The San Francisco 49ers are the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team.
If, before the season had started, you had to predict the last team standing at the midway point, who would it be?
The New England Patriots were the easy choice – and they did also reach San Fran’s 8-0 record before falling to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens last weekend.
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs? There’s no doubt they were heavy favourites after their 12-4 record last year. The New Orleans Saints are a formidable opponent, while Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams looked like they would continue their offensive fireworks from the last two seasons.
But no one would have predicted the Niners. After a 4-12 finish last season, they ‘earned’ the No 2 overall NFL Draft pick as the second-worst team in football. They haven’t had more than eight wins since 2013.
|at Buccaneers||W 31-17|
|at Bengals||W 41-17|
|vs Steelers||W 24-20|
|vs Browns||W 31-3|
|at Rams||W 20-7|
|at Redskins||W 9-0|
|vs Panthers||W 51-13|
|at Cardinals||W 28-25|
So how have they turned things around to achieve an 8-0 record this season?
When owner Jed York hired Kyle Shanahan as head coach – after his huge success as offensive coordinator in Atlanta – in the 2017 offseason, he thought he was getting attack-minded football. The Falcons had the league’s highest-scoring offense in 2016, and Shanahan had been named Assistant Coach of the Year.
The start of his tenure didn’t go according to plan. The team started 0-9. But after that dreadful start, they won six of their last seven games to finish 6-10 in a miraculous turnaround. Shanahan’s teachings had been lost on quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard, but the key for the second-half run was the acquisition of QB Jimmy Garoppolo.
A second-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft for New England, ‘Jimmy GQ’ already had two Super Bowl rings as back-up to Tom Brady before San Francisco managed to steal him away from the Patriots for a second-rounder in 2018.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was not happy, but Shanahan must have been ecstatic as Garoppolo won all five starts to end the season and the team averaged 28.8 points per game compared to just 17 in the 11 games prior. It appeared to be the start of something special.
Last season though, after plenty of excitement had grown over the summer for Garoppolo’s first full season as a starter, again San Francisco fans – and Shanahan – had to show patience as the QB suffered a torn ACL in Week Three and missed the rest of the season.
That meant after five years in the league, Garoppolo had only made 10 total starts (with an 8-2 record) and Shanahan had to wait another season for his full-strength roster. The 49ers finished 4-12 with Beathard and undrafted rookie Nick Mullens at the helm at QB.
Finally this season, Garoppolo has been playing regularly, and it has been worth the wait.
0:47 See if the 49ers will remain unbeaten live on Sky Sports Action and Main Event from 1am on Monday night/Tuesday morning
Shanahan’s system lets playmakers thrive
From 8-2 prior to this year, Garoppolo has moved to 16-2 on his career – a .889 winning percentage. The Niners have scored 29.4 points per game, the third-most in the league, and the QB’s numbers are great.
His 70.8 completion percentage only trails Derek Carr and Matt Ryan. His 100.6 QB rating ranks ninth. Although he might not have the volume of passing due to the Niners’ second-best rushing attack, he is playing efficient football and getting more comfortable each and every week.
5:28 When the 49ers beat the Cardinals last Thursday, Garoppolo threw a career-best four touchdowns
In last week’s win over Arizona, the 28-year-old threw a career-high four touchdown passes. He also has one of the best sets of surrounding weapons in the NFL and that will only help San Francisco’s cause down the stretch.
The Niners traded for veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders just two weeks ago, and his impact has been immediate. He has 11 catches, 137 yards and two touchdowns in those games, and San Francisco have averaged 39.5 points per game (the most in the NFL).
In tight end George Kittle, Garoppolo has both a safety net and a playmaker. Kittle has received 25.7 per cent of the team’s targets, had 28.6 per cent of the catches and 29.7 per cent of the team’s receiving yards – all firsts among tight ends in the league. Garoppolo’s 110.6 passer rating when targeting him will encourage them to hook up even more.
The aforementioned ground game – 171.1 yards per game – has given the Niners three players with over 300 rushing yards this season (Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert). They are the only team who can boast that achievement, and no running back in the NFL has a better yards-per-carry average than Mostert (5.6) or Breida (5.3).
5:06 Tevin Coleman ran for four touchdowns when the 49ers beat the Panthers
Overall, the Niners can beat you any way they need to.
One thing we don’t know, however, is how they will react to falling behind, as they have not yet had to fight back and win a game with a comeback. That is partly because as well as an efficient offense, their defense has been dominant.
Surprising defense rivalling the ‘Legion of Boom’
The biggest and most surprising turnaround has come from San Francisco’s defensive group. Last season, they were record-setters as one of the most futile defenses of all time.
They managed just two interceptions in 2018, an all-time NFL low. For perspective, 40 single players had more picks last season than the 49ers’ whole team. They also had only seven takeaways all year, breaking a previous NFL record of 11. It was bad.
Patience, however, was again key for building a now terrifying group. Without falling to their 4-12 record last season, the Niners would not have received the No 2 overall NFL Draft pick, which they subsequently used on defensive end Nick Bosa.
Not only does the former Ohio State pass-rusher tie for the rookie lead with 7 sacks this season, but he has 11 tackles for losses, 13 QB hits, a forced fumble, a recovery, and a pick. If votes were made now, he would run away with the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and he is even in the running for the league-wide award.
But it’s not just the rookie who has turned things around. Existing starters have improved under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and another new defensive end – Dee Ford – has 5.5 sacks of his own.
After those awful turnover and interception numbers last season, they already have 16 takeaways and 10 picks – with former Seahawk Richard Sherman making three of them.
And they are drawing comparisons to the famous ‘Legion of Boom’ defense, which both Saleh and Sherman were involved in for Seattle in 2013. The 49ers are allowing 12.8 points per game, 241.0 total yards per game, and 138.1 passing yards per game – all better than the 2013 Seahawks (14.4, 273.6, 172.0).
Sherman – who leads all NFL players in interceptions since 2011 – will face his former team for the third time when San Francisco welcome MVP leader Russell Wilson and the 7-2 Seahawks on Monday night.
The 49ers proved they didn’t simply have a ‘soft schedule’ early in the season when they dominated the Rams in LA in Week Six and dropped 51 points on Carolina in Week Eight.
In their final eight games, two contests with the 7-2 Seahawks loom, as well as visits to Baltimore (6-2) and New Orleans (6-1). They host the Packers (7-2) and Rams (5-3) too.