It was a disappointing season for the San Francisco 49ers. Injuries derailed a squad that looked like a potential wild-card team in the NFC heading into this season. Their record doesn’t tell the full story, though, as they let numerous games that were close at the end slip away. However, it’s a game of inches, and clutch plays help separate the good teams from the bad teams in this league. They have not yet learned how to properly close out games, but there were performances that indicate this team is on the verge of a breakout once key players return. Here are some final grades on their 4-12 season.
San Francisco 49ers 2018 Report Card
The 49ers made a huge commitment to Jimmy Garoppolo this past off-season, signing him to a five-year contract worth a maximum of $137.5 million. At the time, it was the richest contract by average annual value in league history. Garoppolo started three games before tearing his ACL against the Kansas City Chiefs. Garoppolo had a poor opening game against the Minnesota Vikings but bounced back with a solid performance and a victory against the Detroit Lions before his injury against the Chiefs.
C.J. Beathard started the next five games, all of which were losses. Nick Mullens stepped in to start for an injured Beathard in Week Nine against the Oakland Raiders and had one of the most impressive debuts by a quarterback in league history. He kept the job for the final eight games and really showed that he belongs in the NFL. Mullens has definitely played well enough to be Garoppolo’s backup next season.
It’s always difficult for a receiving corps to have to deal with such constant quarterback upheaval, which makes what George Kittle did this season even more remarkable. Kittle set a single-season record for yards by a tight end despite having to essentially develop a rapport with a new quarterback every handful of weeks. Kittle handled the bulk of the receiving production with 88 receptions and 1,377 yards, and injuries really forced a lot of players to have to step up. Nobody besides Kittle caught at least 45 passes or had at least 500 yards, but there were seven players who had at least 20 catches and 200 receiving yards. It would have been really interesting to see what guys like Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, and Dante Pettis could have done in this offense with a full season of work and no injuries. Kendrick Bourne ended up ranking second on the team in catches and receiving yards, and his growth as a player in his second season was intriguing.
There’s a lot to be excited about with this unit, and they just need to stay healthy and develop some continuity. The positive that stands out the most in this group is their explosiveness. Kittle gets most of his yards after the catch and has unbelievable acceleration and quickness for a guy his size. Goodwin is arguably the fastest receiver in the league, and constantly a threat to go over the top of a secondary and connect on a bomb. Amongst players with at least 25 catches, Pettis ranked fifth in yards per reception.
That type of big-play ability resulted in the 49ers as a team ranking ninth in yards per pass. The team was in the lower half in other key stats, though, tied for 17th in passing touchdowns, 23rd in completion percentage, 24th in passer rating, and 30th in interceptions. There’s a lot of positives to build on, though, and when Garoppolo presumably comes back healthy next season, he’ll have a lot of unique weapons to work with. The relatively poor performance of this unit as a whole was largely due to injury, and another season in Kyle Shanahan’s offense with more stability at the quarterback position should really help. D-
This was another area that was really affected by injury this season. Jerick McKinnon got signed this off-season to be the featured back, but he tore his ACL in the preseason and missed the entire regular season. That thrust Matt Breida into a bigger role, and he responded admirably. He led the team with 814 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Among qualified running backs, Breida ranked fourth in the league with 5.3 yards per rushing attempt. He’s an explosive option out of the backfield, but he’s undersized, and the increase in workload this season really revealed how fragile he can be. There were numerous games where he’d be on a roll through the first quarter or so, only to be knocked out of the game for a lengthy span after taking a huge hit.
Like the receiving unit, injuries forced multiple players to step up. Four different players had at least 250 rushing yards on the team. Raheem Mostert had 261 yards and was averaging 7.7 yards per attempt until a gruesome elbow injury knocked him out for the season after nine games. Alfred Morris had experience in Shanahan’s offense with the Washington Redskins, and he served as a more powerful running option. He ran for 428 yards and two touchdowns. Jeff Wilson ran for 266 yards as well, seeing his role expanded due to the injuries to guys ahead of him on the depth chart.
This unit would undoubtedly benefit from more continuity as well. Breida and Wilson are under contract for next season. McKinnon would certainly create an explosive duo out of the backfield with Breida. They’re two potent weapons that Shanahan can work with, and Wilson can still serve as a solid depth guy to step in if injuries occur again. There’s a lot to be optimistic about with this rushing attack, but there are also some daunting problems. They lost the third most fumbles out of any run unit and also tied for the third fewest touchdowns. Breida is small, and McKinnon is even smaller. A unit built around those two could lead to a lot of big runs, but might also feature durability issues.
Typically, running back duos are supposed to compliment each other. If one guy is small and elusive, the other guy should be big and powerful, just to give the defense a different type of guy to have to stop during prolonged drives. The pure speed is really enticing between the two of them, but there are certainly question marks. Kyle Juszczyk isn’t typically used as a ball carrier, and with Morris not under contract for next season, it’ll be interesting to see what management does about acquiring a power back who can churn out hard-fought yards. The team ranked 12th in yards per rush and 13th in yards per game this season, and that was without McKinnon. The lack of scoring and the fumbling issues are what really stand out, though, even with Breida surprising a lot of people with his rushing output after getting more carries this season than ever before. D-
If Richard Sherman hadn’t have been such a strong presence, this secondary would have been an utter disaster. Sherman had a lot to prove coming off his ruptured Achilles, and he rebounded from that injury nicely. He still has the talent to lock down an entire side of the football field, and opposing offenses rarely challenged him.
The rest of the secondary is really a work in progress, though. The thing that stands out the most is the lack of interceptions. The 49ers had just two interceptions the entire season as a team. There were 52 individual players who had more interceptions than the entire 49ers team last season, and 98 who had just as many picks. So many huge momentum swings within a game are generated by defensive takeaways, and this unit only having two interceptions this season really made it that much harder for this team to generate any type of spark.
Those lack of turnovers played a large role in the unit giving up the second highest passer rating amongst league defenses. It wasn’t the only reason for that high passer rating, though. This secondary also gave up the second most passing touchdowns in the league. The relative lack of pass rush certainly didn’t help, as the team ranked just 22nd in sacks. When the quarterback doesn’t feel uncomfortable and can sit in the pocket with time to pick apart a defense, the results can be disastrous.
There were some positive stats to point to, though. The defense had the 10th lowest opposing quarterback completion percentage and 12th lowest yards per pass attempt. They had just the 19th lowest yards per reception, though, indicating that while they were generally stingy about allowing completions, the ones that were allowed were typically lengthy ones. They also ranked 11th in fewest passing yards per game, which might be a bit misleading when observing their losing record and the games in which teams jumped out to large leads and didn’t pass as much. Sherman can help mentor this unit, and he’s still a terrific asset. They really need to find a way to generate more takeaways, though, and not give up as many touchdowns. D-
This is probably the most impressive unit the team has. They’ve really invested a lot of early first-round picks on the defensive line, and DeForest Buckner has asserted himself as one of the better interior linemen in the league. Not only did he lead the team with 12 sacks, but also led the team with 17 tackles for loss. That tackles for loss total ranked eighth in the league. The unit as a whole ranked seventh in the league in fewest yards per run.
The team seems to have found their middle linebacker of the future in Fred Warner. He was on the field for about 98 percent of his team’s defensive snap counts and led the team in combined tackles with 124. That ranked 12th in the league.
Despite the especially stalwart effort against the run on a per carry level, the team gave up just the 14th fewest rushing yards per game. That indicates games in which teams jumped out to an early lead against them and relied heavily upon the run the rest of the game to try to eat up the clock. They were tied for 15th in fewest touchdowns allowed, so it wasn’t really this unit that led to the 49ers giving up such lofty point totals this season. They were tied for 19th in rushing first downs allowed, though, so offensive drives were certainly prolonged by a unit that couldn’t manage to stuff teams on third down as often as they’d have liked to.
While the 49ers struggled to create interceptions, they were able to rank 12th in fumbles recovered from opposing carries. The run defense is probably the thing the 49ers can be most excited about from this past season, and they have some really positive pieces to continue building around. Opposing teams knew that it was through the air that this 49ers defense could be most exploited, not on the ground. C+
There’s a strong case to be made that, besides Kittle, it was Robbie Gould who had the best season out of anyone on the 49ers. Gould led the league in field goal percentage, going 33-34. Those 33 field goals were tied for third in the league. The team also ranked fourth in kickoff yards per attempt. Richie James returned 23 kicks for the 49ers and ranked seventh in the league amongst qualified returners with 25.2 average yards per return.
D.J. Reed also returned 11 kicks and averaged 30.2 yards per return. Amongst players with at least 10 returns, that ranked second in the league. They did lead the league in fumbles on kickoff returns, though, so that big-play explosiveness was evened out a bit by their propensity to cough up the ball. Other aspects of their special teams struggled this season as well, particularly their punting and punt returners. Bradley Pinion ranked just 31st amongst qualified punters in yards per punt, and the 49ers as a team ranked just 28th in that same category. Pinion ranked 25th in net punting average, while the 49ers as a team ranked 24th in that category.
Their coverage team tended to prevent sizable punt returns, though, as they ranked 13th in yards given up per punt return. That explains why Pinion’s net yardage ranked higher than his total yardage. Pinion ranked 16th in total punts, but tied for 19th in times he pinned other teams inside the 20-yard line. He only had four touchbacks last season, though, so it wasn’t really a case of a lack of placement to explain the low inside-the-20 totals. He just doesn’t have an especially strong leg.
While the 49ers were explosive when it came to returning kickoffs, they didn’t really have the same type of success when it came to returning punts. They not only tied for second in most punt return fumbles but ranked just 29th in punt return yards per attempt. James, Pettis, and Trent Taylor all had at least nine punt returns this season, but none had more than 12 returns. Taylor led the team with 7.8 yards per punt return, and that ranked just 22nd amongst the 38 players in the league with at least 10 punt returns. Although there were some excellent aspects of their special teams, their overall situation within that unit is still below average. D+
Bill Parcells once famously said that you are what your record says you are, but this 49ers squad seems different than typical 4-12 teams. Not only were they expected to contend for a playoff spot before the key injuries began to hit, but there were numerous games that came down to the wire and could’ve gone differently if the 49ers had made just a few more plays. There were seven games when the 49ers had the ball on offense with under five minutes left with a chance to at least tie the game. They’re really not far away from being a playoff contender if they can just learn how to execute at the end of tight games.
Things might have been very different if guys like Garoppolo and McKinnon had been healthy this season, and if their wide receiver corps hadn’t have been plagued with so many injuries as well. There would have been games where the offense would have more easily been able to put points on the board in crunch time.
With an off-season of free agent acquisitions and high draft picks, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to think this team is on the brink of competing for a playoff spot next season. This 4-12 record certainly indicates a flawed team, though, and the stats back that up. However, when viewed in the proper context, this specific 4-12 doesn’t seem as pathetic as other 4-12 situations.
This is a team where the best is seemingly yet to come, and as these young pieces continue to get more comfortable within these offensive and defensive systems being run, there’s no reason to think things won’t get better. If the 49ers stay relatively healthy next season, this roster could surprise a lot of people. They were bad this year as a team, but they’re not going to stay bad for much longer. D