The San Francisco 49ers head into the 2017 NFL season vastly improved over last year. But with a lot of uncertainty on the table, how many wins would indicate a successful campaign under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan?
2017 is going to be a very interesting year for the San Francisco 49ers.
Almost everything went right this offseason for Shanahan, Lynch and Co. The team made smart, if not splashy, pickups in free agency. And hardly anyone is complaining about San Francisco’s efforts in the 2017 NFL Draft.
San Francisco 49ers
But I was reading an article from KNBR 680’s Kevin Jones, speaking on what the benchmark for a successful season would be in 2017.
Jones spoke to the number of veterans brought in to help the Niners right now — guys like EDGE Elvis Dumervil, wide receiver Pierre Garcon and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. And Jones’ conclusion was the 49ers needed to pull off something of a decent record this year.
"The 49ers aren’t going into this year tanking. They think they’ll be competitive. Shanahan believes he can out-coach most defensive coordinators, even if this roster isn’t fully stocked. If they finish below 6-10, it really should be considered a failure."
Would a five-win season actually be the indication of a failed season?
Let’s take a look.
The 49ers Schedule
Earlier this offseason, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Grant Cohn actually predicted a 9-7 record for San Francisco.
I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment, although I’d love to be optimistic. Some of Cohn’s analysis for Niners wins is a little too far-fetched, such as calling the Tennessee Titans “mediocre.”
The Titans are a team I’m watching this season. They’ll be a surprise.
Yes, San Francisco’s 2017 schedule is much easier than last year. But it’s not a proverbial “walk in the park” either. The Niners play five road games in their first eight contests. And looking at the schedule itself, there isn’t exactly surefire opportunities until the second half — teams like the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams.
One might expect the 49ers to be better than last year. But coming off a 2-14 season and, statistically, one of the worst years in franchise history, the bar is set pretty low.
Kyle Shanahan, Robert Saleh and the Year of Transition
Lynch has pretty much aced his first few tests as a first-year executive. He still has a lot of work to do, including maintaining and improving this changing roster. But it’s safe to say the Niners have all the comfort in the world with him running the show.
And we should have the same feeling with Shanahan and first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. They’ve said all the right things and have apparently done all the right things this offseason.
Two things come into play here, though. Shanahan’s offense is widely viewed as one of the most complex in the NFL. It’s why so many free-agent pickups made by San Francisco have experience working under Shanahan. They can teach the system.
But it could take time, especially considering San Francisco has long-term question marks at quarterback, wide receiver and along the offensive line.
Saleh, meanwhile, is installing a brand-new scheme as well. And while this 4-3 alignment is much simpler than anything the Niners saw over the last two seasons, finding all the right pieces to fit will take time too.
The Real Conclusion
It’s important to remember the 49ers have spent the last two seasons in the NFC West’s basement. They’re coming off a two-win season, so even four wins in 2017 would be doubling last year’s record.
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That’s a vast improvement, right? It’s a talent-driven league after all.
Yes, we’d like to believe San Francisco’s new coaching staff will do a much better job putting the team’s players in a position to succeed. But that only goes so far. Remember, a lot of the perceived linchpin pieces — Thomas, Foster, etc. — are young and developing. That will take time.
So the $64 question is whether or not Jones’ assessment is accurate.
Not exactly. Sure, six-plus wins would be a wonderful indication the team is on the right track. But what if the 49ers finished with, let’s say, five wins in 2017 but showed a lot more grit and competitiveness than what was seen last year?
What if the Niners losses were marked by close defeats and not the second-half meltdowns and defensive shortcomings associated with 2016?
That’s a sign of improvement. A big one.
The actual answer is the record doesn’t totally matter. Whether the Niners pull off three wins, nine or something in between, what truly matters is how much this young team in transition jells under a first-year head coach, first-year GM and first-year defensive coordinator.
Any major increase in the win column is merely a bonus.