Just one year ago, the San Francisco 49ers were sitting at home facing what could have seemed like an insurmountable mountain, coming off four consecutive losing seasons and owning the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft as one of the league's worst teams. But everything clicked in 2019 as the 49ers rose to the No. 1 seed in the NFC and won the conference championship for the first time in seven years. San Francisco had their first 13-win season in eight years and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs for the first time since 1997, a huge reason they will represent the conference in Super Bowl LIV.
Earlier this week, Patrik Walker went all the way back to the start of their impressive rebuild to catch us up on.
The 49ers' incredible turnaround (after winning just four games in 2018) is one of the best comeback stories in NFL history. They are just the third team to reach the Super Bowl (with the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals and 1999 St. Louis Rams) after winning four or fewer games the season before. This is only fitting in the NFL's 100th season, as one of the league's most storied franchises is back amongst the league's elite.
This 49ers team, like many of their teams during the dynasty years in the 1980s, are an easy one to root for and support. Here are five reasons to root for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl and validate this amazing season. (You can see.)
1. You enjoy watching a dominant pass rush
The 49ers pass rush has become one of (if not) the best in the NFL. The talented front four led by Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner finished tied for fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks on the year. Armstead led the way with 10.0 sacks. Bosa finished with 9.0 sacks in his rookie year, while Buckner had 7.5 and Ford finished with 6.5 in just 11 games. Football Outsiders ranked the 49ers second in adjusted sack rate, which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. The 9.1% rate was second to the New York Jets 9.7%.
What makes the 49ers pass rush even better is how dominant they have been in the postseason. The 49ers have nine sacks in two postseason games, including six in the NFC divisional playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings. Bosa has three sacks of his own this postseason.
Ford is the oldest of the bunch at 28, while Armstead is just 26, Buckner 25, and Bosa 22. This has the makings of a pass rush that is on the cusp of being dominant for years, especially since three of the four players are under contract next season (Armstead will be a free agent after this season and Buckner will be a free agent after 2020). San Francisco also has two other defensive linemen who are just 24 years old in Solomon Thomas and D.J. Jones.
The 49ers have invested heavily in the defensive line over the past five years, using first-round picks on Armstead (2015), Buckner (2016), Thomas (2017), and Bosa (2019), all of which were top ten draft picks. The patience in developing these players has paid off and opposing quarterbacks are paying the price.
2. George Kittle is the most exciting tight end in the NFL
Football fans have to enjoy Kittle's game. Not only is Kittle one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, but he's one of the best blockers at his position. Kittle was drafted by the 49ers because of his blocking ability (fifth-round pick in 2017) and is a huge reason why the 49ers finished second in the NFL in rushing. San Francisco ran for 186 rushing yards in the NFC divisional round thanks to Kittle containing the outside edge, a rare skill among tight ends in today's NFL.
"If your tight end can't block the outside defensive ends, it's extremely hard to run outside zone," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters. "And Kittle can do that whether they're head up on him, which we call six-technique, or if they can do that with their head up outside on him, which we call a nine-technique. That's very rare."
Kittle is also one of the game's best receiving tight ends in the league after just three seasons, having 216 catches for 2,945 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has two 1,000-yard seasons, setting the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a season in 2018 (1,377). He finished with 85 catches for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns this season, despite playing just 14 games. Kittle has been playing with knee and ankle injuries the majority of the second half of the year, including a bone chip in his ankle.
Not only does Kittle have the most catches and yards in NFL history for a tight end after his first three years, but he also provided the play of the year in the NFL in the 49ers thrilling win against the New Orleans Saints in Week 14. Kittle went 39 yards on a 4th-and-2 reception with 39 seconds left, dragging three Saints players for over 10 yards before finally going down and setting San Francisco up with the game-winning field goal.
Kittle may have just four catches for 35 yards this postseason, but he's a large part of the 49ers zone-blocking run scheme that has paved the way for 471 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry in the playoffs. Kittle is an easy player to root for.
3. Jimmy Garoppolo's comeback story
Garoppolo won't receive comeback player of the year honors in the NFL, but it's clear he's a winner. The 49ers are 19-5 in Garoppolo's 24 starts and have averaged 29 points per game since San Francisco made him the starting quarterback in 2017.
Garoppolo was the heir apparent to Tom Brady with the New England Patriots before the 49ers dealt a second-round pick for him. In one of the boldest moves since John Lynch became general manager, Garoppolo immediately flourished under then-rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan, going 5-0 in his five starts as the 49ers won their final five games before finishing 6-10.
Expectations were high for San Francisco in 2018, but Garoppolo tore his ACL in the third game of the year as the 49ers limped to a 4-12 finish. Garoppolo went through an intense rehab and a struggling preseason to get ready for Week 1 of the 2019 season and has thrived. The 49ers went 13-3 as Garoppolo started all 16 games, completing 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a 102.0 passer rating.
Garoppolo has been criticized for being a game manager, despite the 49ers finishing third in completion rate (68.81%) and yards per pass (7.9). He also has completed 69.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception and a 105.6 passer rating in the fourth quarter, not bad considering the 49ers are 5-3 in one-score games. Garoppolo has completed 72.7 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 115.7 passer rating when trailing this year. The 49ers haven't needed to use Garoppolo much this postseason, as he is just 17 for 27 for 208 yards with a touchdown and interception in two games.
The 49ers are in the Super Bowl because of Garoppolo, far from a game manager (even though he only threw eight passes in the NFC Championship game because the 49ers run game was so dominant). He's becoming one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL despite being sidelined for 3.5 seasons in New England.
4. An old-school, run-first style
The 49ers run game is the best remaining in the NFL, averaging 144.1 rushing yards a game (which was second in the league). San Francisco had 2,305 rushing yards on the season, led by a committee that wore defenses down from start to finish. Raheem Mostert, who entered the season as the No. 3 running back, led the 49ers with 722 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the year. Tevin Coleman, who the team signed in free agency this past offseason, had 544 yards and six touchdowns as the No. 1 running back, starting 11 games. Matt Breida, one of the fastest running backs in the league, had 623 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Jeff Wilson has four touchdowns as the team's No. 4 back.
San Francisco's run scheme was pivotal toward their offense averaging nearly 30 points a game, carrying the ball 31.1 times per contest. The 49ers led the NFL with 23 rushing touchdowns this season, despite converting 53.73% of their trips in the red zone into touchdowns. San Francisco has five 100-yard rushing performances this year (two from Breida, two from Coleman, and one from Mostert), rushing for over 150 yards five times. The 49ers had 186 rushing yards in their playoff win over the Vikings thanks to Shanahan's outside zone running scheme, aided by fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle as extra blockers.
The 49ers can run the ball at will, using all four running backs to move the chains and control time of possession (fourth in NFL). San Francisco's run game and blocking schemes make the 49ers worth watching.
5. The 49ers haven't won in a long time
The 49ers may have five Super Bowls, but their last championship happened in the 1994 season when Steve Young threw six touchdowns in Super Bowl XXIX, 25 years ago. That's the longest championship drought for the franchise since they went the first 31 years without winning a title (the 49ers entered the NFL from the All-American Football Conference in 1950).
The glory days from the 1980s were a thing of the past after Young retired in 1999, as the 49ers had 12 losing seasons in the 20 years since. San Francisco had just 14 losing seasons between 1950 and 1999, showcasing how the 49ers were one of the NFL's winningest franchises. Prior to the 2019 season, the 49ers had five consecutive non-winning seasons, going 25-55 during that stretch. San Francisco had a brief run of success under Jim Harbaugh from 2011 to 2013, making three consecutive NFC Championship games, but had eight straight non-winning seasons from 2003 to 2010.
There has been an entire generation of 49ers fans that have not seen them win a championship. San Francisco may be tied for third in Super Bowl championships with five, but have just one title game appearance in the past 25 years. Getting a sixth Super Bowl has been difficult for the 49ers, but this is arguably their best roster since they won their last title.
It's time for the 49ers to end a championship drought.