‘Chemistry you can’t force:’ 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on team’s offseason dynamics
The 49ers were one of the most hyped 6-10 teams in recent memory following their 5-0 finish to 2017. After all, newly minted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went undefeated in five starts while the previously 0-9 club knocked off three playoff teams and won three games on the road.
It led to San Francisco getting dubbed as a potential sleeper in 2018, perhaps with a chance to make the jump to playoff contention.
But we all know how the season turned out. The 49ers lost Garoppolo in Week 3 to a left ACL tear, and the team took a step backward with a 4-12 finish and enter the offseason with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft for the second time in three years.
“I saw ’18 as the year we could play,” cornerback Richard Sherman said before listing the team’s injured starters. “I definitely think that 2019 is a chance, another year of experience for all those guys, DeFo (DeForest Buckner) coming off the season he did. (George) Kittle shining like he did. Obviously, (Dante) Pettis was coming on before he got injured. I think it’s going to give us a chance to be really special.”
The hope for coach Kyle Shanahan is the disappointing campaign can offer a learning experience entering his third season. And perhaps 2019 can be the year the 49ers make a jump toward the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
It’s going to take a different approach from Shanahan’s players, who might have coasted into the start of 2018 with a feeling of complacency stemming from their stirring finish in December 2017.
“I feel personally, when I always try to get better, I do that on my own time,” Shanahan said. “It’s on vacation, whether you’re reading something or when you get time to reflect on the stuff you really work out on your own. ... You don’t just show up four months from now and be like, ‘All right, it’s time to get better.’ It’s already too late.”
The good news for San Francisco is young players used 2018 to establish themselves as leaders and tone setters for the rest of the roster.
Kittle, 25, set the NFL’s season record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,377) the same season he was voted a first-time captain. Buckner, 24, had a career-high 12 sacks at defensive tackle. Rookie Mike McGlinchey, 24, had an encouraging first year at right tackle and seems more mature - on and off the field - than his rookie status suggests.
But those developments don’t guarantee anything. There was similar optimism 12 months ago about the play of safety Adrian Colbert, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and 2017 first-round draft pick Reuben Foster, who was cut Nov. 25 following his second arrest for a domestic violence-related incident since joining the NFL. All three failed to live up to the expectations created by their rookie years.
The splashy moves San Francisco made last offseason didn’t bear enough fruit in 2018. Garoppolo started only three games after signing his record-setting five-year, $137.5 million contract. McKinnon didn’t play a down after signing in free agency and becoming one of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL.
Center Weston Richburg was snakebitten by a nagging knee injury suffered in Week 4 against the Chargers and finished the year ranked 45th among 50 centers graded by Pro Football Focus. His $9.5 million average annual salary ranks third at the position.
Only veteran Sherman appeared to be worth the money San Francisco doled out on the open market. However, that lack of success hasn’t caused the 49ers to shy away from being aggressive when the new league year begins March 13.
“I think that’s our nature, when we can improve ourselves as an organization, we won’t hesitate to take that opportunity,” general manager John Lynch said. “... We won’t stop. You can’t score if you don’t shoot so we’ll keep shooting if those opportunities are there.”
That could mean using the club’s $70 million in cap space to lure veterans such as Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, Ravens linebacker C.J. Moseley or Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham, should they hit the open market. The team could use the No. 2 pick to secure a coveted edge rusher they’ve missed since Aldon Smith was cut before the 2015 season.
No matter what the 49ers decide, last offseason proved success is hardly guaranteed. A trip to the playoffs will have to be earned the hard way.