There was arguably no team as excited for their season to come to an end than the San Francisco 49ers, who in the final weeks of the 2020 season were relocated to Arizona in an effort to finish out their year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
By the time the 49ers settled into a hotel for the final three weeks of the regular season, they were 5-8 with two consecutive losses and on the outside of the playoff picture looking it. The Super Bowl curse hit this team—hard.
“It’s been different, but I think it’s been different for the whole league,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said after Week 14’s loss; it was that 23-15 defeat to the Washington Football Team that was a stark reminder of just how far the 49ers had fallen. “So, I’m not sitting here trying to throw a pity party. It’s been different for everybody, but it’s a combination of things that have been a little bit unusual, but I also know when you have no chance and we can play a lot better than we did today.”
The one big problem was San Francisco never really played better. The 49ers finished their final three games 2-1, returned to the bottom of the NFC West (with a 6-10 record), and left us wondering, “What exactly happened to the team that made it all the way to the Super Bowl last season?”
There’s one big, obvious reason for San Francisco’s painful fall, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Injuries Decimated 49ers’ Roster
Let’s first address the elephant in the room.
The 49ers were completely dismantled by injuries that severely hampered their production this season. San Francisco ended the year with a league-high 19 players on the injured reserve list, according to Spotrac. While the 49ers could field their own team based on the number of players currently on IR, what’s more shocking is their disturbingly high number of total players who spent time on IR. San Francisco placed 54 players on the IR list this season; this was five more than the next highest team, the Baltimore Ravens (49), and amounted to a whopping 38.45% of the team’s salary cap.
The team’s injured players included leading pass-catcher, tight end George Kittle; quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo; and a number of key defensive players, including pass rushers Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas, and Nick Bosa. Injuries are bound to happen, but injuries at this rate, up and down the roster, and to players of that caliber, are nearly impossible to account for. It’s not the only reason things went awry, but it’s certainly the biggest, most uncontrollable factor.
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan Regressed
Things haven’t quite worked out under Shanahan. Yes, he was able to take the team from a lowly four-win season to face through a competitive NFC to the Super Bowl; but Shanahan hasn’t been able to sustain that success. There are layered problems that, despite that one successful season, follow Shanahan; from game management (another botched Super Bowl performance) to player evaluation (highlighted by top draft picks in 2017-18 that haven’t panned out) to player development (Garoppolo), Shanahan’s luster has worn off.
The team’s regression goes beyond it being hampered with injuries. Shanahan could have taken the challenge in stride but instead, the offense became stagnant and prone to error. Turnovers were a problem for the 49ers, but turnovers have been a bigger problem under Shanahan; in each season under Shanahan, San Francisco has committed at least 23 turnovers. It might not be as obvious, especially with injuries being a common theme throughout his (and Garoppolo’s) tenure, but from week to week, there have been plenty of times where Shanahan has failed to exploit opponents’ woes, which make his more visible. This was more notable in San Francisco’s inability to beat the Seattle Seahawks before their defense saved their season.
Despite all of the injuries, the defense was somehow still one of the better units across the board; this is, no doubt, thanks to the brilliance of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who remains a sought-after head coaching candidate. When you look at the leader of the offense, however, you might want to avert your eyes.
Garoppolo shoulders a lot of the blame (and he should); in moments when the 49ers needed a quarterback to push them to victory, he came up short. Garoppolo, however, mostly works in the 49ers system when he’s healthy. The barrage of injuries that have plagued his career is an indicator that it’s time for San Francisco to move on.
This team will have to search for their franchise passer. In Garoppolo’s absence, neither Nick Mullens nor C.J. Beathard were adequate replacements. The offense was able to remain a middling unit, but ball security was exacerbated by the quarterback carousel with Mullens throwing as many interceptions (12) as he did touchdowns.
The 49ers need to move on from the oft-injured Garoppolo, even if he does fit in their system. Without a clear replacement already on the roster, San Francisco will need to look to the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft or the free-agent market for a short-term solution while it searches for a long-term answer.
Each of the 49ers’ biggest culprits have been outlined, but who (or what) owns the greatest claim of credit for San Francisco’s disappointing 2020 season? In order of most to least blame:
- The ongoing quarterback woes leave much to be desired.
- Shanahan has regressed in his coaching tenure, more so than the team itself.
- The 49ers were completely decimated by injuries.