Over the course of the 2018 season, the San Francisco 49ers set a record for lowest turnover margin (minus-25) and set NFL records for fewest takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two) in a season.
As the head coach of one of the worst teams in the NFL, Kyle Shanahan will make his third appearance coaching the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., across from the Oakland Raiders’ Jon Gruden — a useful, if dubious, honor.
After a miserable 4-12 campaign beset by injuries, where the 49ers played 12 different defensive backs, got down to their fourth running back and third quarterback, played nine of 10 practice squad players and fell “well short” of general manager John Lynch’s expectations, both Lynch and Shanahan said they think the team is better-situated for the coming offseason than it was a year ago, during their post-season press conference. That’s why there won’t be coaching staff changes, and, Shanahan said, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be retained.
“Saleh’s done a good job, and I think he’ll want to get better,” Shanahan said.
Despite some of the brutal numbers on defense, San Francisco went from having the worst rushing defense in the NFL in 2016, to the 22nd rushing defense in 2017 to the 14th rushing defense in the just-concluded season. All that, plus the emergence of a true everyday middle linebacker in rookie Fred Warner and eventually some semblance of an edge pass rush late in the season — courtesy Len Eshmont Most Inspirational 49er award-winner DeForest Buckner — is promising, as is the fact that the 49ers also won two of their final four games, and took a very good Chicago team to the brink.
All that, despite some truly horrific tackling over the first five weeks of the season.
“I do think we emphasize turnovers so much that I noticed, I’m sure you guys did, too, a lot of our guys went for too many turnovers and we weren’t as good at tackling,” Shanahan said. “Once you see that, alright, let’s go back to step one. Let’s make sure we tackle and we’ll worry about turnovers later. I think we do have good tacklers on our team. I don’t think we played that way early on and just as coaches you see we’re going for the ball way too much. We’ve got to tackle better and we’ll worry about that secondary.
“I think we did get better at tackling and I think we did finished that pretty well when we were going through that. Once that does happen guys are not going for the ball as much, but you can’t do both. It’s not easy. You’ve got to get better and more experienced at it. There’s a lot of savvy veterans in this league who know how to poke the ball out, but also make the tackle, too. I think a lot of our guys what we went through this year, hopefully have learned both ways and that will make them better next year.”
Lynch said that, in his initial conversations with Shanahan when they first arrived in Santa Clara two years ago, Shanahan expressed his desire for a defensive mind associated with the style of defense played by Seattle’s Legion of Boom. He got Saleh.
“That’s something that Kyle had gone against and had a great deal of respect, but you still have to make that scheme your own,” Lynch said. “That sometimes takes some time. What I’m excited about is, we’ve grown much closer to finding out who we are as a defense, our identity. Nothing reflects that more than up front.
“We, towards the end of the year this year, really saw where the pieces fit, and moving Arik Armstead inside in nickel to a nickel nose, moving Solly in to an inside player, I think things just kind of fell into place.”
Armstead fractured his right hand in the game against the Bears, but played through it with a club on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. His fifth-year option has been picked up for 2019.
“We’re very excited with the way he played, like we talked about, fell into place,” Lynch said.
While Lynch was loathe to issue any kind of timetable for success, Shanahan said he thought his team should have won seven games this season, even with the depleted roster. He later said he maybe was being a bit too honest.
Expectations next season will be even higher, as well they should. Not only will the 49ers pick No. 2 overall in a draft heavy with their position of biggest need — pass rusher — but they will also return their franchise quarterback, their top two running backs, their record-setting tight end George Kittle and a ready-to-breakout star receiver in Dante Pettis, who, before a promising-yet-injury-marred rookie season, was one of the most dangerous playmakers in the Pac-12.
“It’s hard to tell without your guys out there,” cornerback Richard Sherman said on Sunday, when asked how close the 49ers are to being a playoff team next season. “Without Jimmy G (Garoppolo), you’ve got your franchise quarterback you lose, what? — three games into the season. You lose the running back you just paid no games into the season. Your starting receivers get banged up. You lose a safety a game almost every game all the way up until the 10th, 11th game. I think it’ll be tough to know how good we’ll be ’til we have a consistent unit out there and show some continuity.”
— Tight end George Kittle won San Francisco’s highest award, the Bill Walsh team MVP award on Monday. The award, which is voted on by the coaching staff, is given to the 49er who has best represented the standard of professional excellence established by the former San Francisco head coach from 1979-1988.
Kittle set the NFL single-season record for tight end receiving yards on Sunday, and a 49ers record for tight end receptions in a season, with 1,377 and 88, respectively. He broke the receptions record of 82 with a 25-yard catch to set up a one-yard Alfred Morris touchdown run in the third quarter.
— Bobb McKittrick Award winner Laken Tomlinson got good news on Monday. The left guard’s right knee injury, suffered in the second quarter on a one-yard run by Morris, is an MCL tear, but one that will not require surgery. His ACL is intact, and rehab will take three months.
“That’s what they had a hunch last night,” Shanahan said. “They were feeling good. But, the scans did confirm that his ACL was intact. That was really good news for us.”
Until Tomlinson went down, he’d played every offensive snap for the 49ers this season, and started the final 15 games in 2017. The McKittrick Award, announced on Monday morning, is given annually to the 49ers offensive lineman who best represents the courage, intensity and sacrifice displayed by the longtime offensive line coach, during his 21 years of service to the 49ers. The award was established by the 49ers in 1999, and is voted on by the offensive line.
— Buckner also won the Hazeltine Iron Man Award, given annually to the most courageous and inspirational defensive player as voted upon by the defensive coaches.
— Other team award winners included left tackle Joe Staley (Gary Niver Award, presented by the San Francisco Chapter of the PFWA for cooperation and professionalism with the media) and running back Raheem Mostert (Perry/Yonamine Award, voted on by the players, awarded to the player who exhibits exceptional commitment to promoting unity within the team and in their community).
Quarterback Nick Mullens won the Thomas Herrion Memorial Award, presented to a rookie or first-year player who best represents the dream of Thomas Herrion, and who has taken advantage of every opportunity, turned it into a positive situation and made their dream turn into a reality. Mullens, who went undrafted, spent all last season on the practice squad and took over as the starter on a Thursday night game against the Raiders to lead San Francisco to a 34-3 win, certainly fits the bill. That award is voted on by the coaches.
Cornerback Richard Sherman won the Ed Block Courage Award, named after the former Baltimore Colts trainer of 23 years, and was most passionate about helping children of abuse.
Ed Block Courage Award winners from each of the 32 NFL teams are honored at a banquet in Baltimore, MD. All proceeds from the event benefit the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation’s Courage House National Support Network. Named after the NFL team in a respective NFL city, a Courage House is a facility that provides support and quality care for abused children and their families in that community. The 49ers dedicated their Courage House in October 2003 at the Edgewood House in San Francisco.
— Shanahan was adamant that he is not a fan of filming HBO’s Hard Knocks series. They are one of the few teams that cannot turn down a request from the NFL to do the show, but if they get selected, Shanahan would take a dive.
“It’s a hard, hard, bad stance, Hard Knocks,” Shanahan said. “You will see the worst entertainment possible by me.”