During the offseason, we always find ways to overreact. Generally, it’s with the players. In recent seasons, it was celebrating the return of Trent Taylor or Jerick McKinnon. As of late, the topic has been whether this season is a Super Bowl or bust year for the San Francisco 49ers.
This team has four winning seasons since 2013 and one under Kyle Shanahan since 2017. Saying this season is a Super Bowl or bust year doesn’t feel like we’re operating in plausible terms.
Even if you’re under the mindset that the Niners Super Bowl window is open now — which is a fair assumption as Trey Lance and Nick Bosa, the team’s two biggest assets, are under rookie contracts — the 49ers have drafted “busts” under Shanahan and still overcame them to make it to the big game.
Let’s dig deeper. The talent on the roster is undeniable. This team should win a lot of games no matter who starts at quarterback. As is the case with any 49ers squad, critical injuries play a factor.
The Niners are better equipped to handle an injury to their starting quarterback, but injuries at cornerback or wide receiver could be back-breaking.
Taking into account what we can see, like injuries, and what we can’t, like whether DeMeco Ryans transition doesn’t go as smooth as Kyle Shanahan had hoped, for example, are things to keep in mind as you answer the question: What needs to happen for the season to be considered a success for the 49ers?
Let’s walk through the four possibilities.
At least make the playoffs
You have to start small. For San Francisco, this would be a rare accomplishment under the Shanahan/Lynch tenure as it’s only happened once in four years. Yes, we know that statement ignores many contexts, but this is the bed that was made by the front office.
If San Francisco fails to have a winning record this year, it’ll likely be due to injuries. To go 8-9 after investing heavily in your offense — new center, right guard, running back(s), quarterback, and potentially to add a WR3 — would suggest that your plan isn’t working.
I throw Ryans’ struggling out there as an example, but he has many Jimmy’s and Joe’s at his disposal that other teams don’t. I’d be shocked if the defense was any worse than 12th in categories that matter, like yards per drive and third-down conversion rate.
The Niners have bigger aspirations than a winning record, but being over .500 should get them into the playoffs — NFC East aside — which is a goal for each team in the NFL.
At least win a playoff game
It’s one thing to make the playoffs. It’s another thing to do damage once you’re in the playoffs. History would also suggest that if the 49ers make the playoffs, they will win a game or two.
We’ve seen teams dominate the regular season, only to be exposed in the playoffs. Think Baltimore from a couple of seasons ago (Greg Roman struggling in the playoffs, you say?). We’ve seen teams sneak into the playoffs and pull off an upset.
In 2019, we saw San Francisco look like juggernauts for about 87% of the three games they played in. Of course, you’d love to beat up on your opponent as that team did, but those matchups were the perfect storms.
Winning a playoff game in 2021 should be viewed as a successful season for the 49ers.
At least make the NFC Championship game
If the 49ers make the NFC Championship, that means they fought through adversity, overcame injuries, and are either getting a nice return on their investment from Jimmy G or Lance is a certified baller.
Of course, it could also mean that the schedule was as easy as we thought, and it never presented any true tests. The defensive line featuring Bosa reverted to its ‘19 self by overwhelming opposing offensive lines.
If San Francisco doesn’t win the No. 1 seed and makes it to at least the NFC Championship, it would be equally or more impressive than a couple of seasons ago, considering all of the changes and moving parts.
What must happen for this season to be considered a success?
This poll is closed
Have a winning record
At least make the playoffs
Win at least one playoff game
Make it to the NFC Championship or better