the only nominal starters out of the lineup. There’s always a chance that Shanahan’s team catches similar breaks in 2020, but history suggests otherwise.
Injuries aren’t the only bit of attrition that could hit this roster, either. San Francisco has the majority of its core locked up long term, but a few of the team’s most important pieces have less-certain futures. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is the only offensive starter set to hit free agency, but Staley is 35, and the longtime Niners left tackle has pondered retirement in the past. Defensive linemen Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward are also both unrestricted free agents coming off career years, and each should see plenty of interest on the open market.
Defensive backs coach Joe Woods told me last week that he believes Ward is one of the few players in the league who could be a Pro Bowler at any position in the secondary, but the Niners wanted to let him focus on a single position in 2019. Finally healthy and playing more free safety than he ever had before, Ward thrived under Woods in 2019. Armstead experienced a similar boost from a change in circumstances. After playing in a read-and-react defensive system for the first four seasons of his career, Armstead excelled in the attacking scheme San Francisco adopted under first-year line coach Kris Kocurek. Everything from Armstead’s mind-set to his stance changed this season, and he looked like a completely different player as he bounced all around the positions along the Niners’ defensive line. “The first week, he was a fish out of water,” Kocurek told me last week. “Because it was totally different. I’d say by the third week, his stance looked perfect. His angles looked perfect. His explosion points were good. He just started to take off from there.” Armstead finished with more sacks this season (10) than he had in his first four years combined (nine). Getting surprise contributions from Ward and Armstead is how teams go from 4-12 to the Super Bowl, but now both have likely priced themselves out of San Francisco’s long-term plans as a result.
The Niners will have plenty of decisions to make about how they spend their resources this spring. San Francisco is slated to have about $14 million in cap space and could probably free up another $12 million or so with some logical cuts. The Niners structure contracts in a way that usually gives them a lot of long-term flexibility, but this team isn’t flush with cash like it’s been in years past. General manager John Lynch also doesn’t have much draft capital to work with. Trades for Ford and Sanders have left the Niners without a second-, third-, or fourth-round pick in the 2020 draft. Lynch and Shanahan could very well land another instant contributor in the first round and find some bargain free agents to help their cause, but there just aren’t many avenues for this team to make significant upgrades.
Niners optimists will likely point to a few different areas that could help this team stave off regression. For all the Garoppolo slander that’s emerged this week, he’s still started only 27 games in Shanahan’s offense. Shanahan is notoriously demanding of his quarterbacks. It took Matt Ryan a full season in this system before he won the MVP in 2016. And as McDaniel pointed out to me last week, this is only the second time in Shanahan’s career that he’s gotten to year three at a given stop. It’s certainly possible that more time for Garoppolo in this system and more collective time together as a unit will allow the Niners offense to get even better. But replacing (or retaining) Sanders this spring has to be a priority. Garoppolo will need as much receiving help as he can get for what projects to be a crucial season for his future. The Niners’ QB has only $2.8 million in dead money remaining on his deal after this season; Garoppolo averaged 8.4 yards per attempt for an offense that finished eighth in passing DVOA, but if the passing game lags at all in 2020, Shanahan could survey the landscape and decide that an upgrade is out there. Noted Shanahan flame Kirk Cousins is set to hit free agency after this season.
The return of Saleh and Shanahan’s inner circle on offense is also a positive, but like most teams that make a Super Bowl, some pieces of this staff are moving on. Woods is headed to Cleveland to become the Browns’ defensive coordinator, and that’s a considerable loss for the league’s most surprising unit from 2019. Every Niners defensive back I spoke to last week raved about the influence Woods had on that group. His partnership with Saleh led the Niners to mix up their coverages in a way they hadn’t in years past, and Woods’s work with the secondary allowed each of those guys to play noticeably faster.
Joe Woods isn’t the difference between a Super Bowl appearance and a 9-7 season. Neither is Jimmie Ward, or Arik Armstead, or Joe Staley. Losing one or two more players to injured reserve won’t cost the Niners five games in the wins column. But in totality, these are the reasons that sustaining excellence in the NFL is really damn hard. The Niners say they’ll be back in the Super Bowl next year, and after the season they had, you can’t blame them. But there’s a reason teams rarely pull it off.