The 49ers have been elite under Kyle Shanahan - during one month of the regular season.
San Francisco improved to 7-1 in December since Shanahan became head coach in 2017 with its 26-23 overtime victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. That statistic seems particularly strange considering the team is 3-13 from September through November.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence or a small sample size creating an abnormal record. Or maybe teams have been taking the 49ers lightly because they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention for the majority of those December games. Or playing games of little consequence has allowed San Francisco’s young roster to play free, easy and with more confidence, leading to better results.
Or maybe it’s more simple than that.
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“You get better the more you play,” Shanahan said Monday.
That would be a logical explanation. The collective bargaining agreement has limited the work teams can do in the spring and summer. December offers a chance at a real rhythm where 11 players can be in sync in ways they might struggle during August training camp, when players and playbooks can be new.
“I think we’ve given guys a lot of opportunities in these two years to play,” Shanahan said. “I don’t think they have gotten it right away, but when you’ve got the right guys and they continue to work at it, I think they naturally get better. I don’t know if that’s the exact reason it’s happened in these two seasons.”
The 49ers have added several young players under Shanahan to set the foundation for their rebuilding project. They’ve given many of those players expanded roles in December and they’ve played at higher levels than they would have been capable of earlier.
It happened in 2017, when youngsters such as safety Adrian Colbert, receiver Trent Taylor, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and wideout Kendrick Bourne took significant steps forward in December. This season, rookie defensive backs D.J. Reed and Marcell Harris have made similar strides, while second-year nose tackle D.J. Jones has been stout and linebacker Elijah Lee has held his own in place of Reuben Foster and Malcolm Smith.
Receiver Dante Pettis is breaking out, averaging 70 yards per game over the last five weeks, including his stretch from Weeks 12-14 when he caught four touchdown passes.
But the group from last season offers a cautionary tale.
Colbert, Taylor and Witherspoon struggled to live up to the expectations created by their promising first seasons for varying reasons that also have to do with injuries. Colbert is on injured reserve with a right high ankle sprain. Taylor has struggled to fully recover from offseason back surgery. Witherspoon battled inconsistency early before coming on, but he’ll end the year on injured reserve after spraining his knee Sunday.
“Even when we took a step in the right direction last year, it doesn’t mean at all that you’ve arrived,” Shanahan said. “You better not ever think you’re close to arriving. You’ve always got to realize that you’re either getting better or worse. We’ve got a long way to go.”
But all that ignores quarterback play, a leading reason for the contrasting record in December to the rest of the calendar.
The 49ers inserted Jimmy Garoppolo in the first week of December last season, and he won all five starts. His production on the field and presence behind the scenes made it easy for San Francisco to dole out a $137.5 million contract to make him the face of the franchise. There’s little doubt the 49ers would have a better record if Garoppolo were not recovering from a September ACL tear.
This year, Nick Mullens is offering a similar effect. San Francisco is 3-3 in his starts, and Mullens is making a strong bid to displace C.J. Beathard as Garoppolo’s primary backup.
Mullens has been better in most metrics. Beathard’s record this season is 0-5. Mullens has the edge in completion percentage (64.5 to 60.4), yards per game (292 to 209), yards per attempt (8.6 to 7.4) and passer rating (96 to 81.8).
Sunday’s win over Seattle (8-6) was the 49ers’ first over a likely playoff team, with the others coming against the Lions (5-9), Raiders (3-11) and Broncos (6-8). Garoppolo last year helped win games against postseason-bound Jacksonville, Tennessee and the Rams, although Los Angeles rested its starters in Week 17.
Mullens has two playoff teams remaining, starting with Sunday’s home finale against the Bears and the NFL’s most formidable defense. Chicago clinched the NFC North title Sunday with a win over the Packers.
The 49ers’ season ends with a road game against the Rams, who will be playing their starters in hopes of landing a first-round bye after dropping consecutive games to the Bears and Eagles.
“We’ve got to get better every single day,” Shanahan said. “You don’t stop thinking that way until you win a Super Bowl. Then, if you stop thinking that way right after that, you’ll never win one again.”