The 49ers capped off a regular season to remember with a 38-13 thumping over the Arizona Cardinals for their tenth consecutive win. San Francisco is now locked into the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and will square off against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium in the Wild Card round.
With Sunday’s contest being a bit anti-climactic from the jump, I wanted to switch things up and look at the bigger picture rather than the 49ers shellacking of Arizona to close out this season.
So without further ado, here are my five takeaways from the 2022 San Francisco 49ers slate of regular season games.
You couldn’t have drawn up bigger roller coaster ride of a season
Where do I begin? This 49ers team comes into the year with lofty expectations and then loses Week 1 to a Chicago Bears team that finished with the worst record in the league. A week later, they got things rolling as first-time starter Trey Lance was carving up the Seahawks' defense before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
Enter Jimmy Garoppolo, the polarizing now backup quarterback who was all but traded just a month prior. After losing one of the ugliest primetime games of our lifetime, the 49ers rattled off a couple of wins back to back before dropping two in a row to Atlanta and Kansas City, the latter of which would be the last time the 49ers would lose a game during this regular season.
Sandwiched between those two games, the 49ers made an earth-shaking move to acquire do it all superstar running back Christian McCaffrey, who was all too familiar with the Bay Area following his incredible run at Stanford.
The 49ers went 10-1 since acquired McCaffrey, including a perfect 10-0 in the games where the star running back had the entire week to practice and prepare with the team. But all was not smooth sailing on this long winning streak as the 49ers still faced their share of adversity on this run.
Most notably, Garoppolo injured his foot in the 49ers' Week 13 matchup with the Miami Dolphins, which thrust 7th-round rookie quarterback Brock Purdy into the starting spot. Despite being on their third starting quarterback of the season, the 49ers found a way to win that game and continue to win game after game with Purdy under the helm.
That included his first career start against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, where Purdy proved instantly that he belonged by leading a shellacking of a stout Tampa Bay defense while demoralizing arguably the greatest quarterback of all time in the process.
Purdy and the 49ers then went into Seattle on a short week and clinched the division with a convincing victory over a Seahawks team in a building that has been the cause of nightmares for this franchise for over a decade now.
There was even an unpredictable against the Raiders in Las Vegas that saw Purdy and the 49ers overcome a double-digit deficit to win a thriller in overtime. After a 3-4 start, the 49ers now find themselves 13-4 and locked into the second spot in their conference as they aim to put the final touches on this miracle season.
No matter how the playoffs shake out, one thing that cannot be forgotten is the way that this team fought through all the adversity they faced this year. Losing two different starting quarterbacks did not slow them down one bit. Not only did Purdy keep them afloat, but he also put himself in elite company week after week while giving the 49ers real hope that their championship window is as open as it has ever been under Kyle Shanahan.
This was Kyle Shanahan’s best performance as a head coach
Shanahan has put together some impressive seasons during his time in San Francisco, but none that top what we saw in 2022. Forget the Super Bowl year in 2019, the starting quarterback played every single game, and while Shanahan pushed the right buttons, there was nowhere near the same level of adversity the 49ers faced this season.
This season threw practically every curveball you could imagine at Shanahan and the 49ers. Two starting quarterbacks are out. Revolving door or injuries on the interior of the defensive line. A handful of starters missing big chunks of time, and younger players are being thrust into prominent roles.
Not only did the 49ers respond to this adversity with grace, but they also did so by laughing in the face of these challenges and flat-out dominating with their responses. Never mind the fact that the 49ers found a way to win 13 games. How they did it is what was truly the most impressive feat.
The 49ers went 6-0 against NFC west foes this season, the first time that San Francisco went undefeated in divisional play in the NFC west as it’s currently constructed. There were four seasons where they went 5-1 (2002, 2011, 2013, 2019), but this year was their first flawless run through the division in 25 years.
Ten of the 13 games that San Francisco won this season came by double digits, the most of any team in the league this season. No other team in the NFL had more than seven wins by double digits. The 49ers weren’t just scraping by with their second and third-string quarterbacks. They were blowing the doors off their opponents and doing so frequently.
Part of the reason these quarterbacks looked so good this year has to be directly attributed to the work that first-year quarterback coach Brian Griese has done with that position group this season. The ability to identify and construct a well-rounded staff is one of the most valuable traits that a head coach can possess, and Shanahan has proven that he has it in spades.
Whether it’s Griese, Demeco Ryans, Anthony Lynn, Chris Foerster, etc., Shanahan has put together a staff of true difference makers that have been able to get the best out of their respective position groups and make the team as a whole much stronger as a result.
Based on the voting patterns, I doubt Shanahan ends up winning the award, but he has as strong of a case as anyone for the Coach Of The Year award, and he absolutely has my vote for what he has accomplished, given all of the context at hand.
Point differential and turnover margin
Two of the most valuable metrics to gauge a team's performance throughout a season, and the 49ers performed exceptionally in both. Let’s start with point differential, where the 49ers finish the regular season as the league's number-one ranked unit with a margin of +173 on the year.
That’s the highest point differential the 49ers have had in 27 years, dating back to the 1995 season when they were +199. The last time the 49ers were over +100 in point differential, they made a trip to the Super Bowl. Perhaps that could be a foretelling of things to come.
The real shocker from this season came in the turnover department. As good as the 49ers have been during stretches of Shanahan’s tenure with the team, one area where they had never really been an elite team was creating turnovers and limiting mistakes on their end that resulted in turnovers of their own.
Naturally, that had left them as a not-so-great team when it came to turnover differential over that span. That was until the 49ers finished this 2022 campaign ranked first in the NFL at +13 in turnover margin. They had the second most takeaways with 30 while having the third-fewest giveaways with 17.
It was the 49ers' best season under Shanahan for turnover differential and their best overall since 2011 when they were a whopping +28 in that department. To give you an idea of how big the turnaround was, here is what their final turnover margin numbers have looked like in six years under Shanahan:
Beyond remembering what a nightmare 2018 was, this paints a clear picture of just how strong this unit was at controlling the turnover battle week after week. The 20 interceptions forced by the 49ers' defense also led the NFL and was the most they had in a season since 2014.
Well-rounded in all three phases of the game
The defense did the majority of the heavy lifting early on, but the special teams and offense soon followed, resulting in a complete football team that lacked any clear weakness from a collective unit.
Let’s start with that defense, which finished the season allowing just 277 total points, which was lower than all but two teams (2019 Patriots & Bills) over the last five season, which is even more impressive when you account for the 17th game that a number of those teams didn’t have to play.
The 49ers finished the 2022 season ranked number one in points per game and yards per game as well as second in rushing yards per game. Their 30 takeaways were tied with New England for the second most in the league, and they notched 15 fourth down stops on the year that included a handful of heroic goal-line stands.
They were the backbone of this team, but the offense did its part to pick up the slack with a surge down the stretch of the regular season. The 49ers' offense finished the year ranked fifth in yards per game at 365.6 and sixth in points per game at 26.5 per contest.
The 49ers scored 30 or more points eight times this season, with six of those coming after the acquisition of McCaffrey. That became a clear turning point for this team and this offense, as their scoring average jumped from 20.3 to 29.8 following the addition of McCaffrey prior to their Week 7 game.
The offense is top five, the defense is top five, but the area where the 49ers have improved the most is their special teams. Despite the occasional hiccup, the 49ers' kickoff coverage unit has been the best in the league this season based on their opponent's average starting point.
Mitch Wishnowsky has been one of the best punters in the league this season, and come playoff time, there is arguably not a more reliable kicker in the league than Robbie Gould, who has never missed a field goal attempt in the postseason.
This team is firing on all cylinders right now and will look to carry that consistency and momentum forward into their playoff run.
This teams window is wide open
While the focus is on the season at hand, one thing I could not shake throughout the course of this season is how well the 49ers are set up for the future as much as they are in the present.
This current run the 49ers find themselves on is no fluke. You don’t lead the league in point differential without a strong supporting cast from top to bottom. You certainly don’t have the ability to rattle off ten consecutive wins without being a bonafide force to be reckoned with.
The majority of the key players on this roster are either in or close to entering their primes, and there isn’t really any blue-chip talent where you would have any concerns about their ability falling off of a cliff anytime soon.
It appears as though the 49ers might have struck gold where it was least expected at the quarterback position, and at the very least, they have two players on rookie deals who they feel can both contribute to this team going forward.
Nick Bosa is due a huge extension, and you can bet the 49ers will do whatever it takes to ensure that deal gets done. Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner are both locked into long-term deals, and McCaffrey appears to have plenty locked in the tank moving forward.
Even for an older player like Trent Williams, there are no clear signs of regression within their game. This roster is packed with quality players that appear poised to make meaningful contributions for the next few seasons, and as a result, the 49ers look like a team that will be in the mix year in and year out for the foreseeable future.