Wondering if and how your NFL team can make the playoffs in the coming season? Adam Rank and Marc Sessler have you covered in this ongoing series, as they provide five reasons why each of the league's 32 teams will make an appearance in the 2018 postseason. Today, Sessler examines the San Francisco 49ers.
1) The rise of Jimmy G
I've noticed something of late.
When one tweets words of praise about Jimmy Garoppolo, two things unfold: 1) Niners supporters retweet and "like" said words with a special brand of zeal; 2) non-Niners types burst out of the woodwork to argue that Garoppolo is massively overpraised for his limited body of work.
It's not enough to judge, the critics say. Just one eye-popping, five-game, house-of-fire stretch of glory to close out San Francisco's season. (A campaign that looked utterly lost for the Niners before Jimmy G -- acquired in a headline-generating swap with the Pats for nothing more than a second-round pick -- took over under center.)
Amid chatter that Bill Belichick strongly opposed trading Garoppolo, the Niners were imbued with new hope at the most important position in sports.
The argument that Garoppolo's hot start was nothing more than beginner's luck lacks logic. It's not simply the win streak, it's the game tape he produced, showing off a rapid-fire release, next-level field vision and a knack for scoring points:
Patriots players were far from surprised to see Garoppolo thrive, with one ex-teammate telling CSN New England last summer: "I played against him every day in practice. He's all that. He can make all the throws. He can process all the information. He is a gamer. He can slow it down. He can spin it."
Before he was claimed off waivers last season by the Niners, Cassius Marsh spent months facing Jimmy G on the practice fields of New England. The veteran pass rusher was not surprised to see Garoppolo thrive.
"I knew because I was with the Patriots and he would shred our defense every day," Marsh told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He'd shred the first team every day, and it looked no different than when Tom (Brady) was on the field. He's a much better athlete than Tom; he's super disciplined and works hard."
We move beyond realms of unfounded hype when NFL players who practiced and prepared with Garoppolo go out of their way to offer words of praise.
Still, nobody's asking Garoppolo to double as a perfect quarterback. While he struggled at times in minicamp, coach Kyle Shanahan sees a silver lining to the daily ups and downs.
"I like to see Jimmy make mistakes," Kyle Shanahan said, per The Press Democrat. "I like seeing him come in and work on it. I like seeing him correct what he messed up two days ago. He felt the mistake. He understood why it was wrong and then he wants to correct it himself. I want him to understand it. Sometimes when things don't work out, you learn. You've got to know the whys and that's what allows you to have continued success over time."
Quarterbacks are constantly growing and evolving. Garoppolo won't go 16-0 this season -- he's human -- but the Niners have found a quarterback to build around for years to come.
2) The mind of Kyle Shanahan
The story of professional football is laced with teams that rose to power off the time-tested combination of a star quarterback paired with a beyond-his-years head coach. Joe Montana and Bill Walsh loom as the obvious example. It happened again when John Elway worked under Mike Shanahan in Denver. Twenty years after that Broncos run, evidence suggests that another Shanahan is about to write history.
Wherever he's gone, Kyle has made the most of the pieces around him. We saw it with Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Matt Schaub in Houston, and even with RGIII during the quarterback's brilliant rookie campaign in Washington. Shanahan has proven himself to be one of the NFL's premier in-game play-callers; an unpredictable creative force who game-scripts an offense as well as anyone league-wide.
3) Rapid, organized roster building
While plenty of teams struggle to find unity between the front office and coaching staff, the Niners boast a happy partnership between Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. Many questioned if the former star safety could handle the grind of the job -- especially coming from the media -- but Lynch has proven to be a capable and creative team-builder.
The Niners aggressively hit free agency last offseason to import the kind of players needed for Shanahan's scheme -- mimicking how fellow general manager Thomas Dimitroff molded Atlanta's offensive roster during Kyle's run with the Falcons. Lynch also pulled off the trade for Jimmy G, which has the potential to make everyone in the building look good for a very long time.
4) A less-than-stellar NFC West
Once appearing as a potential dynasty, the Seahawks find themselves in a state of transition. The Cardinals have hope with Josh Rosen at quarterback, but Arizona faces plenty of questions across the roster. The Rams are a fascinating club with Super Bowl potential, but the Niners have the makings of a team ready to compete with Sean McVay's Los Angeles squad come September. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the West dial up a pair of playoff clubs in 2018.
5) Valuable mix of youth and experience
The Niners house a compelling cast of young talent. At 26, Garoppolo is the same age as new starting running back Jerick McKinnon. First-round tackle Mike McGlinchey brings strength to the offensive line, while the defense is imbued with youthful promise in Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Jaquiski Tartt. Reuben Foster is a star in the making if he can put his off-field issues behind him.