Super Bowl 2020: Five under the radar moves that got the 49ers to Super Bowl LIV
Several of these moves went unheralded, but they were important
The San Francisco 49ers ended the regular season as one of the best teams in the NFL, and they powered past both the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in the postseason to reach Super Bowl LIV. The championship game will be played in Miami this Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, and it's pretty impressive that this 4-12 team improved to 13-3 this season.
The 49ers made some key additions to get to this point. Everyone knows about the impact that No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa had on defense and that free agent Tevin Coleman had on the offense, but there were also some other additions that helped the 49ers get to this point.
There were some lesser-known decisions the 49ers made a year or two ago that helped San Francisco get to the big game, and while they were initially unheralded, they should be recognized as just as important as the other ones.
Let's break down five under the radar moves the 49ers made over the past couple of years that helped them advance to the Super Bowl in 2020.
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Signing Richard Sherman to a special contract
Everyone knew who Sherman was once the Seattle Seahawks released him -- the star cornerback had faced off against the 49ers twice every season since 2011! But the signing wasn't considered one that would take the 49ers to the Super Bowl. He was about to turn 30 years old and was coming off a torn Achilles -- it was thought he was on the downswing of his career. While the addition of Sherman clearly worked out on the field, it was his contract that gets lost in the story.
The three-year deal Sherman signed was worth a maximum of $39.15 million, but only $3 million was guaranteed in the form of a signing bonus. Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network provided an interesting in-depth look at the contract. The contract provided opportunities for the 49ers to get out of the deal after each of the first two seasons. Basically everything was incentive based. In 2018, Sherman got $2 million if he passed his physical and $2 million as his base salary. He got $125,000 per game for being active and a $50,000 workout bonus. Sherman then had a playtime incentive -- if he played 90 percent of the team's defensive snaps, he got another $1 million. There were also accolade incentives. If Sherman made the Pro Bowl he got $1 million; if he was named first or second team All-Pro he got $2 million. Several of those incentives remained the same in 2019, except for example the base salary, which escalated to $7 million or $8 million if he made the Pro Bowl (which he did this year).
Sherman's contract would benefit him if he played well, and it wouldn't hurt the 49ers if he truly was on the downswing. This year, he was the absolute leader of the defense, and recorded 61 combined tackles, 11 passes defensed and three interceptions. Not everyone saw it coming, but this was a great signing.
Extending Raheem Mostert to a three-year deal last offseason
The 27-year-old running back was a castoff of six NFL teams before finding a home with the 49ers, but not many outside of the Bay knew his name before this season. He recorded just one rush for the 49ers in 2016 and then six in 2017. He had a bit of a breakout year in 2018 when he rushed 34 times for 261 yards and a touchdown, but broke his arm in Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders. The 49ers had Matt Breida, Jerick McKinnon supposedly coming back from injury and Coleman coming in from the Atlanta Falcons. Still, the 49ers gave Mostert a three-year deal in the offseason. With this loaded backfield, where was Mostert going to play? Head coach Kyle Shanahan was going to carry four active running backs on game day? Coach Shanahan long regarded Mostert as one of the best special teams players in the NFL, but he would do a lot more in 2019.
San Francisco's brass clearly knew more than we did, because Mostert is a big reason the 49ers have the opportunity to play in Super Bowl LIV. He rushed for a career-high 772 yards and eight touchdowns on 137 carries, and added two receiving touchdowns as well. McKinnon again went down with a season-ending injury, Coleman missed a couple of games and Breida did as well. Mostert was the one consistent back for the 49ers. He shined the NFC Championship game, rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns against the Packers in the 37-20 victory. He basically single-handedly got the 49ers to Miami, as he was the only player to score a touchdown for San Francisco. With that performance, he became the first player in NFL history to record at least 200 rushing yards and at least four rushing touchdowns in a single playoff game. Only Eric Dickerson registered more rushing yards (248) in a postseason game. Behind a wall of blockers in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme, he was so electric that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempted only eight passes over the course of the game. My colleague Sean Wagner-McGough sat down with Mostert this week, and . Definitely give it a read.
What was "under the radar" about locking up Mostert was that the 49ers signed him to a multi-year deal. It was curious why they did so at first, but now it seems like an incredible move.
Drafting linebacker Dre Greenlaw
The fifth-round pick out of Arkansas wasn't brought in to make an immediate impact, but that's exactly what he did. Greenlaw was in and out of the starting lineup to begin the season, but started the last nine regular-season games for the 49ers, and the two postseason games. He picked off Russell Wilson in overtime during the 27-24 loss against the Seahawks in Week 10, and also made the game-saving tackle in the season finale to help the 49ers acquire the No. 1 seed in the NFC. He recorded 13 combined tackles in each of the last two regular-season games, and then 10 combined tackles in the playoffs and a forced fumble. Against the Vikings in the divisional round, he was the second-highest rated defensive player according to Pro Football Focus. In his first season, Greenlaw recorded a total of 92 combined tackles, one sack, two passes defensed and an interception. He's a diamond in the rough.
Signing interior offensive lineman Ben Garland
The former Falcons' right guard started just four games for Atlanta in 2018 before they let the 31-year-old hit free agency. He was quickly picked up by the 49ers, as Shanahan knew him from his days as an offensive coordinator for the Falcons.
When center Weston Richburg went down with a season-ending injury in Week 14, it looked like it could be a huge blow for the 49ers, but in stepped Garland, who played well at center in the final three games of the season. He also started the 49ers' two postseason games, and was the second-highest rated offensive player against the Vikings in the divisional round, posting an 82.8 rating according to PFF. He's played extremely well since stepping into a starting role. It might have spelled trouble for the 49ers if a lesser player was holding down the middle of the offensive line in the postseason.
Being patient with the quarterback situation
The 49ers were a team in the market for a quarterback at that time. They signed Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley in the offseason, but they were expected to draft a quarterback at some point -- and it could have come at No. 2 overall. When the Bears traded up to No. 2, it was thought they would take a defensive player like Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas. That means the 49ers could have gotten four picks and then selected Trubisky at No. 3. Instead, the Bears shocked everybody by taking Trubisky less than two months after they had signed Mike Glennon to be their starter. The 49ers ended up selecting Thomas -- which wasn't a franchise-changing pick, but they decided to be patient for their quarterback.
Hoyer started the first six games of the 2017 season, but he was benched in Week 6 for rookie C.J. Beathard, who was the quarterback the 49ers drafted in the third round that year. Hoyer would be released only a couple of weeks later while Beathard took over as the permanent starter. In October 2017, the 49ers then made the big move which would help them get to Super Bowl LIV: they sent a second-round pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for Garoppolo. He made his first appearance as a 49er in Week 12 against the Seahawks when Beathard went down with an injury. Garoppolo then took over as the permanent starter the next week, and he led San Francisco to five consecutive victories.
Garoppolo entered the 2018 season as the unquestioned starter, but he tore his ACL in Week 3 against the Chiefs. When he returned in 2019 to again try to complete his first full season as a starter, he led the 49ers to a 13-3 record while throwing for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions -- and ultimately to the Super Bowl.
No offense to Trubisky, but the 49ers have to be happy that the Bears offered four picks to move up one spot.
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