The San Francisco 49ers were six minutes away from hoisting their sixth Lombardi Trophy earlier in February.
That’s when things went horribly wrong for Kyle Shanahan’s squad in Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs. San Francisco was up 10 with just over six minutes remaining, only to lose the game by two scores.
It was one of the biggest meltdowns in Super Bowl history. And while the 49ers are built for long-term success, recent history suggests that a hangover could be in the cards next season.
Here’s why: The Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams are two recent examples of teams that lost the Super Bowl who failed miserably the following season.
- It’s been a continuing theme. Atlanta’s meltdown in Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots was followed by a divisional round exit the following season.
- As they have done a lot over the past two decades, the Patriots ended any hope of long-term success for the Rams in defeating Los Angeles in Super Bowl LIII. Los Angeles missed out on the playoff altogether last season.
- Could San Francisco find itself in a similar situation having to now play a first-place schedule in 2020?
It’s more than possible. The 49ers were able to have success playing a third-place schedule and taking on the AFC North last season.
Now set to go up against the AFC East and having to play a first-place schedule, things are going to get more difficult.
Here, I look at what San Francisco must do to avoid that almost inevitable Super Bowl hangover.
Restructured contracts: San Francisco is currently less than $20 million under the salary cap. That’s not going to be enough to even come close to re-signing its own free agency. Hence, restructured contracts.
- The 49ers have already restructured the contracts of center Weston Richburg and linebacker Kwon Alexander, saving $12-plus million against the 2020 cap.
- This is a clear indication that general manager John Lynch and Co. are hellbent on being players in free agency come March.
- There’s also a lot more work to be done on this front. San Francisco can save another $33-plus million against the cap by restructuring the contracts of Jimmy Garoppolo, Joe Staley, Dee Ford and Robbie Gould.
Move the fat: There’s also multiple players the 49ers can release who did not play big roles this past season.
- Running back Jerick McKinnon, who missed each of his first two seasons with the 49ers, will be a cap casualty. Releasing him would save $4.6 million against the cap.
- Former leading receiver Marquise Goodwin found himself out of the rotation before being placed on injured reserve last season. San Francisco can save $2.5 million against the cap by releasing him.
- There’s also a decent chance that San Francisco moves on from Tevin Coleman after fellow running back Raheem Mostert showed out last season. Releasing Coleman would save another $4.9 million against the cap.
Now that this house cleaning is taken care of, San Francisco would enter into free agency a robust $65-plus million under the cap. Though, it must start with retaining their own players.
- Emmanuel Sanders: Acquired from the Denver Broncos in a midseason trade, Sanders played a huge role in the 49ers’ success. Primarily, he helped Jimmy Garoppolo up his game big time. San Francisco needs to find a way to retain the former Pro Bowler. It would likely come at the cost of $10-plus million annually.
- Arik Armstead: This former first-round pick led San Francisco in sacks with 10 a season ago. It was his best overall performance. It will also lead to a lucrative payday at $12-plus million annually. If the 49ers can’t afford that, they could place the franchise tag on Armstead and look to trade him.
- Jimmie Ward: Seen by many as an injury-plagued first-round bust, San Francisco shocked a lot of people by re-signing Ward last offseason. It paid off big time. He’s among the most versatile defensive backs in the game and remains a priority re-sign. Something akin to $6 million annually could get it done.
Go all in: While San Francisco’s Super Bowl window seems to be wide open, we know very well it can close in a hurry. The team must go all in to address some areas of concern this offseason.
- By virtue of already restructuring some contracts, the 49ers have made it clear they plan on being big players in free agency. If so, there’s a few targets I have in mind.
- Brandon Scherff: This three-time Pro Bowl guard will likely demand $12-plus million annually. It’s a salary the 49ers should be willing to pay. Sure Mike Person and Laken Tomlinson played well last season, but Scherff would be a major upgrade.
- A.J. Green: Even if the 49ers were to retain Sanders, they’d need to add another receiver to the mix behind him and stud youngster Deebo Samuel. Green, 30, would be an absolutely perfect fit in Shanahan’s offense and might take less to go to a contender after wasting away in Cincinnati throughout his career.
- Devonta Freeman: Why not take a chance on a former Pro Bowl running back who had his most successful seasons under Shanahan in Atlanta? Freeman would come in at much less than Tevin Coleman’s $4.6 million cap hit for the 2020 season should the Falcons in fact release him.
Punt on the 2020 NFL Draft: San Francisco has just one selection in the first four rounds of April’s annual event. The team knows it’s not going to upgrade big time here.
- Trading for Dee Ford and Emmanuel Sanders over the past calendar year led to San Francisco giving up three valuable picks. Short of a trade down in Round 1, the team is not going to get a lot of talent in Vegas.
- I’m here to suggest just punting on the draft altogether. By this, I mean trading that first-round pick for proven talent.
- Is Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs on the trade block? That’s possible. If so, moving a first-rounder for the 26-year-old pass catcher makes a lot of sense.
- The 49ers also need help at cornerback opposite Richard Sherman. Firmly on the trade block, they could make a play for Detroit Lions Pro Bowler Darius Slay.
- While Slay would not necessarily cost a first-round pick, San Francisco can move down from 31 to acquire more assets and then flip those picks for Slay. A Sherman-Slay duo at corner would be sick.
The 49ers are in win-now mode. They shocked the football world by earning the NFC West title, a first-round bye and a Super Bowl appearance last season. They’ll now be the target. That’s a dramatic change from a season ago.
It’s in this that Lynch and Co. must remain proactive in upgrading their roster to fend off the Seahawks and Rams in their division.
This means upgrades at wide receiver, on the interior of the offensive line and in the defensive backfield.
Coming away with Freeman, Green, Scherff and Slay would be a pie in the sky end result. But the team can make it work.
If so, the idea of a Super Bowl hangover in Northern California could potentially be thrown out the window.