By Sam McPherson
It's seems cheap to rip off Charles Dickens and call the 2017 San Francisco 49ers participants in "A Tale of Two Seasons"—but that really is what went down this year as the Faithful by the Bay know. The 49ers opened the season rather poorly and then completed it somewhat amazingly on their way to an uneven, albeit altogether positive, 6-10 record. This was despite the last-place finish in the NFC West for the third consecutive season.
That's what a nine-game losing streak to start the year and a five-game winning streak to end the season will do for the fan base. Forget the struggles of the past four years as San Francisco missed the postseason repeatedly. Next year is all that matters now, and Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara will be loud and raucous in 2018, guaranteed.
What Went Wrong In 2017
Three primary issues contributed to the 49ers starting the season so poorly: mediocre quarterback play, youth, and injuries. Early-season starter Brian Hoyer and midseason replacement C.J. Beathard (a rookie) combined for a 1-10 record and a 68.5 QB rating, which put a lot of pressure on a young, but talented defense as the team struggled to keep healthy players on the field.
As a result, San Francisco set an NFL record by losing five straight games by three points or less, and then the bottom fell out as the fatigue and injuries really hit the defense hard. With the offense unable to consistently move the ball, the problems just snowballed from there. Only the tremendous ineptitude of the New York Giants provided the 49ers with a victory in the first 12 weeks of the year.
What Went Right In 2017
The day before Halloween, the S.F. front office made its biggest trade in decades, acquiring New England backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo for a 2018 second-round pick. Once Garoppolo finally stepped on the field in Week 13, the injury rash was abating, and the defense found its second wind with the help of an improved offense and better health.
Garoppolo is now 7-0 as an NFL starter, the last five coming with the 49ers to close this 2017 season. He posted a 96.2 QB rating, sparked his teammates to new heights, helped the defense stay off the field and rejuvenated the franchise from its four-year drop into the doldrums. Rookie defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and rookie linebacker Reuben Foster—the team's top draft choices in 2017—developed well and helped the cause, too.
Most Valuable Players
The three team MVPs for the season included Garoppolo on offense, Foster on defense and placekicker Robbie Gould on special teams. Garoppolo threw five interceptions in his five starts, so he wasn't perfect, but his energy, leadership and playmaking abilities woke the offense up, improving the average scoring from 17.0 points per game in the first 11 contests to 28.8 in the final five.
Foster only played in 10 games due to an injury early on, but he finished the season with 72 tackles—five more tackles, and the rookie would have led the 49ers defense. Imagine what he will be able to do with a full, healthy season in 2018. As for Gould, he made 39 of his 41 field-goal attempts, was perfect from beyond 50 yards and was a huge part of three straight wins (Chicago, Houston and Tennessee) where he nailed 15 field goals combined. Gould's 145 points led the team by almost triple digits, as running back Carlos Hyde was next with just 48 points on eight touchdowns.
Predictions For 2018
Everyone, literally, is going to be picking the 49ers to make the NFC playoffs next year. It's a good prediction, for several reasons. First, the state of the NFC West is changing. While the Los Angeles Rams are on the rise, the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks are on the decline, leaving a great opportunity for San Francisco to challenge L.A. for supremacy and postseason seeding.
The aforementioned rejuvenation of the roster on the field of play is going to be infectious, in terms of attracting free agents to the Bay once again as a preferred destination. The 49ers have some roster holes to fill—Garoppolo could use more consistent wide receiver targets, and the offensive line always can use depth. Perhaps a shutdown cornerback wants to come play for a winner, as well.
Then, there is the draft. The five straight wins to end the season came at a cost, as the 49ers still have a Top 10 pick in the first round—but it's not going to be a premium pick like last year when the team grabbed Solomon at No. 3 overall. But with the front office and coaching combination on the same page, the S.F. organization can emphasize more defense and more skill with another good draft and continue to build this team's foundation that can fuel another stretch of postseason appearances from 2018 to the next decade.
Of course, the 49ers need to sign Garoppolo to a mutually beneficial, long-term contract, too. That is the first priority, and after that, the sky will be the limit for the San Francisco franchise next year—and beyond. With the Oakland Raiders leaving the Bay Area soon for Las Vegas, the 49ers have a chance to truly become a dominant NFL franchise once again. Team of the 2020s? Why not?
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