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Chaos Is a Ladder for the 49ers—and Their Skill-Position Stars Keep Them Climbing

So many things that could have gone wrong for San Francisco this season did. And yet the team’s superstar quartet of George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey has this team on an upward trajectory heading into the playoffs—despite being on its third quarterback.

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San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk was in the middle of playing Madden last October when he got some shocking breaking news: His real-life football team had just traded for running back Christian McCaffrey, a 20-something All-Pro versatile skill-position player. McCaffrey joined a roster that already had multiple guys who fit that description—receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle—and Aiyuk couldn’t help but muse, in the moment, that San Francisco’s new talent stack would also thrive in Madden.

Off the field, the 49ers had been aggressive in pursuing McCaffrey, trading four picks to the Carolina Panthers. It wasn’t long before the organization went above and beyond with its new player on the field too.

The following weekend, in the second quarter of their game against the Los Angeles Rams, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo flipped the football to his new teammate, whose dogged knack for surging ahead has placed him in the highest echelon of guys who seek progress for a living. In this case, though, McCaffrey did something unusual: Rather than taking off, he paused. Then, he hurled the ball down the sideline, hitting a streaking Aiyuk for a 34-yard touchdown. “That’s always fun when we put in some wrinkles like that and some fun plays,” Aiyuk, 24, told The Ringer in the first week of December. “Especially when they’re going to you. That’s even more fun.” The Niners won that game 31-14—with McCaffrey also picking up receiving and rushing touchdowns along the way, bopping around the field as if he were inside a Super Mario Party minigame—and they haven’t lost since.

“It just feels like a party out there, honestly,” Kittle told The Ringer, describing what it’s like to be in an environment where anything can happen and seemingly everything has. San Francisco enters the playoffs amid a 10-game winning streak that has encompassed the elevation of a visit to Mexico City and the elation of overtime in Las Vegas. The stretch, which brought the team to a 13-4 record and the no. 2 seed in the NFC, has lasted through major injuries and impressive comebacks. It has been carried by second- and now third-string quarterbacks, bolstered by trick plays and back-to-basics calls, and managed by a killer defense and a confident coach in 43-year-old Kyle Shanahan.

This Niners’ season has boosted the profile of Aiyuk, justified the hype of McCaffrey, and introduced the world to the increasingly relevant Brock Purdy, the quarterback who was taken dead last in April’s draft. It has demonstrated the importance of not only stars like Samuel and Kittle, but players like Jauan Jennings and Kyle Juszczyk. It has underscored the depth of the Niners offense and hinted at the team’s potential heights. From the front office to the playbook, San Francisco has optimized versatility and favored receivers with wheels, runners with touch, and leaders with a chill countenance. “When the vibes are high,” Kittle said, “this team rolls.”

But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about San Francisco this year is that the team has kept rolling, even when the opposite was true.

It was spitting rain a week after Thanksgiving at the Niners practice facility, a space adjacent to their home field, Levi’s Stadium, and much closer geographically to where the San Jose Sharks play than where the San Francisco Giants do. The chilly downpour dampened neither the sounds of nearby jackhammering on a construction site nor the notes of “It’s Raining Men” playing over the public-address system on the field. Garoppolo, in a black jersey and a gold helmet, quarterback-shimmied to the song, a quality hip-opener, and tossed some brisk balls to Aiyuk. Off to one side, Kittle practiced handling the football while being smacked by coaching assistants wielding various padded prods and shields, one of which kind of resembled the hot-dog fingers from Everything Everywhere All at Once.

After practice, Garoppolo spoke to the press, an availability that had become both routine and familiar—but one that wasn’t really expected to happen this season. Trey Lance, a former no. 3 overall pick entering his second year, had originally been tapped as QB1 for 2022. The Niners and Garoppolo sought a trade partner in the offseason; one possible deal with the Washington Commanders reportedly fell through, and Garoppolo ultimately agreed to restructure his contract and stay with the team. But in Week 2, Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury, and Garoppolo once again took the reins of the offense.

With the Niners a few days away from hosting the Miami Dolphins on December 4, Garoppolo was asked if he’d ever had offseason discussions with Miami about reuniting with head coach Mike McDaniel, his former offensive coordinator in San Francisco. “They were in the conversation,” he said. “Not much came from it, but they were definitely one of the teams in the conversation. It seemed like a good spot.” As part of a question about the merits of grass over artificial turf, he was asked about the state of his knee, which was surgically repaired in 2018: “Feels great,” he said. He was also asked about his backup, Brock Purdy, the 23-year-old selected by the Niners with the 262nd and final pick in the seventh round of last year’s draft.

“Brock’s come a long way,” Garoppolo said. “A lot of these rookies have. But Brock takes it very seriously. Tip of the hat for that. You know, it’s tough to come in as a rookie and be no. 2.” Purdy had, he said, “earned the respect of the locker room, just as a no. 2 should.”

But not long into the Week 13 game, Garoppolo himself went down for the rest of the regular season after suffering a foot injury. The Niners put in Purdy, a nice young man whose biggest distinction up until that point had been the “Mr. Irrelevant” moniker that’s annually bestowed upon the very last pick in the NFL draft. (These days, Purdy’s biggest distinction is a tie between “undefeated rookie QB” and this photo.) One assistant coach’s bewildered “Brock at quarterback?” reaction to Purdy getting the nod, captured by NFL Films, remains a fitting snapshot of the general mood in the Bay Area at the time: stunned, confused, and overall concerned about what losing the man who’d brought the team to the NFC championship game just the year before would mean for the Niners’ Super Bowl hopes.

But San Francisco took a 10-7 lead on Purdy’s first drive, then extended it. The rookie threw two touchdown passes and one interception. McCaffrey chipped in on 82 percent of all offensive snaps; he was thrown or handed the football 27 times. The Niners, through the chaos, pulled out the win, their fifth straight at the time.

After the game, Shanahan told reporters that Garoppolo’s injury meant the likely end of his season. Linebacker Nick Bosa, who had just returned from an injury himself, reflected on his teammate’s long road ahead. “It’s a lonely path whether you have support around you or not,” Bosa said. “You’re not going to be with the team every week; you’re going to be off rehabbing.”

In the locker room, the pep of victory was cut with the tension of the unknown. I asked Samuel whether adding a player like McCaffrey to the roster made for a safety net, so to speak, during situations in which a team’s quarterback goes down. Samuel didn’t care for my choice of words. “Safety net?!” he said, twice. Later, I thought about how I might have phrased it differently. Maybe that safety net was actually a trampoline, capable not just of absorbing falls, but of turning them into upward momentum. Maybe it was one of those mesh Wi-Fi networks with a whole bunch of nodes that all have each other’s backs, delivering a clear signal through the noise. To be sure, neither of these would have been received any better in a locker room scrum, but they would feel more dynamic at least—which means they would feel a little closer to San Francisco’s vivid reality.

Or maybe Samuel reacted that way because he and his fellow star skill players had been providing a safety net for years. Even two seasons ago, you could buy 49ers merch that said “YAC Bros.,” a reference to the triumvirate of Samuel, Kittle, and Aiyuk and their keen abilities to get the ball and go off. That kind of offense—reliant less on the quarterback than the playmakers around him—became the team’s hallmark, and its imprint on San Francisco’s psyche almost certainly helped both Purdy and McCaffrey acclimate to their roles this season. Purdy didn’t have to step in and immediately gunsling; he had lots of elite options hovering nearby, ready, willing, and able to assist. McCaffrey could serve as a stylistic complement to his fellow Pro Bowlers, the “wingback” Samuel and whimsical Kittle, while also helping stymie teams that had started to cotton on to their style.

“A lot of the routes Deebo and I like, those 10-yard in-breaking routes, they’ve been pretty much taken away,” Kittle told reporters in early December. “Not taken away, but that’s what teams focus on. When you put Christian underneath that, the linebackers can’t just sit in that window. They have to come up and attack Christian, which leaves us a little more room.” Even after two quarterback changes this season, the Niners remain second in yards after the catch per reception. They have players capable of expanding the boundaries of what specific skill positions are supposed to be doing and a coaching staff that still seeks to color outside the lines.

“I mean, we had [left tackle] Trent Williams motioning last year in the playoffs,” Kittle told The Ringer. “Just to have guys that are willing to do all that stuff, it’s like, Hey, Deebo, we need you to run the ball even though you’re a wide receiver, and he’s like, Oh yeah, give me the rock. You just love to play with guys like that.”

McCaffrey is that kind of athlete too; though he has often been described as part of a new wave of “positionless” players over the course of his career, he feels more omnipositional, capable of it all. In his 11 games with the Niners, he has rushed for 746 yards and caught for an additional 464. And even though he’s a relative newcomer to the team, he’s already turned into a connector. When he hauled in a 27-yard pass from Purdy in the quarterback’s first NFL start, against Tampa Bay, the crowd at Levi’s Stadium chanted Purdy’s name. He’s been seen giggling next to Jimmy G. and Kittle at a Warriors game. And he banters with Kittle most days in the locker room, where the two sit next to each other. “I should write a book,” McCaffrey said, joking about the big personality next door. “He’s a special guy to be around. And, you know, his energy is definitely contagious, and he works his ass off.”

Everyone has a remark about Kittle, probably because he’s the kind of guy who always has a remark about everyone else. The tight end was drafted in 2017, the first year of the Shanahan administration, and I asked the Niners coach what he remembered about Kittle at the time. “When he first got here, it was funny because we’d turn on our film and show cut-ups, and he had absolutely no swag,” Shanahan said. “His hair didn’t show out of his helmet, the way he wore his socks, his wristbands, his gloves—[no.] 85 just didn’t look quite the same.” He added: “He’s always upbeat; he’s always the same, probably the most positive guy we have on our team. I get on him for that sometimes—not everything is perfect—but that’s how he lives his life, and that’s why everyone likes having him around.”

After Samuel went down in a game against Tampa Bay with a high-ankle sprain that looked season-ending but somehow was not, Kittle, a YAC bro, stepped up. In his first 11 games this season, Kittle scored four touchdowns total. In the three games Samuel missed, he recorded five. (Kittle added another two scores last weekend in Samuel’s return against Arizona.) Not everything is perfect, as Shanahan pointed out, but when things go imperfectly, it helps to have someone like Kittle around.

It also helps to have reliably elite contributions across the line of scrimmage. San Francisco’s defense this season allowed fewer points and yardage per game than anyone else in the league and featured Bosa, the NFL sack leader. On the other side of the ball, Juszczyk, a 31-year-old seven-time Pro Bowl fullback, said he was a “sneaky tier” player in this offense. “I have all the confidence in the world in myself,” he told The Ringer, “but I understand that defenses are going to look out there. They’re going to see Deebo Samuel; they’ll see Christian McCaffrey. George Kittle. Brandon Aiyuk. Elijah Mitchell. I’m the least of their worries, and that can play into my hands.” (This past Wednesday, Juszczyk was voted an All-Pro by his peers.)

Aiyuk, sitting nearby, echoed the sentiments. “You just look around,” he said, sweeping his hand out. “Like, right here, we got Jauan [Jennings] here! You look around the room, all the people we got here, the tight-end room, the running-back room—all the guys are just cool, quality guys.” Aiyuk worked extensively with Lance in the offseason to improve their timing and chemistry, not expecting he’d instead finish the season having caught a career-high eight touchdown passes from one, two, three different guys. The only top skill player on the Niners offense to play all 17 games for San Francisco this year, Aiyuk hit the 1,000-yard mark for the season, an achievement that included a nine-catch, 101-yard Week 17 showing that McCaffrey described as “beast mode.”

When I asked Aiyuk, who for a time in college was being considered for a cornerback role rather than receiver, what his mindset might be if he were lining up against the Niners, his answer showed that he, too, had all the confidence in the world in his abilities. “If I was playing corner?” he said with a smirk. “It would be real ugly for them, real bad for anybody who I’m lined up against.” Next to him, Jennings yelled “Yo, broooo!” and cackled at the nerve.

The Seahawks certainly hope they can muster that resolve against the Niners in their wild-card matchup Saturday afternoon. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went out of his way to praise and publicly fear the Niners earlier this week, laying it on thick during a conversation with a Seattle radio station in a way that was both understandable and suspicious. His comments about SF included, “They’re frickin’ on fire,” “It’s a freakin’ juggernaut we’re going into,” and “It’s as hard [a matchup] as it can possibly get.”

A pretty sound strategy, to be honest: On the one hand, it’s been a while since San Francisco has played a true contender or finagled its way out of late-game peril. (Only four of the teams the Niners faced this year finished the season with winning records, and Purdy has only had one appearance, against the Raiders on January 1, during which he trailed in the second half of the game.) On the other hand, given all the team’s personnel setbacks this season, it’s hard to accuse the Niners of not having faced or beaten back some adversity. On the one hand, the Niners have already defeated Seattle twice this season by a cumulative score of 48-20. On the other hand, it’s not easy to beat the same divisional rival thrice in the span of five months! (Also, Geno Smith contains multitudes.)

But each time San Francisco has faced the Seahawks this season, it has been a markedly different version of the Niners team. The first time they played, in Week 2, Lance was a starting quarterback and the future of the franchise. (By the end of that game’s first quarter, he was out for the season.) McCaffrey was a Carolina Panther. Jimmy G. was in; Kittle, battling a groin injury, was not. By their second contest, in the middle of December, Purdy was leading the offense, Samuel was idle with a high-ankle sprain, and Kittle and McCaffrey were taking turns celebrating in the end zone.

Second-year player Mitchell, who missed 12 games this fall due to knee injuries, wasn’t on the active roster for either of the previous Seattle matchups but will be this weekend. (In his return against the Cardinals last Sunday, he finished with two touchdowns.) And he wasn’t the only Niner to be back on the field sooner than once thought: Samuel suited up and played too, an outcome that seemed unlikely just a month ago.

Then again, a lot of things have seemed unlikely for San Francisco this season. Getting through the Lance injury; getting through the Garoppolo injury; going on a 10-0 run, with six of those wins being orchestrated by Mr. Irrelevant. You would think going into the first playoffs of his career and with high expectations returning to this team—especially considering the competition it’ll face in the NFC—that Purdy would seem nervous, tentative, or awestruck. But the man whom Bill Romanowski recently opined has “got some Joe Montana in him” sounded downright placid when speaking to the media on Sunday.

“I’ve got so many playmakers around me,” he said, “I feel like I don’t have the weight of the world on my shoulders to make something up. Kyle calls a great game plan. I just go through my progression, throw checkdowns to guys like Christian and Deebo, and they make guys miss. I’ve just got to distribute it to guys, and they come up with all the yards.”

The way he describes it, it practically sounds like a game.

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