The new year brings with it new expectations. The San Francisco 49ers had a disappointing 2018 campaign, thanks in large part to Jimmy Garoppolo’s torn ACL. Most of us probably did not see the 49ers as a Super Bowl team prior to the injury, but the playoffs were at least in the realm of the possible.
Over the next eight months, the 49ers will get Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon from rehab, add some potentially significant talent in the draft, and possibly land a big fish or two in free agency. The roster was improved from 2017 to 2018, and it should improve considerably from 2018 to 2019. Or at least, that’s one expectation.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch met with the media on Monday to wrap up the 2018 season and start looking ahead to 2019 (transcript/video). Naturally, they were asked if a playoff appearance was the expectation for 2019. They acknowledged the need to improve, but they would not say it’s playoffs or bust.
Lynch: “Look, we came in here on day one and said our expectations are to be a championship team. I think we also said we are not going to put timetables on those things. I think what Kyle and I focus on is each and every day making ourselves better, making our organization better by the things we do. We have a philosophy that’s rooted in our experiences that when you do that, good things happen. So, we won’t put any timetable. But, we have high expectations, high standards. It is clear to say we fell well short of those this year. That was disappointing. We need to be better and we will.”
Shanahan: “I think those are the questions everyone gets at these type of times, and just how I look at myself and how I try to get my own expectations is I never want to underachieve, ever. I always want to overachieve, but never under. You want to do as good as you believe that you can do. You hope to get lucky, also, on top of that. I look at this year and we went through some tough things this year. I look back on it and with the stuff we went through, are you going to have a great record? You have a chance to. But, odds are it’s going to be tough. We only won four games. I’m not happy with that despite what’s happened. I believe specifically going through the games and everything, I think we should have won seven. So, I’m down about that. That’s what I’m upset with myself for in trying to find a way to get those games that you could have won a couple of those close games that you feel as a coach, just watching the tape, going into the game, that you should have done. That’s how I’ll look at it every year. I think when you should make the playoffs, you know that. You get disappointed if you don’t. But, that is the goal, always.”
While I think many of us will expect competition for a playoff berth, I’m not surprised by the responses they gave. The team should be improved in 2019, will hopefully move in a positive direction in turnover differential, and start winning more of their close games. If that happens, realistically they would be contending for at least a wild card berth.
Prior to Sunday’s season finale against the Rams, I did a Q&A with Joe McAtee over at Turf Show Times. One question he asked me was what has to happen in 2019 to avoid talking about a new coach. More specifically, he asked if the 49ers could put up another losing season and still bring Shanahan back in 2020.
I told him that I wasn’t sure if it’s playoffs or bust, but if the 49ers don’t win nine games in 2019, Shanahan would likely find himself on the hot seat. Obviously if Garoppolo got hurt again, that would be a potential excuse, but with Nick Mullens showing signs of being an adequate quarterback, even a Garoppolo injury might not be enough with a further talent infusion.
Black Monday saw Adam Gase and Dirk Koetter both get fired. With their departures, that leaves Doug Pederson as the only coach from the class of 2016 to remain in the same position. That class included Gase, Koetter, Mike Mularkey, Chip Kelly, Hue Jackson, and Ben McAdoo. Mularkey made one playoff appearance before getting, but it was otherwise some ugliness for that group.
So with 2019 dawning, let’s cut to the chase. How hot does Kyle Shanahan’s seat get if the 49ers don’t make the playoffs? If they finish with eight or nine wins but come up short, what does that mean? What if the 49ers stumble for some reason and finish 7-9 or worse?
Robert Saleh is the first candidate to get fired if things start to go south on defense, but Shanahan is the offense. If the offense struggles, do we see him potentially promote someone into play-calling duties? This is obviously a ton of speculation at this point, but I’m curious how people view the coming year. We haven’t even gotten to free agency and the draft, but that doesn’t mean people don’t already have some preconceived notions in their heads.
On Monday, Shanahan was asked what communication has been like with Jed York recently now that coaches are getting fired and teams are figuring things out for 2019. Shanahan offered an intriguing answer that detailed how blunt he was with York back in 2017 when he was interviewing, and what it means for expectations heading into 2019.
“It’s been the same since it was when I interviewed with him for five hours. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here. It’s talking to ownership and being very blunt and honest about where I personally thought the team was at that time. Hearing Jed’s opinions on what he thought, having a plan going into it. The stuff that we worked for contractually and things like that, it all had to do with the reality of where we are at or where we were at. We knew it would take some time. That doesn’t mean that you’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s going to take four years. Hey, it’s going to take three years, or don’t worry, it will only take two years.’ That’s not at all what you talk about. You talk about the reality of where you are compared to everyone else.
“I think Jed, I and John, we were very on that same page in the interview process. Everything I think we talked about, we’re still on the same page. It’s been pretty evident and clear. You do have opportunities to do things quicker than you want. Was very excited in our second year that we felt we did find a franchise quarterback and we thought that could accelerate some of the stuff. Unfortunately, went through a bad injury and that made it tougher. Like I said earlier though, I still think we could have won more. But, I think all that’s been the same since the beginning. So, there’s no huge surprise here. There’s no, I know we could have won a few more games, but I also know that expectations and things like that, we’ve been on the same page since weeks before we got here, and nothing’s changed since today.”
For the first time in a long time, there seems to be solid communication and everybody seems to be on the same page. The rebuilding process continues, but at some point rebuilding has to turn into winning. What does that mean for how you perceive the upcoming 2019 season?