Prognosticating NFL football is hard. This is not presented as an excuse for when my predictions are pronounced dead on arrival, but rather as a sort of endorsement for an aspect of the game that we all love.
The game of football is a convoluted symphony of independent-thinking parts, and separating the success of one part from that of another is fundamentally a fool’s errand. Every piece of every team is interconnected, beyond the field and into the front office — the great teams make a seamless fabric, most of the rest eventually unspool.
Add in the near certainty of injury (it’s not a matter of if, but of when and how badly) and the NFL becomes a veritable quagmire of potential outcomes. As a result, it can actually sometimes be more instructive to look at the process than the results.
There are far fewer nits to pick with the San Francisco 49ers’ process than there have been for the last several seasons. The bodies in the building have undergone a considerable upgrade.
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are entering year three of their six-year contracts and should be feeling the pressure. They have won a total of ten games in their first two seasons, and actually seemed to regress in year two.
That said, Shanahan remains one of the most highly thought of offensive minds in the league. He would undoubtedly be hired again, as soon as he wanted, if he were suddenly on the market.
Moreover, the product of his acumen has been readily visible. The 49ers offense — led by Nick Mullens — was better than it had any right to be last season. We saw how sharp it looked under Jimmy Garoppolo in late 2017.
Lynch’s prowess, if it exists, is less apparent. He almost certainly would not be hired again if his current gig went away. Given that, the 49ers offseason approach may be even more noteworthy.
Though one might argue they should have been desperate to improve, the 49ers made sound decisions and generally avoided rash spending.
Last year’s team was hopeless on defense — a decrepit line around studly DeForest Buckner and nothing but question marks behind that (outside of a slightly injured Richard Sherman). Not only did the 49ers address most of their defensive needs, they did so without overspending on older players or compromising their flexibility moving forward.
Second overall pick Nick Bosa should help immediately, and early reviews from practice are great. With Dee Ford they addressed both pass rush and an utter failure to force turnovers. The trio of Bosa, Ford and Buckner turn Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead into enviable depth.
Kwon Alexander adds a playmaking linebacker, and Sherman should start the season healthier. The gamble on defense is the rest of the secondary — Lynch and Shanahan doubled down on a group of youngsters who have mostly underwhelmed.
They should be helped immeasurably by a competent (perhaps even dominant?) front seven, and a year of experience can’t hurt, but if we’re picking nits this is one. If the collection of young DB’s fails to yield dividends, Lynch will have nobody to blame but himself.
On offense, a beleaguered receiving corps should be bolstered somewhat by rookies Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd, along with veteran Jordan Matthews. Clearly, though, the 49ers are making their second gamble here on the development of Dante Pettis.
Pettis showed some flashes down the stretch of his rookie season, and the team believes he can be a number one wideout. Either way, their top target is likely to be TE George Kittle, who will need to show that last year was a breakout and not a flash in the pan.
Of course, none of this matters much if the Niners can’t cash the ticket on their biggest bet of all — franchise QB Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Jimmy G story is well-worn ground at this point: whatever you think about him, you can’t prove it. He’s had some impressive performances and some less so, but the 49ers saw a franchise quarterback in his first five starts here and paid him accordingly.
Whether Garoppolo turns into a top ten quarterback or not will likely determine the lasting legacy of the Lynch/Shanahan era. His big contract has an easy out at the end of this season, so the time to prove he’s worth it is now.
I believe in the quarterback we all watched down the stretch of 2017. He made decisive throws, got the ball out quickly and showed uncommon presence and command in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps more to the point he was much better than Nick Mullens.
It’s not unfair to say he’s been oft-injured in his limited opportunities, but it feels premature to call it a pattern. With any luck last year helped teach Jimmy G that discretion is the better part of valor, and he’ll manage to keep himself upright through the holidays.
Given something resembling average NFL health, it seems clear the 49ers should be better than last season; what that actually gets you this season is murkier. Their schedule is unusually thorny for a team coming off of a 4-12 season.
The Niners were third in the NFC West last year, which gets them matchups with the Packers and Washington instead of the moribund Lions and Giants. Their division has at least two tough opponents in it, and they play two others (the NFC South and AFC North) that feature three potential playoff teams.
The schedule opens against Tampa and Cincinnati, two very beatable teams, but both are on the road. If they don’t win both — a tough ask for a west coast team playing back-to-back games in the eastern time zone — the road to a .500 record or better becomes a tough one to hoe.
If they can stay healthy and get the elevated performances they need from the quarterback and defensive back positions, this team has a chance to be good. In that scenario they should at the very least show considerable progress and reason for hope in the future.
I believe this team is good enough to win nine games, but it’s not hard to imagine them being much better than last year and only managing seven. As a prudent sports columnist, I’ll split the difference and make them 8-8.
Prognostication is hard — but the process is finally sound.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives in Berkeley with his wife, son and an aging Shih-Tzu/Schnauzer mix. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 2p-6p every weekday evening alongside Damon Bruce and Ray Ratto. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.