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How the 49ers went from 4 wins to the Super Bowl in just one year

San Francisco had the No. 2 pick in the draft less than a year ago. Now the team has a spot in the NFL’s biggest game.

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The 49ers weren’t supposed to get here this quickly. In the span of just over a year, San Francisco has gone from being one of the league’s worst teams to an NFC championship and a spot in Super Bowl 54.

Kyle Shanahan’s team is just the third in NFL history to go from four wins or fewer to football’s biggest game only a year later. The 1999 Rams, led by an emerging Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf, won their first Super Bowl that year. The 1988 Bengals, upended by Joe Montana at Super Bowl XXIII, could not.

San Francisco may have uprooted its fortunes over the course of a single season, but this turnaround had been planted years ago before finally blossoming in 2019. So how did the 49ers do it? There were three major components to this arrival:

1. Jimmy Garoppolo stayed healthy

The 49ers traded for Garoppolo during the 2017 season, but the former Patriot didn’t put in a full season of work until nearly two years later. After energizing a moribund Niners team following that midseason trade, the young QB only played three games in 2018 before a torn ACL cut his season short.

That left several questions coming into this past season — ones for which Garoppolo has had positive answers. The first 16-game season of his career saw him throw 27 touchdown passes on an efficient 8.4 yards per pass as the Niners went 13-3 and secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC. His 81.7 percent catchable ball rate was second in the NFL to only Drew Brees among qualified QBs. His 2019 passer rating was 102.0; backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard combined for an 87.4 rating the year before in his stead.

Garoppolo hasn’t been asked to do much this postseason. A surging rushing attack and early leads have limited him to only 27 passes through his first two playoff starts. That doesn’t mean he’s not capable of lighting up the scoreboard in a shootout, though. As James Brady pointed out, this is still the same QB who torched the playoff-bound Saints for 349 yards and four touchdowns in a comeback win during the regular season.

2. The seeds of so many high draft picks took root

A string of poor performances meant the 49ers had top-10 draft picks in each of the past four years. Here’s who they came away with:

  • 2016 (seventh overall): DeForest Buckner, DL
  • 2017 (third overall, traded down from No. 2): Solomon Thomas, DE
  • 2018 (ninth overall): Mike McGlinchey, OT
  • 2019 (second overall): Nick Bosa, DE

Buckner and Bosa are both starters for a pass rush that ranked third in the NFL in sack rate this fall (8.5 percent). McGlinchey ranked fifth among all tackles this season in ESPN’s pass blocking win rate. Thomas has fallen out of the starting lineup thanks in part to Bosa’s arrival, but remains a useful rotational piece.

Those have been the highest-profile picks, though several other key contributors were the product of general manager John Lynch’s (and, in 2016, former GM Trent Baalke) scouting. All-Pro George Kittle was a fifth-round pick in 2017. The following year brought linebacking linchpin Fred Warner in the third round. Deebo Samuel, a dynamic X-factor for Garoppolo’s offense (961 total yards and six touchdowns as a rookie) was the 36th overall pick last spring. Sideline-to-sideline tackling machine Dre Greenlaw was a fifth-rounder in 2019.

There have been wasted opportunities as well. Recent first-rounders like Reuben Foster and Joshua Garnett are no longer on the team. Dante Pettis has struggled to live up to his second-round status in 2018 despite several chances to break through a shallow WR corps.

Even so, there have been more hits than misses in San Francisco’s recent draft history. That’s been the base for the Super Bowl 54 run and provided low-cost starters who created enough salary cap space to not only sign Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract, but also lure other big names to the West Coast.

3. San Francisco’s veteran acquisitions paid off

The draft laid a foundation of homegrown players, but Lynch needed a few extra pieces to build a contender. Over the past three seasons, the 49ers have added a long list of veteran talent who have played a major role in the team’s revival.

His 2018 free agent class brought starting center Weston Richburg and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman into the fold. One year later, Pro Bowlers Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford — the latter acquired via trade from Kansas City — came on board to complete the team’s defensive overhaul.

Despite some lingering injuries, Ford still finished the year with 6.5 sacks in 11 games. Alexander also missed time due to a torn pectoral muscle, but both are healthy and likely to contribute in Super Bowl 54.

Raheem Mostert was more of a hidden jewel than a standard free agent signing; he worked his way up from the practice squad in the pre-Lynch era before earning his spot in the tailback rotation. Since then, he has flourished under Shanahan’s system. He ran for a franchise record 220 yards and four touchdowns in San Francisco’s NFC title game win over the Packers. Tevin Coleman, a new addition this season, left that game early with a dislocated shoulder but ran for 105 yards the prior week to beat the Vikings.

Neither one may have had these breakout games without the point-of-contact blocking from fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who was Lynch’s first notable signing back in 2017.

The 49ers have a chance to become only the second team in NFL history to go from a four-win season to a Super Bowl victory. If a championship parade comes to the Bay Area, however, it won’t be thanks to just one hard year of work.

San Francisco has been building to this since hiring Lynch and Shanahan in 2017. A win over the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54 would be the ultimate validation of the work they’ve been doing the past three seasons.