“I tell ya, I don’t get no respect.”
These days, no one would fault the San Francisco 49ers for channeling their inner Rodney Dangerfield and wondering, “Where’s the respect?”
The 49ers are off to the franchise’s best start since 1990. They are the lone remaining unbeaten team in the NFL. Yet, it feels like they are somehow still being overlooked amid their 8-0 start.
Common refrains from naysayers about the 49ers in the early portion of the season have included labeling their schedule as soft, and calling their quarterback a game manager. But here they stand, undefeated.
With their most recent win, a hard-fought 28-25 road victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 9, the 49ers doubled their win total from a season ago. They are currently in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage in the NFC, holding a one-game lead over the New Orleans Saints through the season’s opening half.
These are the spoils of a process some three-plus years in the making, the foundation for the 49ers’ unblemished start having been laid by a series of moves by the current regime, each playing an integral part in this season’s success.
Kyle Shanahan hired as head coach (Feb. 6, 2017)
The early 2010s saw the 49ers stake their claim as one of the dominant teams in the NFC. During a three-year stretch under Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco went to a Super Bowl bookended by a pair of conference championship game appearances. Despite the team’s on-field success, infighting between Harbaugh, the front office, and ownership created a rift that led to Harbaugh being shown the door after four seasons.
Two forgettable one-season runs thereafter by Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly — the latter of which produced a 2-14 record — left the once-proud franchise in serious need of a makeover. Enter Shanahan, who was long considered one of the best offensive minds in the league and fresh off a Super Bowl appearance as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Shanahan’s offensive acumen has matched the hype in this, his third season in charge of the 49ers, perhaps nowhere more so than in their multifaceted run game, of which San Francisco ranks second in the league in rushing (171.1 yards per game).
Ownership’s committing to a six-year deal for Shanahan and giving him the reins of the franchise as both the coach and de facto general manager is looking like a genius decision. If not for a certain guy in New England, Shanahan would be the odds-on favorite for Coach of the Year honors. Even now, he just might still be.
George Kittle selected in the fifth round of 2017 NFL draft (April 29, 2017)
The return on the 49ers’ early portion of the 2017 draft has been underwhelming. Third overall pick Solomon Thomas has failed to meet expectations while serving as a rotational player on the defensive line. San Francisco then traded back into the first round to select Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. He put together a strong rookie campaign but lasted just six games into his second season before being jettisoned amid domestic violence allegations. That’s a ton of wasted draft capital for a team in need of young talent.
However, one selection later in the same draft would help lessen that blow. With the 146th overall pick, the 49ers drafted an Iowa tight end by the name of George Kittle, who has already established himself as one of the league’s elite at his position. Kittle set the single-season receiving yards mark (1,377 yards) for a tight end in 2018. He currently has twice as many catches as any other player on the roster this season. His consistent production paired with his willingness to block in the run game, in addition to his infectious locker-room presence, have made him an integral leader in just his third season.
Jimmy Garoppolo acquired from the New England Patriots (Oct. 30, 2017)
The quarterback position was a revolving door in recent years for the 49ers. The duo of Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard split time at the position over the first 11 games of the 2017 campaign. There was little secret around the league at that time that Shanahan was simply biding time before he could land his presumed choice for the role, Kirk Cousins — a pending free agent and player the coach was comfortable with from their days together with the Washington Redskins. Yet, an opportunity to acquire another quarterback put the potential Cousins-Shanahan partnership on ice.
In a surprising move, the Patriots agreed to ship Garoppolo to the 49ers in exchange for a second-round draft pick, a small price to pay for a potential franchise quarterback. All Garoppolo has done since arriving to the Bay Area is win. He started the final five games of the 2017 season, producing wins in each game. After a lost season in 2018 in which he suffered a torn ACL in Week 3, Garoppolo has jumped right back into his winning ways this season. Dating back to his days in New England, he owns an impressive 14-2 record as a starter.
Garoppolo’s game is rounding back into form amid his recovery from the knee injury, yet he’s toed the line perfectly in not trying to do too much while keeping the offense in rhythm. He’s fresh off his best outing of the season after throwing for 317 yards and four touchdowns against the Cardinals. Not bad for a QB some pundits proclaim as merely “pedestrian.”
Richard Sherman signs three-year contract (March 11, 2018)
The name Richard Sherman invoked negative feelings throughout the Bay Area. He spent a number years as one of the stalwarts on the Legion of Boom of the divisional-rival Seattle Seahawks. His boastful antics were never more on display than during his on-field rant targeted at then-49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The episode happened just moments after Seattle’s 23-17 win in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. The outburst only heightened what was already one of the league’s best rivalries. That game coincidentally happens to mark the last time San Francisco appeared in the postseason.
Flash forward a few years, and Sherman found himself a free agent for the first time in his career. His sudden availability was a godsend to the 49ers, who were in need of impactful players on the defensive side. Sherman, despite his tenuous past with the 49ers’ fan base, has fit the bill perfectly. His tenure started slowly as we had to work himself back into last season following Achilles surgery. He’s been a vocal leader of the D from the onset and currently leads the team with three interceptions.
Nick Bosa selected with the second overall pick in 2019 NFL draft (April 25, 2019)
Defensive Rookie of the Year? Defensive Player of the Year? Both accolades are clearly in play for this high-impact rookie. Bosa’s production through the first half of the season is what the 49ers imagined when grabbing him in the draft. He entered the league with both lofty expectations and question marks. Bosa displayed all the skills of a topflight pass rusher during his time at Ohio State. Also, he withdrew from school during his junior season after suffering a season-ending injury in order to focus on preparing for the NFL draft.
On a team that features five first-round draft picks on the defensive front, Bosa has stood out among the bunch. According to ESPN, his 23.2% disruption rate ranked first in the league entering Week 9, while his seven sacks are among the top 10 of all players. Simply put, Bosa is either taking down the opposing quarterback or causing havoc in the backfield on any given snap.
The sky’s the limit for Bosa, who has helped propel a defense that’s among the best in the league. The 49ers’ D ranks first in yards allowed (241.0) and second in points allowed (12.8) per game. They are fourth in takeaways (16) and tied for third in sacks (30). Add it all up and it’s been a thoroughly dominant unit.
While the 49ers have beaten all eight opponents so far, their stretch run will provide a new set of challenges. On the horizon include dates against the Packers, Ravens, Saints, Rams, and Seahawks (twice). Working in their favor is the fact that San Francisco’s next three games will be played at home.
The 49ers’ hot start has afforded them the luxury that even a handful of losses down the stretch won’t keep them from making the playoffs for the first time in six years. Given how they’ve performed up to this point, their current aspirations are far loftier than simply playing in the postseason. Their trajectory is pointing toward the Super Bowl.
For now, the 49ers are quite possibly the least-heralded 8-0 team in NFL history. That’s likely just fine by them. They’ll continue to earn their respect win by win.