49ers season takeaways: What we learned in up-and-down 2020 campaign

Matt Maiocco
·4 min read

What we learned about 49ers in up-and-down 2020 season originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The season began with the 49ers taking a Super Bowl-or-bust mindset.

There will be no return trip to the Super Bowl, of course.

The 49ers’ 26-23 loss to the NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in Glendale, Ariz., closed the book on the 2020 season.

After coming agonizingly close to winning Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers will be home for the postseason this January after finishing with a 6-10 record.

Whether the season was a bust is a matter of perspective.

Through circumstances largely out of their control, the 49ers did not have much of a chance this season.

Injuries wiped out large portions of the season for Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman and others. The 49ers were forced at many positions to play backups ... and, even, backups to backups.

It is difficult to draw too many conclusions, but we will try. Here are three takeaways from the season.

Secondary exceeds expectations

The 49ers’ top two edge rushers played the opening week of the season. And that was it for Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. Bosa sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of Week 2, and Ford never played again after Week 1.

The team’s secondary saw 14 different starting combinations.

Yet, the 49ers’ pass defense was very good this season, and that says a lot about the coaching staff and the team’s depth.

After not doing much to address the defensive backfield the past two offseasons, the 49ers have some work to do in the spring of 2021 to set things up for next season.

Jason Verrett, Richard Sherman, K’Waun Williams and Jaquiski Tartt are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Ahkello Witherspoon also is unrestricted, and Emmanuel Moseley is set to be a restricted free agent.

The 49ers faced some tough wide receivers over the last three weeks of the season, and the secondary stepped up.

Verrett and Witherspoon were outstanding down the stretch, including in Sunday’s finale against the Seahawks. Witherspoon had a very good game until the closing minutes, when he trailed Tyler Lockett on a crossing route for a 4-yard touchdown reception for the go-ahead points.

The running game is a constant

Every season since Kyle Shanahan became the 49ers' head coach, the running game has performed at a consistently high level.

Jeff Wilson Jr. became the fourth different back to lead the 49ers in rushing in Shanahan’s four seasons, following Carlos Hyde, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert.

Wilson finished strong against a Seattle defense that loaded the box to stop him. His 7-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter gave the 49ers a 16-6 lead.

Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey were the top run-blocking tackles in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus. If Williams re-signs with the 49ers, the offensive line could be back intact next season.

The 49ers’ run scheme is solid.

Now, the focus needs to be on becoming more consistent with its protection in the passing game.

That is where good quarterback play can take some heat off the offensive line. Garoppolo started just six games but was healthy for only one full back due to two high-ankle sprains.

Shanahan said last week he believes Garoppolo will return as the 49ers' starter. But the 49ers can keep their option open until they restructure his contract to create cap space for all the other moves they must make this offseason.

Sizing up the NFC West

The 49ers entered the game with a chance to be just the third team in 50 years to finish last in the division while being the only team with a winning record in division games.

The 49ers swept the Los Angeles Rams and split with the Arizona Cardinals.

On Sunday, the 49ers had a lineup that resembled what they would send out for a fourth preseason game. The 49ers still gave the Seahawks all they could handle in Week 17.

The Seahawks finished the season with a 12-4 record, and they struggled to put away the undermanned 49ers.

Where the 49ers’ season was lost was with their 1-3 record against the woebegone NFC East. If the 49ers had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team, they likely would have been a playoff team.

Because the 49ers were ultra-competitive within their own division, it goes to show that they are not far from getting back to that level in 2021.

Even when they were banged up and playing with reserves in key positions, the 49ers were tied for the second-best head-to-head record (3-3) in one of the most-difficult divisions in the NFL.