The San Francisco 49ers have seen their bid to add a sixth Super Bowl to their trophy cabinet blighted by failure and bad luck over the last four seasons. The franchise has reached one Super Bowl and has been one game away on two occasions, reaching back-to-back NFC Championship Games in the 2021 and 2022 campaigns.
But Kyle Shanahan and his team have failed to get over the line. The most poignant defeat was their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV as the 49ers allowed a 10-point lead to slip in the fourth quarter to Patrick Mahomes and company. Their latest loss in a high-profile game was out of their hands when Brock Purdy suffered an injury to his throwing arm, effectively ending the contest in the first quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles.
San Francisco has had time to reflect on their loss and will approach the new campaign with optimism given the standard in the NFC has slipped with the departure of Aaron Rodgers from the Green Bay Packers.
The early NFL picks from betting experts, who have studied the trends of the last campaign and the off-season, have the Eagles as the leading contenders for a second NFC crown and a return to the Super Bowl with the 49ers not far behind. It seems that the two teams are again on a collision course, but the question for San Francisco is whether they can finally win under the spotlight.
The 49ers removed their safety net in the off-season after allowing Jimmy Garoppolo to leave the franchise. Garoppolo was effective as a starter, but he epitomized the issues with the team since Shanahan arrived in the Bay Area in 2018. The quarterback suffered regular injuries and failed to deliver on big occasions, notably in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs and again in the NFC title game in 2021 against the Los Angeles Rams.
The 2022 season was a case in point as Garoppolo was seemingly cast aside before the start of the campaign, losing the starter’s spot to Trey Lance. Lance’s season-ending injury gave Garoppolo the opportunity to turn the 49ers into contenders, only for the quarterback to suffer his own season-ending problem for the second time in three years. Rookie Purdy took on the mantle and performed extremely well to steer the franchise into the NFC Championship Game, but even he was struck by the injury curse after taking a hit by Haason Reddick.
Purdy and Lance are now in a battle to be fit for the start of the 2023 season, with the 49ers moving to sign Sam Darnold during free agency. Shanahan now has an interesting decision to make regarding the position. Stick with Purdy, who looked more than capable despite being selected in the seventh round. Go back to Lance, who has the potential to be a superstar in the NFL. Or, go with the veteran Darnold, who has failed to live up to the billing thus far after he was taken third overall by the New York Jets in 2018.
The decision will define the 49ers’ season, although there are a host of other issues. Mike McGlinchey will leave a void at right tackle after departing via free agency. Samson Ebukam, Jimmie Ward and Charles Omenihu also left the club. There have been solid signings such as Javon Hargrave, Clelin Ferrell, and Jon Feliciano. The loss of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will also cause problems, although the move for veteran coach Steve Wilks could be a masterstroke to prevent a drop-off.
Getting over the line
The 49ers have been cursed by a number of injuries in recent seasons. Garoppolo and Purdy’s issues at critical times have been hugely costly, but there have also been a number of other players who have been struck down. Call it bad luck or poor injury management, fitness problems have played a significant role in the 49ers’ failure to win the Super Bowl under Shanahan despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league.
San Francisco has also been accused of a lack of clutch play under pressure. When the 49ers needed a stop against the Los Angeles Rams in the 2021 NFC Championship Game, they failed to halt Matt Stafford and company, allowing 13 points in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo then failed with a two-minute drive when only a field goal was required to level the scores.
It was almost an identical game to Super Bowl LIV where the 49ers cracked under pressure on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter. The defense gave up points, while Garoppolo missed a crucial downfield throw that could have swung the game back in the 49ers’ favor.
The 2022 NFC Championship Game was completely out of San Francisco’s hands with Purdy’s injury that pressed Josh Johnson into action. When you’re down to your fourth-string quarterback, there’s not a great deal coach and players can do against a powerful unit such as the Eagles. Worryingly their defense was exposed by Jalen Hurts, which has to be addressed if the two teams are to meet again in the postseason. The 49ers have to learn from their experience against Hurts to limit the Eagles quarterback and his electric offense.
But, the focus will also be on Shanahan and his coaching under pressure. He has developed a reputation for struggling under the spotlight, starting during his days as an offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons, when his offense failed to put the game away against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, despite holding a 25-point lead. The defeats to the Chiefs and Rams proved that he still has issues with his fourth-quarter coaching. Unless he has a breakthrough in 2023, the 49ers are going to fall short again.
Favoured in the West
The 49ers are already a solid lock to retain their NFC West crown due to the struggles of the other three teams in the division. The Rams don’t look ready to return to the post-season yet, while the Seattle Seahawks, although impressive in reaching the playoffs last term, were clearly not ready for the step up in quality against Shanahan’s team.
The Arizona Cardinals appear to be in rebuilding mode after another disappointing season. The competition elsewhere looks thin on the ground. The NFC South has no outstanding team in the division after Tom Brady’s retirement, leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without a credible quarterback. The NFC North is wide open after Rodgers’ move to the Jets, and although the Detroit Lions have improved, they have a long way to go to match the quality of San Francisco and Philadelphia.
The NFC East produced three playoff teams in 2022 and could repeat the feat as the Eagles again look the best of the division and the conference as a whole. The Dallas Cowboys will be hot on their heels, but their playoff acumen is even worse than the 49ers, routinely crumbling under the pressure. The New York Giants had a great first season under Brian Daboll, but sustaining those levels will be difficult now that their game plans have been studied for a year by opposing defenses.
The 49ers too have their question marks, with the overhanging issue of the quarterback position looming in training camp. Shanahan has proved he can win with almost anyone at quarterback and there are three good options for him to work with for the 2023 season. Everyone knows that the 49ers are one of the most consistent teams in the NFL when injury-free, but the acid test will come under the spotlight of the playoffs when the pressure will be on to finally end their Super Bowl drought lasting 29 years.