Aside from the major stories of the week, here are some 49er-related angles (other than, “Hey Kyle, how’d the Falcons blow a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl three years ago?”) we’ll be chasing prior to the Super Bowl:
• The Garoppolo Factor. Kyle Shanahan, mad genius . . . in the run game? Late in the first half of the divisional win over Minnesota, Jimmy Garoppolo threw a bad interception (are there good ones?), and since then, Shanahan has Bob-Griesed the offense to two routs. In the 86 San Francisco snaps over the past six quarters, Garoppolo has thrown 14 passes. In those six quarters, Niners backs have gained 410 rushing yards with five touchdowns, the passing game 103 yards and zero touchdowns. (Interesting to note that over the Chiefs’ last 86 snaps, they’ve been in symphonic balance, with 43 Patrick Mahomes passes.) This is a gut feeling I have, based on a little knowledge but mostly feel for Shanahan: He’s not going to hide Garoppolo in this game. He hasn’t hidden him all season—why start in the playoffs? The play-calling has much more to do with the dominance of the run game than any fear in Garoppolo’s performance. If you were able to rush for 6.2 yards per carry over six quarters, wouldn’t you keep running it?
Regarding Garoppolo in big spots: I remember him being shaky in parts of the Monday night loss to Seattle in November. But look at the toughest three-game stretch any team had in this regular season: Green Bay, at Baltimore, at New Orleans. Garoppolo completed 72.4 percent of his throws with seven touchdowns and one pick, and a gaudy 10.1 yards-per-attempt. Would you bury Garoppolo in the game plan if you were Kyle Shanahan, limiting the impact of the great George Kittle and big-game Emmanuel Sanders? I sure wouldn’t—unless the run game is gashing Kansas City the way it gashed the Vikings and Packers.
• San Francisco’s unsung hero. Bobby Turner, the 49ers’ 70-year-old running backs coach, is an amazing story. This is his 25th season as an NFL backfield coach, having broken in on the Denver staff of Mike Shanahan in 1995. Over a quarter-century coaching in Denver, Washington and Atlanta before arriving in San Francisco in 2017, Turner’s backs have produced 16 seasons of 1,000 yards rushing by eight different players—and that doesn’t include the 1,015 yards by Raheem Mostert this year because Mostert’s total includes playoff games and the others do not. Six of those eight backs came to Turner either off the street or drafted in the fourth round or later: Terrell Davis (196th pick), Olandis Gary (127th), Mike Anderson (189th pick), Reuben Droughns (off waivers), Alfred Morris (173rd pick) and Devonta Freeman (103rd pick). His rushing leaders with the Niners in 2018 and ‘19, Matt Breida and Mostert, were undrafted.
The Turner coaching style fits both Shanahans’ one-cut-and-get-upfield ethos. He’s so valuable because coaches know every year before the draft he’ll find a tarnished or underrated gem. It was Turner, the rookie NFL coach, who was adamant in the sixth round of his first draft: Take this kid from Georgia, Terrell Davis. He’s an every-down back. Great running backs don’t have to be the shiniest prospects. As Turner once said: “It’s like with your wife or girlfriend—when you see her, I mean, it’s like love.”
With the top backs on the Niner depth chart, Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman, battling injuries for much of their collective time in San Francisco, Turner has honchoed Mostert and Breida into Super Bowl staples—although no one will know till game day whether the main back this week will be Coleman (shoulder) or Mostert.
• The Lynch-Shanahan merger. Kyle Shanahan got the 49ers job three years ago, and he agreed to the gig before finding a GM. How’d he make a match with John Lynch, a FOX color man for NFL games? “I had just called his divisional playoff game [Falcons 36, Seahawks 20] in Atlanta,” Lynch told me on this week’s “The Peter King Podcast.” “I thought he did a brilliant job. I said so on air. I called him and said, ‘Sounds like you’re gonna have a great shot at this San Francisco [job]. Good luck in the NFC Championship.’ I remember in the conversation Kyle saying, The one thing I’m working through—I can’t find a GM I’d like to work with. Something was gnawing at me. I couldn’t go to sleep for about four days. I was supposed to be kind of on vacation because my TV season was over. I woke up one morning and I said, ‘What’s gnawing at me is what Kyle said.’ ” Lynch called Shanahan a couple of days before the NFC Championship Game. The conversation, as Lynch recalled, went like this:
Lynch: “What about me?”
Shanahan: “What are you talking about?”
Lynch: “What about me for the GM job?”
Shanahan: “Why would you do that? You’ve got a great job.”
Lynch, post-playing career, thought one day he might go to work with John Elway in Denver, because they’re friends and they’d discussed it before, or in San Diego, which he loved, and which was home. But before he knew it, Shanahan got CEO Jed York on a three-way call, and York and Lynch met in northern California about the job, and the match was made. It probably never happens if Lynch hadn’t picked up the phone after some sleepless nights three years ago.
• The challenge of the 49er pass rush. I asked my friends at Pro Football Focus for some statistical help this week on the formidable San Francisco pass-rush, which has nine sacks and 26 hits/significant hurries on the quarterback in two postseason games. Logically, with the Niners front healthy and playing productively, you’d figure it could be the biggest factor in the Super Bowl. Now I’m not so sure. With a fit front in these playoffs, San Francisco pressured Kirk Cousins, on average, 2.43 seconds after the snap; and, with Aaron Rodgers, 2.58 seconds after the snap. On average, that means San Francisco is pressuring the quarterback about 2.5 seconds after every passing snap. Patrick Mahomes, over the past two years, has a 120.3 rating and 5,248 passing yards when throwing in 2.5 seconds or faster. That’s the best in the NFL since the start of 2018.
For the Niners, it’s a very good thing that the secondary has ramped up its game. PFF figured that the San Francisco secondary had the NFL’s second-best season-long grade when quarterbacks threw in 2.5 seconds or less. Translation: Against the Niners, Mahomes won’t be home free just because most weeks he throws efficiently when pressured. Most weeks you’re not facing Richard Sherman.