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ESPN gives the 49ers the second-best odds to go from “first-to-worst” in the NFL

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders only has the Houston Texans ahead of the Niners for teams who won their division last season that could plummet to the bottom.

Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every year, ESPN writes a column where they look at each divisional winner from the year prior and predict which team has the best chance to go from both first to worst and vice versa. For the first time in a long time, the San Francisco 49ers won the NFC West. It’s not unusual for a team that lost the Super Bowl to repeat at a divisional winner the following year. Sometimes, as we’ve seen with the Rams, they’ll flat out miss the playoffs.

In this year’s version, which is more unpredictable than ever with COVID-19 looming, ESPN gave the 49ers the second-best odds of finishing last in the NFC West:

2. San Francisco 49ers

Odds of finishing last in the NFC West: 25.7% (3rd in division)

There are two elements that contribute to San Francisco’s relatively high probability of finishing last in the NFC West.

First is the Plexiglass Principle: the idea that teams that make a major improvement from one year to the next tend to fall back a bit in the third year. The 49ers are in line to hit the Plexiglass Principle hard. They are the first team in the history of our DVOA stats (back to 1985) that improved by 20% on both sides of the ball in the same year. Veteran losses such as DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders won’t help the 49ers fight that strong probability of a reversion.

The other issue is the overall strength of the NFC West. Seattle has one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Los Angeles would have made the playoffs last year if the league had seven playoff teams per conference, and Arizona is a young team on the rise. The entire division finishes with an average winning record in our simulations. It’s not a ridiculous notion that the 49ers could decline a little bit and combine that with a bit of bad luck and go 8-8 — and finish last in the NFC West despite being an above-average team overall.

Yes, the 49ers improved immensely on both sides of the ball in 2019, but it wasn’t due to some major fluke. San Francisco had a ton of talent on its roster, and general manager John Lynch made the right moves to round out the team heading into the season. The Niners added pass rushing demons Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, while also bringing in Deebo Samuel into the fold offensively. Add the fact that starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy for all 16 games, and it didn’t surprise me one bit that San Francisco was the best team in the NFC in 2019.

No doubt losing Sanders and Buckner hurts, but the 49ers did well in filling those two holes with first-round picks. Trent Williams is a perennial Pro Bowler, so the offensive line won’t see too much of a dip with the departure of Joe Staley.

The Niners might not go 13-3 again in 2020, but unless they’re ravaged by the injury bug, it’s hard not to see them win at least 10 games and be back in the postseason. Being a part of the media availabilities, there’s one thing I have noticed about the players: they’re absolutely focused on winning it all in 2020. Team leaders like Richard Sherman, Garoppolo, and Bosa all spoke about how the squad is laser-focused at camp, and feel they’re one of the best-suited teams in the NFL to deal with the challenges of playing a season during a pandemic.

How do you feel about Schatz ranking the 49ers as the second most likely division winner to fall to last in their division?