Superbowl debate: the 49ers

Jonathan Mong, Sports Contributer

The San Francisco 49ers shocked the football world this season. After going 4-12 and losing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to an injury, thereby finishing with the second-worst record in the NFL in 2018, many analysts had the team winding up under .500 before the season. But, the Niners suddenly began the season on a tear, starting 8-0 and ending up 13-3, with the best record in the National Football Conference (NFC). Here’s why they were so good, and why they will win Super Bowl LIV this Sunday.
Most teams need to send five, six, sometimes up to eight or nine defenders (known as a blitz) to generate pressure on the quarterback. The 49ers only need to send four, because their defensive linemen are so dominant that they can generate blitz pressure without blitzing. This frees up the other seven defenders to do other jobs, such as double-covering a receiver that might be a problem or keeping up near the rushers if the quarterback runs. With their four-man rush, the 49ers were ranked first in the league, allowing the fewest yards per game. While their pass defense was worse than their run defense, both were dominant in almost all the games they played this season. Even if Kansas City’s offense might be the most dynamic one the NFL has ever seen, the Niners’ defense is well-equipped to shut it down by stopping plays before they develop.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan is seen as an offensive genius around the league for his playcalling. The 49ers are able to pass or run on every play, regardless of lineup, formation, or game situation, even when they would normally telegraph a specific play. This is because of their ability to disguise what the play really is until the ball is in the end zone for a touchdown. They also ran the ball so often during this year’s postseason (in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, Garoppolo only attempted eight passes: the Niners ran the ball 42 times, leading to a 37-20 win) that the Chiefs’ poorly ranked (25th out of 32) run defense will be forced to commit to defending the run, allowing Garoppolo to disguise passes as runs and get the ball to his more than capable receivers and running backs for touchdowns.
During the regular season, the 49ers had seven of their sixteen games come down to the final possession or even the final play. For example, in their end-of-season matchup against rival Seattle for the division title, rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw stopped the Seahawks’ go-ahead touchdown mere inches from the goal line with nine seconds left, sealing the win. On both sides of the ball, they have players that keep their heads under stress, and in the Super Bowl, that may mean the difference between winning and losing the championship. For example, Garoppolo and receiver Kendrick Bourne connected on several crucial plays to come from behind throughout the season, and Greenlaw often makes game-saving plays, such as the aforementioned tackle, to preserve slim leads. Star tight end George Kittle runs around, over, and through defenders to prolong plays and gain more yards, even when there’s a guy on his back and another grabbing his facemask. Meanwhile, Shanahan is able to call the right plays and manage the clock to ensure the 49ers come out of drives having scored points.
The 49ers have several players—Garoppolo, receiver Emmanuel Sanders, cornerback Richard Sherman, offensive tackle Joe Staley, and kicker Robbie Gould to name a few—who have already been to the Super Bowl before (although Staley is the only one who has gone with a previous 49er team) and know what it’s like, and they are already passing on wisdom to the team, which is primarily made up of first- and second-year players. For example, the Niners’ receivers were dropping passes and were generally not playing very well early in the season, but after trading for Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Bourne both took great strides in their game, with Samuel becoming a dual rusher/receiver threat and Bourne being Garoppolo’s aforementioned go-to on crucial plays.
The Niners have brought in team legends, such as Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice (all of whom are pro football legends) to mentor the current team. Rice, considered the greatest receiver and possibly greatest player ever, often runs routes with the current team, and passes along what he’s learned to them as well. Additionally, Shanahan brings with him one of football’s offensive legends: his father, Mike. The elder Shanahan, also considered an offensive genius, was the Niners’ offensive coordinator the last time they won the Super Bowl in 1994, designing one of the most prolific offenses in football history. In fact, Young, their quarterback, set so many records that his 1994 season is considered the second greatest QB season of all time, behind only Montana’s 1989 season with the 49ers, which is arguably the greatest single season by a team ever. Shanahan has confirmed to NBC Sports Bay Area that he sends his father practice footage and receives feedback from him, a connection that only the 49ers would have. With so many brilliant football minds in the facility, it is no wonder that the Niners got as far as they did, and it is why they will win on Sunday.