(KPIX) — The San Francisco 49ers might just be the biggest turnaround story of the 2019-2020 season. The team went from a 4-12 regular-season finish in 2018 to a 13-3 finish in 2019. With four wins last season, the 49ers barely avoided the NFC West cellar only to watch the division-rival Los Angeles Rams make the Super Bowl. With 13 wins this season, and two more in the playoffs, the 49ers will represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIV.
The nine-win swing from one season to the next (11, if counting the playoffs) is among the biggest in NFL history. For now, it only falls short of the 2001-2002 New England Patriots, who went from 5-11 to 11-5 and won Super Bowl XXXVI. The 49ers, of course, have one more game.
According to Brandon Marshall, Inside The NFL analyst and former NFL wide receiver, the turnaround is no accident, even if good fortune helped it along. “They had a few pieces on defense that helped,” said Marshall. “And they have a quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) that could come in and make some plays for them. Their offensive line held up.”
That last component can make or break any team’s season, but it may not be the key overarching factor. “The scheme of the offense, with Kyle Shanahan and his guys there, [they] did a phenomenal job. And as we saw yesterday, it’s the best formula. You play great defense, and you run the ball.”
That running game was on full display in Sunday’s 37-20 win in the NFC Championship. The 49ers, as a team, ran for 285 yards. Raheem Mostert, part of their trio of talented running backs, had a career day, amassing 220 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries. Even in a league dominated by the pass — as evidenced by their opponent, the AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs — running the ball can lead to wins.
As Marshall points out, “football is football, and when we look at the keys to success in football, there are a few things that never change. And it’s fundamentals: tackling, blocking, running the football, stopping the run.”
The 49ers have excelled at all of these this season. The defense, particularly when healthy, ranks among the NFL’s best. They’ll have their hands full with Patrick Mahomes. But the offense, led by Mostert, with Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman in increased roles, can do their part to keep K.C.’s QB off the field.
“One of the things that you always have to do to be successful is run the football,” says Marshall. “It doesn’t have to be all game. But in situational football, you have to be able to pick up those yards. And that’s something they are able to do. Their blocking scheme is phenomenal. And you have to be patient. Most teams aren’t willing to be patient with the run. The run isn’t always five yards here, 10 yards there. Sometimes it’s two, it’s three. Sometimes it’s a negative run. But if you stick to it, the offensive linemen get warmed up. And they’re like machines, the more they’re running, the more oiled they are, the better the machine functions. Offensive linemen love when the offensive coordinator sticks to it, and that’s what they’ve done. The consistency of their play-calling has helped them achieve massive things in the run game.”
Expect to see a more even distribution of carries among the 49ers’ backs in the Super Bowl. Relying on a featured runner isn’t Kyle Shanahan’s usual approach. In Marshall’s view, “the Shanahans believe they can take any running back and place them in their scheme, and if this running back can read and has the vision, they’ll be efficient. He [Raheem Mostert] is great, but that’s not their philosophy. It’s never been their philosophy that it’s one guy. It’s a running-back-by-committee approach with them.”
The Chiefs’ defense has struggled this season against the run. But its offense tends to outpace opponents on the scoreboard, forcing opposing offensive coordinators to forego the run in favor of the pass. Can the 49ers defense contain the Chiefs and Mahomes long enough to allow ground and pound to be effective?
You can catch Brandon Marshall along with Phil Simms, Ray Lewis, Michael Irvin, and host James Brown on Inside The NFL every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.