Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the 49ers, a year removed from their Super Bowl season. Marred by injury, the 49ers could not overcome a roster that was simply shredded early in the year.
1. What went right this year?
There were still moments of immense brilliance from Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers this year, despite fielding a roster that simply wasn’t healthy enough to compete in the uber-talented NFC West. That said, what was left should have solidified belief that this offense has staying power moving forward. The 49ers still beat the Rams twice this year and blew out the Patriots. Rookie Brandon Aiyuk looks like the real deal at wide receiver and could finish the season just below the 1,000-yard threshold with at least five touchdowns to boot. Imagine an offense next year that includes a healthy Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle.
2. What went wrong this year?
Not to belabor the point, but let’s take a look at a sampling of the team’s injured reserve list, which is basically a third of a Pro Bowl roster:
• Solomon Thomas
• Dee Ford
• Richard Sherman
• Nick Bosa
• George Kittle (who is returning for Week 16)
• Jimmy Garoppolo
• Raheem Mostert
• Ben Garland
• Jaquiski Tartt
• Weston Richburg
The nice thing about the Shanahan regime has been the patience with which ownership seems to operate, understanding that the wins will come (and have come). There was little pressure on the 49ers to do something ridiculous or inefficient from a cost perspective this year to make up for all the injuries.
3. The Big Question this offseason
Is Garoppolo the team’s long-term answer at quarterback? Shanahan has the offseason to explore that space, not to mention a theoretical cattle call of veterans who would gleefully leave their teams behind to play in that offense. Though Matt Ryan’s contract is largely immovable, we can think that level of grandiose as teams plot their near futures and decide who might be worth holding onto. The 49ers could also wind up with a top-10 pick, giving them the enticing option of buying in for one more year of Garoppolo while they groom his successor for a mid-year takeover. While the 49ers will not get Trevor Lawrence, a rookie will have a generous leg up toward success if brought up under Shanahan. He could have the option of risking more on a toolsy quarterback than hedging on the “sure thing.”
4. Coach/GM outlook
Shanahan and John Lynch aren’t going anywhere, though some of their assistants might. Be on the lookout for teams to raid the 49ers now that they are out of the playoffs.
5. Key free agents
• Trent Williams, tackle
• Richard Sherman, cornerback
• Jaquiski Tartt, safety
• Kyle Juszczyk, fullback/hybrid back
• Robbie Gould, kicker
• K’Waun Williams, cornerback
• Solomon Thomas, defensive end
• Tevin Coleman, running back
• Ben Garland, center
• Kerry Hyder, defensive end
• Jordan Reed, tight end
• Jason Verrett, cornerback
• C.J. Beathard, quarterback
• Nick Mullens, quarterback
6. Top priority
Establish the leader of the offense moving forward. We can say what our eyes told us about Garoppolo in the postseason back in 2019, but what does Shanahan think about the future moving forward? With a more navigable offseason coming, perhaps now is the time to truly entertain a move at quarterback that can not only recharge the team in the short term but set up the 49ers to loom large in this division for years to come. This is especially important given how young and talented the rest of the division’s quarterbacks are. No one is fading anytime soon.
7. Positions of need
Quarterback, linebacker, interior swing offensive line help, tackle.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
There isn’t much this team needs. Beyond shoring up the quarterback position, a little bit of imagination in free agency should have this team right back in contention. Maybe step one is inking Trent Williams to a long-term deal to ensure a protected blind side. Getting Richard Sherman back on a team-friendly deal would also be ideal, though Sherman is a dogged negotiator in his own right.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
This is not going to happen. Ever. In any circumstance. But as the prompt requests … trade for Aaron Rodgers. Allow the most arm-talented quarterback in the league to finish his career with the team that should have drafted him, with a coach whose offense he’s already running. The Packers could avoid a messy breakup and begin the transition to the Jordan Love era with a trove of draft picks at their disposal to aid in the rebound effort. Rodgers’s deal has an enormous amount of dead money so this is not a realistic option, though as any agent will remind you, the salary cap is the worst excuse every GM in the NFL has.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2021. This division is fun and will be a blast next year when the 49ers reload and get their best players off injured reserve.