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Super Bowl LVIII Preview – Part One – The 49ers

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This time of the year is filled with excuses, absolutions, and just plain crazy anecdotes and reasoning about why some teams couldn’t pull it out and make it to the big dance. The pundits say, “If that play went the other way, just think.” It would have, could have, and should have been invalid arguments for the losing teams.

Each playoff team had opportunities to play their best football, and several came up short. It comes down to three specific things: preparation, execution, and experience. Preparation is on the coaching staff, execution is on the players, and experience is on the team. When those things come together, then magic happens.

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I emphasize these previews to illustrate these factors and how they apply to the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. I’m taking the 49ers story first and showing why head coach Kyle Shanahan’s group is headed to Las Vegas to represent the NFC.

At the beginning of the season, there was plenty of buzz surrounding Quarterback Brock Purdy and his rise as the primary 49ers signal caller. After being drafted as Mr. Irrelevant in 2022, number 262 in the 7th round, the Iowa State product went to training camp as the 3rd string QB behind Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Purdy started the last five games of the 2022 season after injuries to Lance and Garoppolo thrust him into that role.  He also started three playoff games and only lost the NFC Championship game due to an elbow injury. He went 7-1 in his first eight career starts. Remarkable for a 7th rounder, let alone Mr. Irrelevant.

In 2023, Purdy was named the full-time starter and went on to a 12-4 regular season record and the number 1 seed in the NFC. He won the divisional round and the NFC Championship to hoist his first George Halas Trophy and a date with the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

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Kyle Shanahan is, by all measures, an excellent head coach. The 49ers have been competitive for the last three seasons, making it to the NFC Championship game and finally returning to the Super Bowl after losing to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV after the 2019 season. The 49ers had a Super Bowl hangover in 2020, going 6-10, but bounced back in 2021.

Shanahan has been as consistent as one can be in righting the ship these last few years. He has maintained discipline and, despite his loss to injury of both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, managed to find a diamond in the rough with Brock Purdy.

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After trading for All-Pro RB Christian McCaffery and keeping critical pieces in place like multi-role player Deebo Samuel, All-Pro FB Kyle Juszczyk, All-Pro TE George Kittle, WR Brandon Aiyuk, All-Pro LB Fred Warner, Pro Bowlers DL Nick Bosa, Former Chief CB Charvarius Ward and DT Javon Hargrave and recent pick-up DL Chase Young. He has his team positioned well for the future.

In 2023, the 49ers were ranked 3rd in scoring defense and 8th in total defense. They were also 3rd in scoring offense and 2nd in total offense. On both sides of the ball, the coaching staff has performed well in preparing their units for every game. Success such as this only comes from keeping your coaches and players focused on the task, keeping distractions to a minimum, and maximizing practice and game planning.

The effective execution of the game plan starts with the number of star players on both sides of the line. The 49ers have a reasonable number of playmakers.

Let’s start on offense. For the 2023 season, Brock Purdy had 308 completions on 444 passing attempts with a 69.4% completion percentage, which was good for 4280 yards and 31 touchdowns against 11 picks. His QB rating for the season was 113.0 and suitable for number 1 among all QBs this season. He was sacked 28 times for a loss of 153 yards. His sack percentage was 5.9% for all passing plays he’s run.

Looking at the receivers, WR Deebo Samuel has amassed 1,117 yards from scrimmage this season. He has 225 yards rushing and 892 yards receiving with 12 touchdowns and 34 first downs. TE George Kittle has 1,020 yards receiving with six touchdowns and 42 first downs. He is one of Purdy’s most reliable targets. WR Brandon Aiyuk was the main target, and he compiled 1,342 yards with 75 catches on 105 targets with seven touchdowns and 61 first downs.

The main emphasis of the Shanahan offense is RB Christian McCaffery. He is a phenomenal runner and a reliable safety valve if passing plays break down. He amassed 2,023 yards from scrimmage, including 1,459 yards on the ground and 564 yards through the air. He accounted for 21 touchdowns and 114 first downs, as well.

It’s time to talk defense. Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks prides himself on having his unit prepared. Even though Wilks’ stints as a head coach for Arizona and Carolina did not work out, his defensive prowess is well thought of. With playmakers like LB Fred Warner, who was the top tackler with 82 solo tackles and 50 assists, the middle of his defense is well taken care of.

Regarding the line, Nick Bosa is his main game wrecker with 10.5 sacks on the season. CB Charvarius Ward has the secondary well in hand. He is the team leader in passes defended, with 23 and 5 interceptions. Having the number 3 defense shows the type of emphasis and the correct play calls Wilks has been making all season.

The 49ers have quite the mountain to climb as far as experience is concerned. Most of the team was not in place four years ago. In my observations over the years, one tenet is true. Experience matters. It matters a whole lot. While some of the coaches and some of the players have been there, they have yet to have the success that Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes have had. They have yet to have the experience that both Reid and Mahomes have.

A few of these 49ers’ players have been here before. However, this is the biggest stage in sports. How will the youngsters and coaches react to the expectations of fans? Will this be too much for them or too big of a moment to focus on what needs to be done? Time will tell.

My second part on Friday will focus on the Chiefs and what they bring. Many of the naysayers are rethinking their positions. With good reason, of course. I will say it again and again: this team feels inevitable.

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