NFL Offseason Review: San Francisco 49ers
Published on May 15, 2017
The last NFL season may as well be ancient history, because most football fans across the nation (and across the world) have entirely forgotten about the goings-on of last year’s pro football action. With the NFL Draft around the bend and the initial rush of free agency already over, there is undoubtedly more buzz surrounding next season than last.
Some teams, no doubt, have good reason to look back fondly over the events of the 2016/17 NFL season. Most obviously, New England Patriots fans likely still watch highlights of the Super Bowl and the season leading up to it in order to relive their most recent moment of glory.
For other teams, there was truly no reason to look back at all, as last year’s action was simply business as usual. For the Cleveland Browns, for example, the pattern of mediocrity has been pretty well set, and fans try not to get their hopes up too much in the offseason, lest they be disappointed once again.
The San Francisco 49ers are one team that manages to split the difference between these two.
Much like the Browns, the ‘niners have one of the richest histories in the entire league, with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young and Joe Montana both playing the bulk of their careers in San Francisco. However, unlike the Browns, the 49ers don’t have nearly as much of a gap between their last period of success and their current stretch of mediocrity.
While the Browns have played only one playoff game since 1994, the 49ers are only three seasons removed from back-to-back-to-back appearances in the NFC Championship game, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2012.
For this reason, when the casual NFL fan looks at the standings from 2016/17 and notices that the San Francisco 49ers won only 2 games, it might be easy for that fan to write off the team as in the same category along with the perennial stinkers like the Browns or the Jaguars.
However, in reality, the San Francisco 49ers have a rich tradition of excellence and a roster that is not so far removed from the playoff runs of the early 2010’s to retain that hunger to get back to the top of the mountain. It would be a mistake for the league to sleep on the 49ers, and so it behooves us to do our due diligence and take a good look at the state of the franchise going forward.
In this edition, we cruise on over to the West Coast of sunny California and take on the San Francisco 49ers.
Before we dive into the disappointing season that the San Francisco 49ers had in 2016/17, it’s first important for us to go into detail on the history of the ‘niners organization itself, in order to provide some context on why last season was meaningful for the fans and what the organization was striving for.
The 49ers are one of the oldest teams in the National Football League, originally being founded as a member of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), a rival league to the NFL that came into existence shortly after the great influx of football players came back from fighting in World War II in 1946.
While it may seem as though the name of the ‘niners organization reflects the year in which the AAFC merged with the NFL (1949), in fact the team was named after the prospectors who came to Northern California seeking fame and fortune in the Gold Rush of 1849.
In this way, the ‘niners truly are a fixture of the culture of San Francisco and of Northern California itself, having played football without cessation or relocation for 70 consecutive seasons, from the year that World War II ended to the present day.
The 49ers early history was marked by little playoff success, with the team competing in one AAFC championship in 1949 (which it lost to the Browns), and making only one appearance in the NFL playoffs before the NFL-AFL Merger was fully completed in 1970.
In the team’s first 24 seasons, the 49ers made the playoffs only twice.
When the NFL and the AFL fully merged in 1970, the 49ers made the playoffs on the back of MVP quarterback John Brodie, and made it to the NFC Championship in back-to-back years, as well as to the divisional round in 1972. After this brief stretch of success, the ‘niners would fall back into mediocrity, missing out on the playoffs for the next eight consecutive seasons, the balance of the 1970s.
However, this period of mediocrity was turned around in one seminal event: In the 1979 NFL Draft, the 49ers selected Joe Montana with the #82 pick overall, and subsequently enjoyed 14 seasons with one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game of football.
With Montana at the helm, the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1981, 1984, 1988, and 1989, with the quarterback winning the Super Bowl MVP award in each of these championships. All told, the 49ers made the playoffs in 10 of Montana’s 14 seasons with the team, and were one of the premier dynasties of the 1980s.
At the twilight of Montana’s career, fans of the 49ers were spoiled to have another future Hall of Fame quarterback on the roster as his backup, with Steve Young demonstrating his value throwing 23 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions in his four seasons behind Montana.
Young finally got the chance to start when an elbow injury sidelined Joe Montana for the entire 1991 season, and the following season Young won his first NFL MVP award in the first of seven consecutive seasons during which the ‘niners would make the playoffs with Steve Yong at the helm. Unlike his predecessor, however, Young would only bring one Super Bowl title to the 49ers, in 1994.
The turn of the 21st century marked the end of this remarkable run under Joe Montana and Steve Young, and San Francisco would make the playoffs only twice in the 2000s, winning only one playoff game.
This brings us to the present era of 49ers football. In 2010, after eight consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, the 49ers fired head coach Mike Singletary and brought in Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose brother John was the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens at the time.
Amazingly, after bringing in Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers went from a record of 6–10 and a 3rd place finish in their division to a record of 13–3 and a division title; they went from missing the playoffs for 8 consecutive seasons to making the NFC Championship game; and they went from two Pro Bowlers and one First-Team All-Pro selection to nine Pro Bowlers and five First-Team All-Pro selections.
And all of this in the span of a single season.
However, while the explosive mentality and hard-nosed defense of the Jim Harbaugh era was certainly fiery, the fire burned out rather quickly, and after three consecutive appearances in the NFC Championship game (one of which the team won, in 2012, only to lose in the Super Bowl to the other Harbaugh’s team, the Baltimore Ravens), the 49ers parted ways with Harbaugh with two games left in their 8–8 2014 season.
Subsequently, the 49ers entered into a rapid skid, hiring and then firing head coach Jim Tomsula in 2015/16 and then somehow inexplicably deciding to give head coach Chip Kelly a chance in San Francisco for the 2016/17 season. Despite the fact that Chip Kelly had proved to be an absolute wrecking ball in the NFL, leaving a trail of wreckage in his wake after three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, the fans had no choice but to be optimistic that he could turn things around in San Francisco.
It was with this cautious optimism that the San Francisco 49ers kicked off their 2016/17 campaign.
It’s important to note that one of the major storylines that would follow the 49ers throughout the entire season occurred during the preseason, and was entirely unrelated to the game played on the field.
On September 1st, in the 49ers’ final preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, the 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had led the team to their Super Bowl appearance in 2012 as well as the NFC Championship game the following year before losing the starting job in subsequent seasons, took a knee during the singing of the National Anthem to protest police violence against minorities.
While the merits of the protest are irrelevant for our discussion here, the important thing about the event was that it sparked a massive national response, with other professional athletes in the NFL and in other sports beginning to use the playing of the National Anthem to send messages of their choosing, and news media outlets of all varieties covering the story heavily.
In this firestorm of media controversy, it’s entirely possible that for the first few weeks of the season, people were more interested to see what would happen on the sidelines before the game kicked off than they were to see how the 49ers actually fared on the field during the game.
Nonetheless, the season kicked off at home against the newly-minted Los Angeles Rams, who clearly were not yet entirely ready for NFL action. The 49ers held the Rams scoreless throughout the entire game, logging 28 points of their own in the meantime on two rushing touchdowns by Carlos Hyde, one rushing touchdown by Shaun Draughn, and a passing TD from Blaine Gabbert to Vance McDonald.
In the team’s road opener the following week, San Francisco did not fare nearly as well, giving up 46 points to the Panthers to go down 31–10 at the start of the fourth quarter. Though the team would log some points in garbage time, the final score of the game would end up at 46–27.
The 49ers played their second divisional game in Week 3, on the road against the Seattle Seahawks, and once again demonstrated pure futility on the offensive side of the ball, with only 3 of their 18 points coming in the first three quarters. At the start of the final period, the 49ers were down 30–3, and ended up losing the game ultimately by a score of 37–18.
San Francisco then returned home in Week 4 to take on the Dallas Cowboys. In Weeks 2 and 3, on the road, the team had gained 28 total first downs – the same number that they had gained in their Week 1 home win. Against the Cowboys, they stayed at exactly his mark, gaining 14 first downs and losing the game by a score of 17–24. It should be noted that the ‘niners had started out with a 14–0 lead over the Cowboys, reversing the pattern of starting out slow seen in previous games.
Nonetheless, the 49ers had started out the first quarter of the Chip Kelly era with a slow 1–3 start, and were struggling to find answers for how to put points on the board.
The 49ers played a divisional home game in Week 5 against the struggling Arizona Cardinals, and despite gaining 8 more first downs than the Cardinals the team’s -3 turnover ratio ensured a 21–33 loss.
At this point, in Week 6, against the Buffalo Bills, the 49ers made a change at quarterback to try and remedy their offensive struggles, after Blaine Gabbert had averaged a league-low 5.9 yards per passing attempt with more interceptions than touchdowns through the first five weeks of the season. Gabbert’s average passer rating was an astonishingly low 69.6 through this first part of the season.
However, while the fans must have been optimistic that Kaepernick could provide some sort of spark to make the season more watchable (if not salvageable), the deeper frustration with the team lay in the fact that the fans had been down this road several times before with Kaepernick, and they knew just what he was capable (and not capable) of. Add the media circus to the mix, and it’s a tired narrative.
Nonetheless, the 49ers gave it an honest try, and in Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills Kaepernick put up a decent performance, throwing for 187 yards and a touchdown on 13 of 29 passing (44.8% passing), and also ending up as the ‘niners leading rusher, with 66 yards on 8 rushes (8.3 yards per rush). The 49ers defense did not hold up their end of the bargain, however, and the team lost by a score of 45–16.
In the following week, back home in San Francisco against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team jumped out to an early lead, ending the first quarter up 14–0. However, the team would subsequently be held to only a field goal for the remaining 45 minutes of the game, and gave up four touchdowns to the Bucs during that span to lose the game 34–17.
In this way, despite the fact that the change at quarterbacks had been intended to improve the performance of the offense, the 49ers headed into the bye week on a six-game losing streak, the final two of which had come with media figurehead Colin Kaepernick at starter.
Coming out of the bye, things didn’t get any better, as the team lost to the potent offense of Drew Brees in front of the home crowd by a score of 41–23 despite getting just shy of 400 yards passing from Colin Kaepernick on 24 of 39 passing (61.5%), as well as a 100-yard performance from wide receiver Quinton Patton.
At the halfway point of the season, the 49ers sat at a lowly 1–7, and were beginning to realize quite definitively that their struggles on offense ran deeper than just the quarterback position.
In Week 10 against the Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers went back on the road against their division opponent and played a tough game, tying the game at 20 points apiece in the fourth quarter. However, a 34-yard Chandler Catanzaro field goal ultimately gave the lead back to the Cardinals, and the 49ers lost their eighth straight.
Coming back home the following week to take on the future Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the 49ers acquitted themselves remarkably well, managing not to turn the ball over on offense for the first time all season and gaining 20 first downs against the league-leading defense. Unfortunately, the team still lost by a score of 30–17.
The next game against the Miami Dolphins found the ‘niners on the road, making one of the longest cross-country road trips in the game. Despite leaping out to an early lead and getting a strong performance from Colin Kaepernick (296 yards on 29 of 46 passing – 63.0% – with 3 TDs, an INT, and an additional 113 yards rushing on 10 rushes – 11.3 yards per rush), the ‘niners lost the game 31–24 and were officially mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, with five whole games left to play.
The hard loss to the Dolphins and the official loss of playoff contention seemed to have a profoundly negative effect on the team psyche, as the 49ers went on the road the following week against the Chicago Bears and, in a snowy game, put together one of the worst offensive performances in the recent history of the league, losing the game by a score of 26–6.
San Francisco managed only 6 passing yards in the game against Chicago.
The 49ers’ loss to the Bears was undoubtedly one of the low points in the history of the franchise. With the loss, the team had officially surpassed its longest losing streak in team history. Head coach Chip Kelly had been forced to deal with the death of his father only two days before the game, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick was benched during the game after completing 1 of 5 passes for a whopping 4 yards.
In a situation emblematic of the season itself, Kaepernick’s benching did not signify any sort of a step forward: He was replaced by Blaine Gabbert, the very player that he had originally replaced in Week 6.
In Week 14 against the New York Jets – one of the few winnable games that the 49ers had on the schedule – the team jumped out to a 14-point lead at the end of the first quarter, with Kaepernick back in at QB. However, the Jets (under sophomore backup QB Bryce Petty) charged back into the game with 11 unanswered points after halftime to force overtime, and won the game on a 19-yard Bilal Powell run.
Playing utterly uninspired football, the 49ers were blown out the following week against the eventual Super Bowl runner-up, Atlanta Falcons, who beat up on the ‘niners in their home stadium by a score of 41–13. Subsequently, the team won its second game in Los Angeles against the division rival Rams, ending a 13-game losing streak on a 15-point comeback during the last ten minutes of the game.
In an utterly meaningless Week 17 game on New Year’s Day against a division rival in the Seattle Seahawks that had already secured their playoff position, the 49ers once again lost by a score of 25–23.
Immediately following this Week 17 game, 49ers owner Jed York delivered the news that general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly – whom Baalke himself had decided to hire only a short 12 months before – had both been fired, making a clean break between ownership and the front office team that had yielded an astonishingly bad 2–12 season.
In additional statements, York made it clear that his main priority in the subsequent GM/head coach search was to find some degree of continuity between the two positions, trying to find a leadership marriage that would yield better communication and rapport than Baalke had had with Kelly.
Ultimately, the fans were most happy simply to be over and done with one of the very worst seasons in the history of the team.
When we looked back at the season that the 49ers suffered through in 2016/17, we found very few positive performances that the team can build upon moving forward. In reality, much of the team’s season was overshadowed by the switches at quarterback and the media firestorm that was Colin Kaepernick’s political opinions.
However, just because the positive performances from players on the 49ers roster weren’t obvious doesn’t mean that they weren’t present, and it’s important for us to gain a full understanding of the strengths and weaknesses that the team showed last year in order for us to evaluate the offseason roster moves that the team has made to address their weaknesses and preserve their strengths.
For this reason, let’s take a look unit by unit at the 49ers’ roster, relying on positional rankings and aggregated season statistics to help tell the real story of the 49ers’ strengths and weaknesses.
The San Francisco 49ers had one of the very worst offenses in the league last year, ranked 27th in the league in scoring with only 309 points scored over the course of the season (19.3 per game). Their production in terms of yards lagged behind even this, with their 4930 yards gained on the season (308.1 per game) ending up ranked 31st in the league.
Surprisingly, the ‘niners were not that far below league average in terms of turnovers, ranking only 21st in the league with 25 turnovers over the course of the season (10 interceptions and 15 fumbles lost). This is one reason why the team’s production in terms of points ended up slightly higher than their production in terms of yards.
The team got a vastly disproportionate amount of its production on offense from the running game relative to its production in the passing game, a fact that is not surprising given the fact that it started Colin Kaepernick for much of the season. The team ran the ball the 5th most in the league and passed the 4th least in the league, and was exceedingly more efficient in the running downs than the passing downs, ending up ranked 11th in average amount of yards per rushing attempt and 29th in net yards per pass.
This disparity between run and pass was adequately reflected in the team’s quarterback by default, who was much more effective as a runner than a passer. Kaepernick ended the season with the 33rd-best completion percentage in the league, and for those who would defend him by saying that he was under duress much of the time, his passer rating of 92.6 while inside a clean pocket ranked 29th in the NFL.
Even with this having been said, though, it is true that the receiving corps for the 49ers was unquestionably the worst in the league, with essentially nothing positive to say about the contributions from Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, or Jeremy Kerley (though Kerley was ranked slightly above average), nor the tight ends Garrett Creek and Vance McDonald.
Starting running back Carlos Hyde did show flashes of greatness at certain points throughout the season, but his history of being sidelined with injury keeps him from developing it. The 26-year old back managed just shy of 1,000 yards on the season despite appearing in only 13 of the 49ers woeful offensive campaigns, and managed 6 rushing touchdowns and 3 receiving to go along with 5 fumbles.
Hyde got little help from his offensive line, however, which ended up ranked in the bottom five in the league. While left tackle Joe Staley put together a fine season, ending up being the highest-ranked lineman of the group, the rest of the line struggled mightily throughout the year, and much of the 49ers impressive rushing statistics were accrued on passing play scrambles rather than behind O-line blocking.
In summary, the offense for the 49ers was abysmal in 2016/17, and really the only players we see worth keeping are left tackle Joe Staley and running back Carlos Hyde.
Amazingly, despite the fact that the 49ers were so incredibly bad on offense in 2016/17, their defense was worse, ending up ranked dead last in the league in terms of both scoring and yards. With 480 points given up over the course of the season (30.0 per game) and 6502 yards (406.4 per game), the 49ers were historically bad.
Similar to the offense, however, the ‘niners were not especially bad at generating takeaways, as the team was ranked 19th in the league with 10 fumbles recovered and 10 interceptions.
The 49ers were considerably better at defending the pass than they were at defending the run, with the team ending up ranked dead last in the league in terms of opposing rushing attempts, opposing rushing yards, opposing rushing touchdowns, and average amount of yards allowed per rushing attempt.
By contrast, San Francisco was thrown against the second-fewest number of times in the league, and gave up the 14th most passing yards (good for a ranking of #28 in net yards allowed per pass attempt), tacking on the 25th-most passing touchdowns allowed in the league.
The biggest and most glaringly obvious reason why the 49ers were so incredibly bad at defending the run last season was because they had an absolutely abominable front seven. Their run defense was among the worst of all time, giving up nearly 400 more rushing yards than any other team in the league. Even after trying any number of stunts and tricks to generate production, the players were simply terrible.
The secondary, by comparison, was considerably better than this, though still ranked roughly around league average throughout the year. Cornerback Tramaine Brock was the best player on the unit, ranked highest in both coverage and run defense and allowing opposing quarterbacks only a 50% completion rate – the second-best in the league. When the rest of the players on the unit were healthy, they were average, but Brock shone in a weak unit.
When we took a deep dive into the strengths and weaknesses of the San Francisco 49ers team, looking unit by unit to try and identify any bright spots, we were only able to find three or four players that the team can be excited to continue developing as they move forward in the rebuilding process.
With so few players on the roster for fans and gamblers to believe in, it’s little surprise that the 49ers’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, are the second-lowest in the league at this point in the offseason.
Specifically, the betting starts with the New England Patriots at +400: the best odds in the league to repeat as Super Bowl champs next year. The field opens up at +1000 with perennial offseason favorites such as the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks, and then the farthest fringe of playoff contention is set at +6600, with teams such as the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints.
In the next tier, beyond the realm of legitimate playoff contenders, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, and Chicago Bears sit at +10000, the Jets and the Rams have the next-worse odds, at +15000, and the 49ers close out the betting alongside the luckless Cleveland Browns at +20000.
Keeping these odds in mind, let’s take a look now at the offseason that the 49ers have embarked on and see what types of changes we expect to see in San Francisco before the season. Finally, we’ll use the information we know about next year’s 49ers’ in order to make our final prediction for their record.
Before we dive into the offseason roster moves made by the San Francisco 49ers so far this offseason, it’s first important that we review the overall front office situation of the team, in order to get a feel for what moves would make sense in the context of the team’s general offseason philosophy.
In general, in today’s NFL, a team’s philosophical approach to the game of football is determined by an alignment between three individuals in leadership positions in the team: The general manager, the head coach, and the quarterback. If any one of these three pieces is not in full alignment with the other two, a team cannot compete at the highest level for an extended period of time.
In the case of the 49ers, for the past three seasons the team had tried to keep the GM (Trent Baalke) and the quarterback (Colin Kaepernick/Blaine Gabbert) consistent while turning the head coaching wheel three times (Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula, Chip Kelly) in the belief that this was the primary issue.
However, when owner Jed York finally decided to blow it all up and start over at the end of the 2016/17 season, none of the three pieces of the leadership triangle remained: Trent Baalke was fired, Chip Kelly was fired, and both Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick were allowed to walk away from the team, with both players failing to have their expiring contracts picked up by the 49ers.
In this way, the door opened for Jed York to rebuild the 49ers organization from the ground up, no holds barred.
York began this rebuilding process by bringing in John Lynch to become the new general manager for the San Francisco 49ers. Lynch, age 45, played strong safety in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a decade, winning a Super Bowl with the team in 2003, before moving on to play four seasons for the Denver Broncos and one additional season in a limited capacity with the New England Patriots.
A nine-time Pro Bowler elected to the First-Team All-Pro three consecutive seasons around the turn of the 21st century, Lynch’s on-field pedigree certainly recommends his understanding of the game.
However, when the 49ers hired Lynch to be GM in January of 2017, he had never worked in any sort of front office position before, having spent the 9-year interval between his retirement from playing and his hiring as GM of the 49ers as a FOX color commentator paired with play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt.
This lack of front office or scouting experience certainly makes Lynch an unconventional choice for GM, and in comments Lynch has adamantly maintained that his approach will be to bring people around him who are able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge and expertise.
With the GM position filled, the next piece of the football leadership triumvirate that the 49ers had to address was the head coaching position, which they accomplished by bringing in offensive savant Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan’s pedigree involved starting out as the youngest offensive coordinator in the history of the league, taking over the position for the Houston Texans in 2008 at age 29 after spending two seasons in the Houston coaching staff. Shanahan then spent two seasons as offensive coordinator of the Texans, four with the Redskins, one with the Browns, and finally two with the Atlanta Falcons.
One of the hallmarks of Shanahan’s tenure as an offensive coordinator was that wherever he went, in each case the quarterback he worked with was immediately elevated to a higher level of play.
With the Texans in 2009, Shanahan managed to make Matt Schaub look like a competent starter, and the QB put up career-high numbers in attempts, completion percentage, yards, and touchdowns. With the Redskins in 2012, it was Shanahan primarily responsible for the Rookie of the Year award being given to Robert Griffin III the same year when Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson were rookie starters.
In one season with the Browns, Shanahan took journeyman Brian Hoyer to the Browns’ best record in 7 seasons, and finally for the past two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, Shanahan brought Matt Ryan from waffling on the edge of mediocrity to a sublime MVP season that by all accounts had earned the right to end in a Super Bowl victory.
This was the stellar résumé that Kyle Shanahan brought to his interviews with the 49ers front office, and its little surprise that the 37-year old savant was given the job.
So, with John Lynch installed at GM and Kyle Shanahan brought on as head coach (as well as de facto offensive coordinator), the 49ers were finally ready to seek out that third and final piece of the NFL leadership triangle: the quarterback. But for that to happen, they would need to wait until the beginning of the 2017 league year and its new free agency period to make moves.
At the start of the league year, the 49ers found themselves with the 2nd-most cap space in the entire league, with a whopping $96 million available to play with. The primary reason for this massive amount of available cap space was the fact that San Francisco had a massive 25 players with expiring contracts, meaning that the team had some tough decisions ahead for who to re-sign.
As of the time of this writing, the San Francisco 49ers have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.
In the first category of moves, the 49ers have re-signed only four of their 25 free agents: linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong, wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, running back DuJuan Harris, and defensive lineman Christopher Jones. Of the remaining 13 free agents that the team has yet to re-sign, cornerback Tramaine Brock is likely the most important for the team to decide on, as he was the best player in the secondary last season.
In the second category of moves, the 49ers saw 8 of their players move on to other teams in free agency:
Finally, in the last category of moves, the 49ers acquired a whopping 15 free agents:
In addition, center Jeremy Zuttah was brought in from the Ravens along with Baltimore’s sixth-round pick (#198 overall) in a trade that sent the 49ers sixth round pick (#186 overall) to the Ravens.
With all of these moves having been made, the 49ers retain an incredible $73 million in cap space, the most of any team in the league by more than $10 million, and also have an amazing 10 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, including the #2 pick overall as well as two picks each in the 4th, 5th, and 6th rounds.
At this point, with so much still in flux for the 49ers, it’s truly impossible to evaluate the job that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have done in their first offseason together.
For example, it could potentially be a very savvy move bringing over the backup quarterback duo from the Bears (Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley), considering the fact that both started at least 5 games last year and played well given their opportunities, and further given the fact that Hoyer played under Shanahan when he was offensive coordinator for Cleveland in 2014.
In the end, for a team that won only 2 games last season and was near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories, there’s no reasonable expectation that any amount of roster moves could immediately flip the team into a championship competitor the following season.
Instead, the rebuilding of the San Francisco 49ers will be a process, and by all accounts the franchise is off to a good start.
When we looked back at the changes that have taken place in the San Francisco 49ers organization over the last few months, we find that remarkably the team is almost entirely unrecognizable from the team that won two games last season.
With a new GM, a new head coach, and a new quarterback, the entire leadership team of the 49ers franchise has been updated.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that the organization is in a dramatic state of flux right now, making it very difficult to predict what the team will look like in 2017/18, there are still a few advanced statistical and scheduling factors that we can use to make our prediction for what we can expect to see out of the team next year.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 49ers, we do find a significant result: When we plug in the number of points that the 49ers scored and the number of points they allowed into the Pythagorean Expectation formula, we see that the team should have won exactly 4.2 games last season. Given that they only won 2 games, in reality, we see that the team under-performed relative to expectations by 2 whole games.
And it’s crucially important to put this under-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the 49ers will play next season, and that is the schedule that San Francisco played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the , making their under-performance look all the worse.
Importantly, however, by comparing the schedule that the 49ers will play next season against the strength of their opponents last season, we gain the ability to predict whether or not the team is headed for an easier or more difficult road based solely on strength of schedule.
Every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the 49ers, this means the following:
At first glance, the 49ers seem to have a mixed bag: The NFC East was one of the toughest divisions in football last year, and could have easily sent three teams to the playoffs; whereas the AFC South was probably the weakest divisions in football, and would have just as soon sent no teams to the playoffs and saved us all the pain of watching two playoff games featuring Brock Osweiler.
But in order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is beyond just the eye test, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.
When we tally up the number of games that the 49ers’ 2017/18 opponents won in 2016/17 and compare this aggregated win total against the slates of opponents for the other 31 teams in the league, we find that the 49ers have the 14th-most difficult schedule in the league, right around league average.
In terms of point differential, which, as we saw with Pythagorean Expectation, is a more accurate representation of team success than simple win total, the news is roughly the same: The 49ers have the 15th-most difficult schedule in the league next year.
So, in summary, now that we’ve taken a good look at the offseason changes made by the 49ers’ organization as well as the advanced statistical and scheduling factors that clue us in on how well the team should perform next season, we are ready to make our final prediction for the 49ers 2017/18 record.
First off, given that the team should have won 4 games last season based on Pythagorean Expectation, (despite the fact that the team only won 2 in reality), we start off the 2017/18 ‘niners at 4 wins. With their schedule not expected to become appreciably easier or more difficult, we’ll keep them at 4 wins.
Based on roster movement, we’re inclined to give the 49ers two additional wins simply based on the excitement of having an entirely new organization to call your own. Playing with heart was an issue for the 49ers last season, but with entirely new management and coaching staffs installed, heart shouldn’t be an issue in 2017/18. In addition, there’s no way adding Kyle Shanahan to an offense doesn’t immediately make that offense better, purely in terms of game-plan and strategy.
In terms of evaluating this new leadership team, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan seem by all accounts to be strong and exciting choices for GM and head coach, but it must be remembered that Shanahan has never been a head coach before, and Lynch has never even held any sort of a job in an NFL front office.
So, while we do feel that these front office changes were good ones for the 49ers to make, we also feel pretty confident that it won’t necessarily work out overnight. Lynch will have a lot of learning to do with how to work the finances of a franchise, and Shanahan will likely find it difficult to remain as effective at executing an offense while simultaneously being required to do all of the extra work of a head coach.
In the end, there’s good reason to believe that the 49ers will be much improved next season. But to make the leap to a playoff team (or even a winning season), we believe that fans will need to be patient for a little while longer.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 San Francisco 49ers: 6–10
The San Francisco 49ers are one of the oldest and most storied franchises in the history of the National Football League. Joining the league in 1949, named for the prospectors coming to Northern California during the Gold Rush of 1849, the team has played professional football each season without cessation or relocation for seven decades.
After the dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s, when the fans were blessed to watch two Hall of Fame quarterbacks – Joe Montana and Steve Young – in back-to-back decades, the team fell into a pattern of mediocrity in the 2000s that was broken by the arrival of Jim Harbaugh in 2011. With Harbaugh at the helm and Colin Kaepernick behind center, the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship in three consecutive seasons, winning one of these games to play in the 2012 Super Bowl.
Subsequently, the wheels rapidly came off for the organization, and the team went 8–8 in 2014/15 and fired their head coach, 5–11 in 2015/16, firing their new head coach, and then an abysmal 2–14 in 2016/17, firing both their third head coach and also their long-time general manager.
In the aftermath, the 49ers brought on former NFL safety and recent FOX color commentator John Lynch to be the new GM of the team, and struck gold (no pun intended) landing offensive savant Kyle Shanahan, former offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta Falcons, to be head coach. Though neither had any experience at their respective position, the moves were widely acclaimed.
With an active offseason of acquisitions behind them, the San Francisco 49ers are certainly candidates to claim the distinction of taking the biggest leap forward between the 2016/17 season and the 2017/18 season. We’re inclined to think that the team that takes the field in September of 2017 will bear almost no resemblance to the team that walked off nine months earlier.
While we’re predicting a four-win leap for the ‘niners next season, it’s important to remember that rebuilding a franchise is a slow process: four wins more after a two-win season only brings a franchise up to a 6–10 record. With so much newness up and down the organization, there’s bound to be a bit of culture shock.
But for 49ers fans who have the patience, we feel confident that the combination of Lynch and Shanahan – once they’re able to lock down a franchise quarterback – could be something special.