SF 49ers wouldn’t have made Super Bowl 55 with Tom Brady

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

This time of year, with the SF 49ers‘ season over, it’s fun to speculate on the “what ifs?” of the season that was.

In this case, one of those major questions revolved around what would have happened if the 49ers brass had chosen now-Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady over Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo last offseason.

While nothing was ever truly confirmed, reports were general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan considered bringing in then-free-agent Brady and releasing Garoppolo.

As all fans of the SF 49ers know, Garoppolo suffered through an injury-plagued season resulting in a 6-10 season for the Niners, while Brady led his new team to a Super Bowl 55 matchup against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.

Who knows if Lynch and Shanahan would have pulled the trigger on the move anyway, but it is fun to consider what might have been for the 2020 49ers if they’d chosen Brady over Garoppolo. In considering Brady’s impact, some assumptions will need to be made.

First, that the rest of the injuries for the SF 49ers would have still happened, save for maybe tight end George Kittle‘s initial knee injury, the cause of which came from an errant Garoppolo throw in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals. But the team would have still traveled to MetLife Stadium, and so there’s little reason to think EDGE Nick Bosa, defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, and a host of others would have fared differently just because Brady was under center.

The second is that Brady’s health would have remained as it was in Tampa rather than matching Garoppolo’s in San Francisco. Doing so renders the impacts of backup quarterbacks Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard moot, a vital piece of the puzzle when reconsidering the 2020 season with Brady.

Last is that the outcomes of pretty much every other team, save for Tampa Bay, remain the same, so long as they didn’t encounter the Niners along the way.

With all that in mind, we can consider the question: Would the SF 49ers have reached Super Bowl 55 with Tom Brady at quarterback?

No, Tom Brady wouldn’t have carried SF 49ers to the Super Bowl

In this scenario, the biggest boon to the SF 49ers being better with Brady is availability.

Mullens and Beathard started 10 of the team’s 16 games with Mullens featuring in two more, while Beathard did cleanup duty in four other matchups. And while the two backups started the same number of wins as Garoppolo did in 2020, their performances in winnable losses, especially on Mullens’ part, might be the difference.

Assuming six wins is the baseline — it seems reasonable to think that Brady would not have lost games that Mullens and/or Beathard won — then what contests could have swung the SF 49ers toward a winning record and a playoff berth?

SF 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
SF 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

Competent quarterback play in Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles, as well as Week 10 in New Orleans against the Saints, Week 14 against the Washington Football Team, and Week 15 in Dallas against the Cowboys feel like good starting points, as key turnovers by Mullens in all of those games led to the SF 49ers failing to take advantage of poor offensive performances in all those matchups.

That’s four more wins already, pushing the SF 49ers record from 6-10 to 10-6, one fewer than Brady won in Tampa this season.

But what about games with Garoppolo, namely the three he started and lost, at Arizona, home for the Miami Dolphins, and at the Seattle Seahawks?

The latter two games were nightmare scenarios for the SF 49ers defense, so it’s hard to turn those into victories, but the opening-day loss to Arizona might have certainly been a win with better quarterback play.

This bumps the record up to 11-5.

This leaves one more loss to dissect: the final game against Seattle, which in this situation would have looked similar to the end of the 2019 season, serving as the de facto NFC West title game with two 11-4 teams coming into the game.

The key to that loss was two-fold. First, the offense scored just two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter and one of which came with 23 seconds left in the game, amounting to garbage time. Second, the defense, which played well through three quarters, fell apart and gave up three consecutive Seahawks touchdowns.

However, if Brady had been able to convert any of the SF 49ers’ three field goals into touchdowns, that would have overcome the defense’s collapse. A win would have secured a second straight NFC West title, although they still likely would have reached the playoffs either way.

The underlying assumption here is Brady’s presence would have limited the mistakes made by all three SF 49ers quarterbacks throughout the season, especially Mullens in the heart of the schedule when the team lost several winnable games, as well as relying on the future Hall of Famer’s ability to elevate his teammates’ level of play.

In a season where Kittle, wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, all missed significant snaps, Brady would have been relying on lesser talent, but the hope would have been he still would be been more successful than what the SF 49ers supplied at the position.

The playoffs would have seen the Niners grab the No. 2 seed if they won the division with Chicago the Chicago Bears coming to town (Arizona?) or travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints again, winnable games in both situations. Then they’d have either been at home for the next round or likely traveled to Seattle for a second time in the season, potentially setting up a second-consecutive NFC Championship clash with Green Bay.

This might have been where the difference in the defenses for the SF 49ers and the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers might have mattered most. You’ll notice I didn’t even revisit the regular-season matchup against the Packers, mostly because that loss came down to poor performances on both sides of the ball, something Brady might have helped with on offense, but would have no control over defensively.

An argument could be made Brady’s presence as the SF 49ers quarterback would have eased the pressure on their defense, but the fact of the matter is while former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh got the best out of that group in 2020, it struggled most against the better offenses. That certainly describes quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

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Of course, all of this is merely speculative, but it feels likely that while Tom Brady would have helped to overcome deficiencies in the SF 49ers team in 2020, he wouldn’t have been enough to set up a second matchup in as many seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.