MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – So many said so much to so many in the days leading up to Super Bowl 2020, and if Merle Webb were here, playing for the 49ers, he might have said this:
“Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”
Webb’s Hickory Huskers did just that in “Hoosiers,” but the 49ers on Sunday did not complete their improbable rags-to-riches journey, losing Super Bowl LIV to the Chiefs, 31-20, at Hard Rock Stadium.
No, the 49ers didn’t win it all, but perhaps the Giants can draw some inspiration from how the 49ers turned consistent losing into sudden winning, going worst-to-first with smart moves, smart coaching and the ascension of a quarterback. The Giants are on the “worst” part of the equation. Now comes the hard part.
At this time a year ago, no one was linking anything about the 49ers franchise and a Super Bowl. They went 4-12 in 2018 after going 6-10 in Kyle Shanahan’s first year as the head coach. The last-place finish last season continued a stretch of five consecutive non-winning seasons without playoff berths for the 49ers, playing under three different head coaches.
Sound familiar? The Giants in 2020 will be playing for Joe Judge, their third head coach in the past four years. Their records the past three years are 3-13, 5-11 and 4-12, and they have missed the postseason seven times in the last eight years. They seem as far away from getting to Super Bowl LV in Tampa as almost any team in the league. No one was touting the 49ers a year ago and look what they did.
Can the Giants make a case for themselves?
The 49ers are the third team in NFL history to win four or fewer games one year and make it to a Super Bowl the next. The Bengals in 1988 did it (and lost the Super Bowl) and the Rams in 1999 did it (and won the Super Bowl).
The 49ers got there and lost, and this stung, of course.
“We’ll lick our wounds and we’ll get over this,” Shanahan said. “We surprised a lot of people this year.”
A Super Bowl run surely sounds far-fetched for the Giants, but what about producing a quality, winning team?
The 49ers in 2018 had the built-in excuse of losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn ACL after only three games. But they also made significant roster improvements, as their most recent high draft picks — DeForest Bucker (2016), Mike McGlinchey (2018) and especially Nick Bosa (2019) — were splendid first-round additions. Mixed in were inspired later-round picks such as George Kittle (fifth round), Fred Warner (third round) and, this past season, Deebo Samuel (second round) and Dre Greenlaw (fifth round).
In free agency, the 49ers signed Richard Sherman and Weston Richburg in 2018, and in 2019 added a Pro Bowler, Kwon Alexander, and traded for Dee Ford.
“Any time you go through a season like , it’s disappointing,” Shanahan said. “It’s very tough in this league, anywhere, when you win only four games and most places it’s very hard, with all the scrutiny and everything, for people not to turn against each other a little bit. Eventually the second half of the year people are more worried about their offseason than actually going out and grinding through those practices and trying to get better. Especially when you don’t have that much to play for.
“We thought it was so impressive how hard guys worked each week, how we felt even though we only won four games, we were in every game, to where at the end of the year we were very proud of that. We actually almost started to say is that a problem, are our guys not mad enough?”
For the Giants to have any shot at such a stark turnaround, they need quarterback Daniel Jones to take a big step forward in his second year. They must have continued growth and development of their younger draft picks – DeAndre Baker, Dexter Lawrence, Julian Love, Oshane Ximines, Corey Ballentine, all on defense, come to mind — and must add to their talent base in free agency and then the NFL draft. The 49ers got their offensive line right, and Shanahan installed a zone-blocking scheme that took the heat off Garoppolo. The Niners also greatly upgraded their pass rush with Bosa. The Giants need to play copycat with this model, although selecting No. 4 in the upcoming draft, it is highly unlikely they can land a premier pass-rusher in the Bosa mold, with Ohio State’s Chase Young expected to be off the board by then.
“It’s really the guys’ ability to really stick through the hard times,” Buckner said.
The Giants are experts on hard times. Now comes the hardest part: ending those hard times.