49ers Playoff Bound in 2018?

The 49ers finished the 2017 season as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning six of their final seven games after going winless over their first nine. This late season success has many fans and media members pointing to the 49ers as one of the teams to watch next season. And who can blame them? They have a new hotshot quarterback, one of the most respected play callers in the league as their coach, a top ten pick in the upcoming draft and the most money to work with of any team in the league.

The hope and excitement is well deserved, however it might be a good idea to pump the brakes just a bit on the hype train. There is a long list of teams who have put up a number of wins late during a lost season. We’ve seen this phenomenon up close in the not too distant past. Does anyone remember 2008 when the 49ers won five of their last seven to finish 7-9? Or how about 2009 when they won five of their last eight to finish 8-8? Many felt the 49ers were on their way to fight for a playoff spot in 2010 only to see them fall on their faces with a six win season.

The 49ers late season push in 2017 started in week 10 following a dismal and disjointed loss to rival Arizona. With C.J. Beathard at quarterback the 49ers used a balanced attack to dismantle the New York Giants. They followed that up the following week against Seattle, leading one of the top teams in their division in the second half before mistakes piled up and they ended up with their final loss of the season. On the final series of the Seahawks game Beathard was injured, forcing Kyle Shanahan to insert recently acquired Jimmy Garoppolo into duty. Garoppolo responded with a touchdown pass on his third play in a 49ers uniform.

With Garoppolo in as the starter the 49ers would go on to win their last five games. Garoppolo put up numbers never seen before in the first five starts in a San Francisco uniform, and the hype train was put into overdrive.

With just a quick glance it is easy to see that the 49ers schedule was very favorable in the second half. The 49ers first half opponents finished the season winning 56% of their games, compared to 46% by teams faced in the second half and that second half win percentage includes a Rams team which sat seventeen starters in the season finale. It has been widely recognized that the NFC was much stronger from top to bottom than the AFC. During the second half the 49ers faced three AFC teams compared to only one in the first half. The 49ers two “biggest” wins came against Tennessee and Jacksonville. The Titans were a combined 2-6 against the NFC West in 2017. Also of note, the Titans were 3-5 on the road this season while the Jaguars have not won a game on the West Coast since 2005.

The 2018 49ers will have something that the 2008 and 2009 teams were missing, a quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo put up numbers that would rank among the best in the league had he been playing all season. His record of 7-0 as a starter speaks for itself. At least until you realize that Dieter Brock, Mike Tomczak and Daunte Culpepper posted the same record in their first seven starts.

For all of his terrific plays, one negative in Garoppolo’s game is his propensity to throw into coverage or put the ball up for grabs. While the majority of these throws did not end up in a negative play, those 50-50 balls have a way of balancing out over time. Just as we often see with stocks, there is likely to be a market correction coming for Garoppolo. When he isn’t getting away with the balls that he is throwing up for grabs, how will he and the 49ers team respond? That’s a question that we haven’t really seen answered yet.

On paper, the 2018 schedule appears to be very similar to the 2017 schedule based on opponents win-loss record, however it might end up being much more difficult. For one the AFC West is much more competitive than the AFC South and will become even more with the addition of Jon Gruden as the head coach in Oakland. Add that to an already tough slate of NFC opponents and the 49ers road back to the playoffs isn’t as clear as many might think.

The upcoming offseason will be crucial. Can John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan fill the teams greatest needs with impact players at cornerback, edge pass rusher, and along the interior offensive line while also building depth throughout the roster?

Yes the future appears bright in San Francisco, but take a deep breath before putting on those shades.

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