How the 49ers Climbed To The Top of the NFC

Photo: © Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

From "The Catch" to the glory days of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, the San Francisco 49ers are a franchise known for their storied history. It's a team that has been loaded with star power since the beginning of its existence in 1946.

An ownership change in the early 2000s from Eddie Bartolo to the York family was thought to infuse plenty of energy back into the franchise, but following the official transition just after the 2002 season, the team suffered a drought from 2003-10 that brought seven losing seasons and one 8-8 finish (2009).

A running mill of Dennis Erikson, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary and Mike Singletary were the running list of names that proved to not be long-term answers. It wasn't until the hiring of Jim Harbaugh that provided a well needed spark to the franchise. His whirlwind of a tenure from 2011-2014 brought many highs, but also many lows that included a heartbreaking 34-31 defeat in Super Bowl XLVII at the hands Baltimore Ravens.

After reaching the NFC Championship game the following season, the Harbaugh era came to an end as the team sputtered to an 8-8 record the following season and then quickly saw their head coach exit to his alma mater at Michigan.

An ugly departure from both sides left a sour taste in the mouths of many, but little did anyone know, it would be the beginning of an egregious two-year run for the organization.

Two consecutive one-and-done head coach hirings in Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly brought a combined 7-25 record — the worst stretch for the team since the 2004-05 seasons (6-26). The new low brought a sense of urgency, something had to be done to establish continuity. A franchise once known for its rich history had now become the laughing stock of the entire league, but an out of the box thought and hiring proved to be its saving grace.

After interviewing well-experienced names such as George Paton and Terry McDonough, the team opted to go in a different direction. This time with a notable name on the field, but one with no prior experience in the front office. John Lynch, a 15-year NFL veteran, played safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos, but there wasn't anyone who had an inkling of his desire to be a general manager.

But he took a liking to it. Lynch immediately went to work to make his first pivotal decision: a head coach. For a team that had experienced so much turmoil in years past, this was one of the biggest decisions of Lynch's tenure.

One wrong decision and Lynch’s creditability could have been tarnished. But under a microscope, he made a home-run hire in former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The fit and logic behind bringing Shanahan made plenty of sense, but still, when hiring younger coaches, there's still more paramount imaginary risk behind it in the eyes of the football world.

The Franchise Changers

Jimmy Garoppolo Trade

By far the biggest move that the franchise has made during the Lynch-Shanahan tenure was acquiring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots in exchange for a 2018 second-round pick. Garoppolo, only 25 years old at the time of the trade, had started in only two of 17 career games. During that span, he completed 63-of-94 passes for 690 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Garoppolo stamped his status as the player who was given the keys to lead the franchise going forward. Fast forward, he has since signed a five-year, $137.5-million extension and engineered the team to a 22-4 record in games he has started.

Drafting Well

The team’s 2017 draft class came with plenty of talent. Lynch selected defensive lineman Solomon Thomas with the third-overall pick and then trading up to the 31st-overall selection to grab linebacker Reuben Foster. Little did anyone know that the best player from that draft class wouldn't come until the fifth round: tight end George Kittle.

The former late-round selection has done is establish himself as arguably the most versatile weapon in all of the NFL. The picks in this class helped boost a rebuild and included Akhello Witherspoon who has since emerged to become a starter.

The 2018 class brought much of the same with offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey and Fred Warner, who are foundational building blocks for the future. The former BYU linebacker has seen a steep increase in his development and has become the identity of one of the best units in the entire league.

The 2019 group is already off to a fast start with Nick Bosa in line to become the latest Defensive Rookie of the Year; and after coaching Deebo Samuel at the Reese's Senior Bowl, the franchise selected Samuel with the 36th-overall pick in the second round. Drafting all of these promising pieces has helped replenish the talent on the roster for one that was once known for being very slim.

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Founder of Former QB and Coach at North Carolina Central Univ.