The San Francisco 49ers did it; they made it out of the depths of the NFC West and capped off the 2019 season with a Super Bowl appearance. Despite its loss, a 30-21 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco’s season should still be considered a success.
It doesn’t get much better than turning a 4-12 record in 2018 to 13-3 season with an eight-game win streak to open the year. The 49ers had nearly everything working in their favor as they topped the division for the first time since 2012 and returned to the Super Bowl since losing to the Baltimore Ravens that same year.
Many doubted San Francisco’s ambitions, but the 49ers are not the underdog anymore. In order for them to continue their success, they need to now win a Super Bowl with their current cast. Super Bowl or bust isn’t that extreme when considering who the team is returning. If it wants to keep ascending up the NFL ranks, instead of flatlining like its divisional counterpart a bit further north, San Francisco needs to not only make it back to the coveted annual championship game, but win it.
The Seattle Seahawks were given the same objective, but for different reasons; mainly showing they can win with and around quarterback Russell Wilson. Seattle had back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the second ending disastrously against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 49. During the 2014-15 seasons, the Seahawks had one of, if not, the best defensive units—in 2015, Seattle was just behind the Denver Broncos in yards allowed per game—and Wilson wasn’t even his most productive. This should be a good sign for the NFC West-rival 49ers.
San Francisco can avoid a Super Bowl hangover with its top-end defense and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who can, at the very least, get the job done. We’ve seen teams blunder after reaching the pinnacle of NFL success—the Los Angeles Rams are the most recent—but others, like the Patriots, have rebounded after a Super Bowl loss. The 49ers need to do the same, and it starts with improving what worked so well.
The 49ers defense returns most of its parts. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is back after many assumed he’d be on track for a head coach opening. San Francisco also has Richard Sherman returning as the star of the secondary with Jimmie Ward and Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead up front. The 49ers lost DeForest Buckner via a trade with the Indianapolis Colts but will try and match his efforts with first-round pick Javon Kinlaw; Kinlaw, who was selected with the 14th overall pick, should fit seamlessly into the defensive line. His physical traits and frame will make up for what the 49ers are missing with Buckner while pairing well with the rest of the unit.
There’s also an influx of new, young energy on the offensive side. San Francisco continued to wheel and deal for first-round selection Brandon Aiyuk, a pick it received in the Emmanuel Sanders trade. With a defense full of disruptors, the 49ers need consistent playmakers on offense—aside from star tight end George Kittle.
Some are higher on Garoppolo’s potential than others, but in order for him to work the best within the 49ers’ system—which, when Garoppolo has been healthy, has yielded impressive results—there needs to be more depth. San Francisco needs to improve its receiving corps to, in turn, extend its Super Bowl window. The 49ers have the beginning stages of a great pass-catching room, but when looking at production from anyone not named Kittle or Deebo Samuel, the options are limited.
Samuel is coming off a great rookie season and was the team’s true WR1; his numbers—802 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 53 catches—were behind only Kittle, but a breakout sophomore campaign could possibly be impacted by an offseason injury. He broke his foot in a throwing session and underwent surgery. He’s promised in 10 weeks, he’ll be back and “better than the Deebo you seen before.” There’s no official return date set, but if Samuel’s right, the 49ers will need him, or another receiver, to have a breakout season. San Francisco needs more options for Garoppolo.
The only thing that could really get in the 49ers’ way here is themselves. They’ve already made their division more competitive and had a hold on it for most of last season. The offseason moves have brought in similar, if not better, talent (once developed), and San Francisco brass has a lot of good players to work with; we’ve already seen what it can do when everything is clicking. Kyle Shanahan has now coached two teams that have given up Super Bowl leads and won’t want to hang his hat on that feat. The 49ers are more equipped than the Rams, with their young coach, and the Seahawks, with their Hall of Fame passer, to return to and win a Super Bowl in 2020.