It wasn’t supposed to end this way for a team that less than 12 months ago appeared to be on its way to winning its first Super Bowl in 26 years.
But a 49ers season that began in Santa Clara with legitimate championship aspirations ended Sunday with the team facing an offseason of uncertainty after a 26-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at their temporary Arizona home at State Farm Stadium.
A merciless string of injuries to key players virtually eliminated any possibility of the 49ers defending their NFC title early on. Their season’s unraveling concluded with them blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter Sunday in a meaningless game, just as they had in last year’s 31-20 Super Bowl loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Tough personnel changes await San Francisco’s front office.
The 49ers will need to decide who among a lengthy list of pending free agents they’ll attempt to keep. Coaches are likely to be poached and will need to be replaced too.
“I’m excited this year is over, now it’s time to figure out how to improve us,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s game.
None of the decisions figures to occupy as much focus as their plans for Jimmy Garoppolo, their franchise quarterback due to earn $25.5 million next year.
The 49ers signed Garoppolo to a contract worth $137.5 over five years in 2018, and the 29-year-old has shown himself to be worth every penny while on the field.
Garoppolo owns a 24-8 career record as a starter, including going 22-8 in parts of four seasons in San Francisco and taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his only full season with the team.
The problem has been keeping the oft-injured snap-caller on the field.
Garoppolo missed most of the 2018 season with a torn ACL, and ankle injuries limited him to parts of just six games this season.
Asked whether he believed Garoppolo would return next season Monday, Shanahan offered no guarantees, telling reporters: “I do believe Jimmy’s going to be our quarterback next year.”
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey said he wasn’t in the business of offering unsolicited advice to general managers, but he couldn’t stress enough Garoppolo’s value.
“I believe that our team needs him, I believe that our team is clearly different without him…the results speak for themselves,” McGlinchey said.
“He’s our quarterback, I hope he’s our quarterback here for the future and he’s a guy that I love to play for, I love playing with, and I know the rest of our locker room feels the same way.
“He’s a guy that we want to keep around here, he’s a guy that we need to have here, and that’s all you’ve got to say about that.”
Other pending free agents include cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Jason Verrett, defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr., wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and tight end Jordan Reed.
The status of 49ers backup quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens for next season is uncertain too.
Beathard, who completed 25 of 37 pass attempts for 273 with one touchdown in Sunday’s game, will be an unrestricted free agent. Mullens, who will be a restricted free agent, suffered an elbow injury last month that could limit his availability for next season.
Shanahan confirmed that defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will interview for the vacant Atlanta Falcons coaching job Monday.
“I hope everyone’s not very smart and doesn’t hire (Saleh) so I can keep him,” Shanahan said. “But, I’m expecting not to have him” next season.
Shanahan does expect to get several key players back, none more impactful than defensive end Nick Bosa. The 49ers lost the 2019 Rookie Defensive Player of the Year to a torn ACL Sept. 20 in a 31-13 victory over the Jets.
Running back Raheem Mostert (high ankle sprain), tight end George Kittle (foot fracture) and wide receiver Deebo Samuel (hamstring) are among others the 49ers lost to injuries for extended periods.
Kittle came back for the last two games and made a sensational one-handed 41-yard reception Sunday that set up one of three Tristan Vizcaino three field goals.
The 49ers signed Vizcaino Friday to replace veteran place-kicker Robbie Gould, who went on the COVID-19 reserve list earlier in the week.
“You can battle through anything that’s thrown at you in life,” Beathard said when asked what he’d learned from the challenges his team faced this season, with the 49ers spending more than four weeks in Arizona amid a coronavirus health order issued in Santa Clara County banning all contact sports.
“Whenever there are certain things that hit you, that you feel like you can’t recover from or you feel like you’ll never recover from, yeah you can. And I would just tell that to anybody out there who feels down in the dumps or something, if something happened in their life where they feel like they can’t overcome it, you always can.