It is never a good sign to hear members of a team say they are “excited” to have a season end, as the 49ers did this week.
You can be excited about going to the playoffs. Or excited to start the season. But if you are thrilled that it is over, it must have been a real downer.
And it was. If the 2019 season was a rocket ride to the glitz and fame of football’s biggest showcase game, 2020 was more like a long, hot bus ride over flat, featureless countryside. And the cherry on top was forced confinement, in a hotel away from home, for over a month.
The milestones slipped out of reach as the season crawled along. First, there was no chance to win the division. Then no playoffs. Followed by the reality that a winning season was impossible. And finally, a hope to at least win the last game to go out on a positive note.
None of that happened. And by the end, everybody, players, coaches, and staff, just wanted to get off the damn bus and get away.
“I will be very much off the face of the earth for the next month,” George Kittle said. “Don’t try to find me or ask me any questions . . . please.”
Kyle Shanahan joked that he was so eager to get going that he’d packed his bags two full days before departure. After the final crusher of a loss to Seattle, you have to assume Shanahan was ever more eager to leave.
The 26-23 defeat was more than just the 10th loss of the season. It encapsulated the season.
The Niners took the field with their usual keep-the-roster-chart-handy list of new and previously unknown players, due to an almost unbelievable number of injuries and the pandemic. They played pretty well early, even took a ten-point lead. But at crunch time they were done in by superior talent, in Russell Wilson, and the now inevitable fumble by the 49ers quarterback.
So it is fine that the season is over. Because we don’t need to see any more of that. We get it.
Feel free to move on. Spend time debating the skills of draftable college quarterbacks. Assess the effect of the expected departure of Robert Saleh. Consider potential free agents. And, of course, continue agonizing over the potential of Jimmy Garoppolo.
But before we do that, it is worth looking back. Surely the 2020 season taught us some things. A few observations:
The evenness of Shanahan’s keel abides: You may remember that one of the concerns the 49ers had with hiring Shanahan was the perception that he could be a little arrogant and abrupt. And, as the media noted over the first three years, he’s been anything but. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to be cooperative, giving lengthy, thoughtful answers to questions.
But honestly, that’s not hard to pull off when you are on your way to the Super Bowl. Let’s see how he is when he only wins six games. You’ve seen football coaches like Bill Belichick or Alabama’s Nick Saban, who get unpleasant when they get a tough question.
But Shanahan kept his cool. Unless I missed it, he didn’t get defensive or snap back. His composure was so noticeable that a reporter asked Shanahan how he can be so fiery on the sideline but composed in post-game interviews.
First, he said, “I think I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Which, although we think of him as a young coach, is true. He is only 41, but he spent 15 years as an assistant before taking over the 49ers four years ago.
And then he made a real veteran move, a shout-out to reporters.
“When you don’t win and stuff, I expect to have tough questions,” he said. “But also, giving you guys a soft compliment, I think you guys have been pretty good to us too. I’ve had some places (Washington? Cleveland?) that aren’t so good. So not to get that confused with really good, but you guys are respectful, I try to be respectful in answering your guys’ questions.”
And that’s how you handle the media. One tiny caveat, the making sure the media didn’t think he was saying they were “really good,” sounds like classic Shanahan. Never one to toss around too many compliments. It makes me wonder if he’s ever been happy with one of his quarterbacks. Nothing wrong with a little back-patting. Just a thought.
It is true, the QB is the most important player: Don’t take my word for it, check with Shanahan. Asked what it takes to have a consistently successful franchise, he went right to the guy they give the ball to start every play.
“I think the key to long success is having the right quarterback that whole time and then having a great coaching staff and good personnel department,” he said. “I think if you look at . . . all the teams that have great quarterbacks over the last decade, with good coaches and good personnel departments, they’ve got a shot to be in the playoffs year in and year out.”
There’s a reason why guys who can rush the passer get the big bucks: The enduring image of the 2020 49ers season is the sight of Nick Bosa leaving the field on a golf cart. That injury, and don’t forget Dee Ford, made a huge difference. The numbers make the case. In 2019 they sacked the quarterback 48 times. In 2020, it was 30.
And finally, now that everyone can sit in on Zoom press conferences, people are mocking our media questions: Been there, done that. Let’s just say asking perceptive questions on short notice isn’t easy, especially now that they are broadcast live. I know I’ve asked some really dumb ones.
I’ll keep working on it. Isn’t that what the off season is for?