The 49ers are beginning the most pivotal season of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s tenure.
The coach and general manager had three full offseasons to reconstruct the 2-14 roster they inherited and set the foundation for a return to winning. They have their franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and added much-needed reinforcements to bolster the pass rush in Dee Ford and Nick Bosa.
With the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just days away, let’s look at five things that have to happen for San Francisco to return to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Ride the Garoppolo time machine
The 49ers had six losses of eight points or fewer in 2018, with five coming after Garoppolo went down with his ACL tear Week 3 against the Chiefs. They went 2-6 in one-possession games overall.
They’ll need Garoppolo to play like he did when he first joined the team in 2017 as the rising tide that lifted all boats during his 5-0 run as the starter. Garoppolo helped San Francisco become the first team in history to finish 6-10 after starting 1-10. He did it with a roster that was in the earliest stages of its rebuild leading to sky-high expectations entering last season – before the injury.
Is it possible for Garoppolo to regain that form?
It will be tough in his first season back with a bulky brace on his front knee that’s exposed to defenders. Garoppolo ranked first in the NFL by averaging 8.44 yards per pass attempt in those 2017 starts. That number dipped slightly to 8.1 yards in his three games last year while his completion percentage fell to 59.6 percent from 67.4.
Garoppolo looked mostly like himself early in training camp, save for the now-infamous five-interception practice which came the same week as his skittish preseason debut. He followed up that 0.0 quarterback rating game in Denver with a much more promising 14-of-22, 188-yard, one-touchdown, no-interception performance in the third exhibition game in Kansas City, the same place where he sustained his knee injury.
But the regular season is an entirely different animal. And Garoppolo is still looking to finish his first full season as the starter. The 49ers will need a Pro Bowl-caliber season from their $137.5 million quarterback to stay in the playoff mix.
Get more takeaways
Takeaways can be a fluky stat. They felt impossible to come by last season when the 49ers set a new NFL record in futility with just seven.
Or they can come in bunches. Jim Harbaugh famously equated takeaways to an olive jar, noting olives can be so tightly packed you can turn over the jar and get nothing. Once you get one, they all come pouring out.
San Francisco is hoping the pendulum swings the other direction when it comes to taking the ball away from opposing offenses. Facilitating that should be an improved pass rush led by DeForest Buckner up the middle complemented by Bosa and Ford on the outside, who provide sizable upgrades over arguably the league’s worst group of edge defenders last season.
They also signed linebacker Kwon Alexander, who had six interceptions, six forced fumbles and 22 pass breakups in his four seasons. He takes the spot vacated by Reuben Foster’s release last November.
The 49ers have been .500 five times over the past 10 years. They’ve averaged 31 takeaways in those seasons. That number falls to 16.2 during their losing campaigns. Getting two takeaways a game for Shanahan’s offense could go a long way toward making a playoff push.
Avoid the training table
The 49ers spent the offseason and summer being ultra-conservative with injured players. They overhauled their training and medical staffs by hiring a head of player health and performance, Ben Peterson, to combine the two areas that were separate in previous seasons. The goal was to create synergy after dealing with disconnects between the medical and strength/conditioning sides.
The early returns: the roster is mostly healthy entering the regular season. Running back Jerick McKinnon is the only projected starter out with a season-ending injury because his surgically repaired knee needed another procedure after returning to practice last month. It marks the second straight season McKinnon will miss because of his right knee. Reserve tackle Shon Coleman was lost in the exhibition opener suffering a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle.
Otherwise, receivers Trent Taylor (foot) and Jalen Hurd (back stiffness) and cornerbacks Jason Verrett (ankle sprain) and K’Waun Williams (knee) are the only players that could be out Week 1. None of their absences are expected to linger beyond the Week 4 bye.
Bosa (ankle) returned to practice this week and was optimistic about playing in the opener. Same for Ford, who sat out the entire preseason to get treatment on knee tendinitis, which has been a recurring issue for him. He dealt with it last season with the Chiefs and played 1,022 snaps over all 16 games.
The 49ers used injured reserve 23 times in 2018 (the third most in the NFL) and 25 times in 2017 (the fourth most), according to Spotrac. The team’s best shot at playing in January is getting 16 games from its most important players.
New stars rise
The NFL often revolves around star power – unless Bill Belichick is your head coach.
The 49ers have a few stars in Garoppolo (potentially), tight end George Kittle, cornerback Richard Sherman, left tackle Joe Staley and DeForest Buckner, who has quietly been one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL since entering the league in 2016.
But they need more.
San Francisco’s roster is mostly young and unestablished. Players like Bosa, linebacker Fred Warner, receiver Dante Pettis, running back Matt Breida, right tackle Mike McGlinchey and rookie receiver Deebo Samuel have possible stardom in their futures. Shanahan needs them to take meaningful steps toward it in 2019.
Kedrick Bourne led 49ers receivers with 487 yards last season. Kittle had just five receiving touchdowns. Aside from Buckner, no 49er had more than 5.5 sacks. Breida led the team with just three rushing scores.
San Francisco badly needs improvements in those categories to get back to contention. They’ll need far more star-caliber seasons to get there.
Levi’s Stadium is known for its patches of empty seats, sterile atmosphere and sun-scorched fans in the east grandstand. It’s not considered a difficult place for opponents to play.
That’s largely because the 49ers haven’t been good since moving from Candlestick Park in 2014. The team has a 16-24 record at home in five seasons since the new venue opened. It’s been particularly difficult to generate momentum with four different coaches over the same stretch.
The 49ers went 8-8 in Levi’s first season. They’re 17-47 in the campaigns since.
So it’s time for the 49ers to create a home-field advantage by being good and winning games in front of their home crowd. After all, San Francisco’s fan base is one of the largest and most passionate in the league. The franchise still has equity after all the winning in the 80s, 90s and briefly during Harbaugh’s run earlier this decade. The television numbers reflect that even during the losing seasons.
The 49ers open the schedule with a pair of road games and then host the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, who are both entering the season with playoff expectations. They’ll also welcome the Panthers, Seahawks, Packers, Falcons and Rams, who all figure to be in the postseason mix.
Taking care of business at home, against quality opponents, is what good teams do. And it’s the only way the 49ers can create the atmosphere they’re looking for at Levi’s Stadium.