Going into the 2020 NFL regular season, the San Francisco 49ers were set on avenging their Super Bowl loss and capturing the elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy. The players were focused and saying all of the right things during training camp about finishing the job and bringing home a championship.
Playing the season during a pandemic was challenging for any team in the NFL, but the lack of offseason workouts and mini-camps had an added toll on the Niners.
“To have the way last year ended, in the last six-or-seven minutes, the heartbreak that it was, everybody was just so ready to get back and get going,” Mike McGlinchey said. “Then we had to put the breaks on it before we got to training camp because of the way the world’s situation was last year.”
With the pandemic wreaking havoc across the globe, the 49ers had to wait a little while longer to come together as a team.
Some of the players gathered for offseason workouts, which is where the injury bug started to hit.
Deebo Samuel suffered a Jones fracture while training with teammates over the summer. Then, fellow receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Jalen Hurd got hurt early on in training camp, but the sky was’t falling at that point.
San Francisco still had a majority of its starters but came out flat against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1 and was defeated 24-20. The team lost tight end George Kittle and cornerback Richard Sherman to injury in Week 1, but they weren’t considered serious
The loss was supposed to be just a blip on the radar for one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.
Then, Week 2 happened.
Already without Dee Ford, superstar pass rusher Nick Bosa tore his ACL less than nine minutes into the blowout win over the lowly New York Jets. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas also got hurt against the Jets, ravaging what was thought to be a stacked lineup.
San Francisco never recovered. The team dealt with an unprecedented amount of injuries the rest of the season, leading the league in total man-games lost by a country mile. Adding to the misery, the organization was forced to move its operations to Arizona after Santa Clara County tightened its COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’m very happy the season’s over,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the loss to the Seattle Seahawks. “Once we were eliminated from the playoffs, we were ready to move on a little bit and get to next year.”
Even without most starters, the Niners were in the playoff race until a Week 15 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. That’s a testament to Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who is one of the hottest head-coaching candidates going into the offseason.
Despite missing the likes of Bosa, Sherman and Ford for basically the entire season, Saleh’s unit was a top-five defense. Saleh’s group kept the team in games it had no business being in — thanks to a struggling offense — and is the main reason why the 49ers hung around the playoff picture for as long as they did.
“I know how much the players respect Robert (Saleh) as a coach and love him as a person,” Shanahan said. “I’ll be very surprised if we don’t lose him, I don’t know what’s wrong with people if they don’t hire him ... I hope everyone’s not very smart and doesn’t hire him.”
Saleh’s performance wasn’t the lone bright spot for San Francisco during a 2020 season that was filled with darkness. Fred Warner has developed into one of the best linebackers in the game. Cornerback Jason Verrett — who was an afterthought coming into the season — showed that he can play at a high level. Free-agent acquisition Kerry Hyder Jr. was a pleasant surprise, leading the team with 8.5 sacks.
The Niners had some positives on the offensive side as well. Aiyuk shined over his 12 games during his rookie year and could develop into a bonafide No. 1 receiver. Undrafted free agent running back Jeff Wilson Jr. emerged as a potential starter for next season with his ferocious running style.
Still, the downs of 2020 will sting for a while. The 2019 season was supposed to be a coming-out party for the franchise following the lows at the end of the Trent Baalke era that saw Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula help lead the team into oblivion in 2015 and 2016. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch rebuilt the roster through 2017 and 2018, setting the stage for the 13-3 2019 campaign.
The expectation was that the Niners would be a Super Bowl contender for several years, but then 2020 came along.
It will be a long offseason filled with question marks. San Francisco has 38 players who are up for free agency (per Spotrac), and with the league’s salary cap expected to stay flat due to the lack of revenue caused by the pandemic, there will be a ton of changes.
Even with an offseason that will be full of uncertainty, the 49ers have a sound foundation in place. With Kittle, Bosa, Warner, Samuel, Aiyuk and hopefully the re-signed Trent Williams on the roster, the franchise has a solid nucleus to build off. Plus, the team will add a young, cost-controlled player with the 12th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
But Shanahan knows that having high-end talent on the roster doesn’t mean much if it can’t stay on the field.
“We got a lot of good players,” Shanahan said. “We got to found out how to handle the wear-and-tear of an entire season.”
What do you think were some of the bright spots for the 49ers this season? Other than the injuries, what do you think were some of the negatives?