If you look at the NFL since 2000, you see a huge dynamic with teams in the AFC and the NFC. The AFC has sent the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Broncos, and Ravens a combined total of 18 times (out of 20-the other two teams being the Raiders and Chiefs. 7 out of 16 AFC teams in other words. The NFC? Only the Lions (never have been), Vikings (1976) Redskins (1991), and Cowboys (1995) have not made it onto Super Bowl Sunday since the new millennium. Meaning 12 out of 16 teams have seen a Super Bowl appearance.
If we narrow it down to the past 6 years, 6 different teams in the NFC (Seahawks, Panthers, Falcons, Eagles, Rams, and 49ers) have played in the Super Bowl to only 3 (Patriots, Broncos, Chiefs). Granted we can really take away it has been the Patriots Era in this time period which may alter the numbers, but even the teams mentioned, there has been a consistency in places like Denver, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore to keep those teams competitive in this time period.
But turning to the NFC a bit, the last 5 teams to make the Super Bowl prior to the San Francisco 49ers have often fallen off compared to the year before. The Seahawks have been for the most part the most consistent of the bunch, seeing the playoffs 5 of the last 6 years and making it in the divisional round 4 of those 5 times (but not to the NFC Championship). The Panthers have missed the playoffs 3 of the 4 years since their Super Bowl and were bounced out in the Wild Card round. The Falcons made the playoffs the year after their run and made it to the Divisional round but haven’t made it back. The Eagles have made the playoffs each year but nothing close to dominant in their Super Bowl run. The Rams failed to make the playoffs the year after.
Oddly, Seattle aside, the teams represented somewhat came out of nowhere as they were either an under .500 team the year before (Panthers & 49ers), failed to make the playoffs (Falcons, Eagles) or was inept in their playoff appearance (Rams).
The 49ers won the NFC last year and for three quarters were rolling in the Super Bowl. Then imploded in dramatic fashion. A game like that often when you were expected to win leaves a huge scar for the franchise.
So what do the 49ers do to move forward?
First and foremost, they have to put it behind them. But it is easier said than done. The Panthers while they didn’t blow a lead n the Super Bowl had many people tout them to roll over Denver with MVP Cam Newton. Instead the Broncos frustrated Cam and the Panthers lost. Cam’s attitude and behavior after that game changed Carolina’s dynamic the next season. Atlanta’s Super Bowl story is well written and I honestly think it’s a ghost on the Falcons shoulder to this day, which is why they haven’t gotten back to that level despite all that talent they have. The Rams haven’t recovered, notably on the offensive side. So first step is a big step and that is to forget.
So what are the factors that really will decide if San Francisco moves forward in 2020?
KYLE SHANAHAN: Shanahan’s connection with one of the other NFC teams has been linked and back in the forefront as he was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons. Many in Atlanta blame him for his offensive strategy late in the Super Bowl and allowing the Patriots to get the ball back more often than they should. Shanahan in the prior 3 quarters did what got the 49ers to the Super Bowl and that was run the ball and effectively with Raheem Mostert and finding ways to get the ball to Deebo Samuel. 4th quarter comes? Shanahan goes into pass mode. Shanahan calls passing plays and also taking it out of Mostert’s hands. Up 20-17 with six minutes left, Mostert gets a 5 yard gain to star the drive. Then two incomplete passes later a punt. Then Kansas City scores in no time and that was really it. So in two Super Bowls where Shanahan was the coach or coordinator, the 4th quarters he has scored no points while the opponents have scored 40. Now the question begs, will Shanahan really learn from these games? If he does, then San Francisco should be fine moving forward. If he doesn’t, people will wonder if he is that guy to get the 49ers to tie for that 6th Lombardi Trophy with New England and Pittsburgh and it will haunt the 49ers.
JIMMY GAROPPOLO: Garoppolo’s story is an interesting one with him supposedly being Tom Brady’s heir apparent in New England. Obviously it didn’t pan out like that and Garoppolo was shipped to the 49ers where he did well when he arrived and then 2018 happened and was injured. He came back in 2019 and played more than admirably as the starting QB. However, it seemed like he was transformed into a game manager especially in the playoffs against the Vikings and Packers and passed when absolutely needed. It worked against Minnesota and Green Bay. In the Super Bowl, maybe Shanahan wanted to show Jimmy G was a true franchise quarterback and opened it up when he thought it was the best time to do so, but Garoppolo didn’t step up in this case. Of course, unfounded rumors after the Super Bowl had the 49ers exiting Garoppolo for Tom Brady which was a bit insane but he is also under the scope of having to be a guy that when needed can win with his arm. It will help he will have Deebo Samuel who is becoming a star in his own right and still has one of the best tight ends in the game in George Kittle. They lost Emmanuel Sanders to New Orleans and will be replaced by Travis Benjamin while he has a strong receiving back in Tevin Coleman. So he has weapons. But if the 49ers have to rely on his arm and he doesn’t get the needed results, then questions are abound in the Bay with Jimmy G.
JAVON KINLAW: Kinlaw to me was a sleeper in this NFL Draft. He can be a force in the middle of that line that features Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. But he is also replacing DeForest Buckner who played out of his mind in January and again in the Super Bowl. Not an easy task. If Kinlaw comes close to Buckner’s play, the 49ers don’t miss a beat at all up front. And that is huge given the 49ers have to deal with Murray and Wilson 4 times this season (not to mention Aaron Rodgers & Dak Prescott while still seeing Drew Brees).
RICHARD SHERMAN: I’ve been a big Richard Sherman fan since his days in Seattle. I like his attitude and how he has played. However, Sherman has been often thrown under the scope because, well, Richard Sherman. He had an amazing year in 2019 with the 49ers. But he’s 32 years old and he’s not the same defender as he was in Seattle. He is definitely a good corner, but last year’s playoff run even really in the NFC Championship Game when he got burned by Davante Adams and then again in the Super Bowl by Sammy Watkins and missed a key tackle late on Damien Williams. The good news with Sherman is if he ever gets beat or anything he is one that shrugs it off and continues playing his game. But if age continues to show and given he will see the likes of DeAndre Hopkins twice, Michael Thomas, Amari Cooper, and Adams it may be a tough situation out there which means that defensive line needs to fly faster to get to those quarterbacks.
NFC WEST: This is one where the 49ers cannot control. We know Seattle figures to be in contention for the division crown. Because, Seattle. The Rams nobody will know what happens with them (could be very good or very bad) and the team many are thinking sleeper is Arizona. Kyler Murray showed promise and now he has a major target in Hopkins while Kenyan Drake changed the whole dynamic after being traded from Miami and the Cards revamped their linebacking corps of DeVondre Campbell, Devon Kennard, and Isaiah Simmons. If those teams are super competitive the 49ers really need to take care of business.
I don’t know if San Francisco repeats 2019 again of getting back to the Super Bowl. A loss like that in the big game is hard to come back over. Questions will have to be answered this season that will decide the 49ers fate in 2020. But if they have the right answers, they can end the string of a different team each year.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat