The 49ers fans are sad and deciding if they should blame Kyle Shanahan or Jimmy Garoppolo. But they also know they’re set up to compete for titles in the future. For the rest of us, we’re sitting here wondering what our teams need to do to be playing on the final Sunday of the 2020-21 season. There are some lessons to be learned from Kansas City and San Francisco when it comes to building a championship-caliber team.
Lesson #1: Speed Kills
It’s the most basic football principle I’ve learned since I first strapped on a helmet and extra small jockstrap. Speed wins. In Pee Wee football the fastest kid was always the star. On Thanksgiving weekend every year, I watch the high school state championship football games in Michigan, and it’s the same story. In college football, the SEC seems to always supply the national champion and they put more players in the NFL than any other conference. Why? Speed.
The Chiefs and 49ers are two of the fastest teams in the NFL, though in very different ways. The Kansas City receiving corps could probably compete in the 4×100 relay in the 2020 Summer Olympics and not embarrass themselves. There isn’t a faster player in the NFL than Tyreek Hill. Mecole Hardiman runs a 4.32 forty. Byron Pringle and Sammy Watkins both ran sub. 4.45s coming out of college. If that’s not enough, Travis Kelce is one of the more athletic TEs in the game. When the Chiefs spread you out, they’re putting four sprinters on the field and a TE that is impossible to cover with a linebacker. If you don’t get to Mahomes quickly, he’ll buy time and find an open guy.
The 49ers rely on their run game and a rotation of three running backs that are all dynamic in their own right. Raheem Mostert has been the star during the postseason, but Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman have both started this year and had games where they were the lead back. It’s anyone’s guess which of them will be the primary ball carrier on any given Sunday. Whoever is carrying the ball one thing is for sure: he’ll be fast. Mostert is a 4.34 forty guy. Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman ran 4.38 and 4.39, respectively. How many teams could have a guy like Coleman, who runs in the 4.3s and is still only the third-fastest guy at his position on the team? The speed in this Super Bowl is the best we’ve ever seen.
Lesson #2: Don’t Sell All Your Assets for a Quarterback
Every year we watch teams fall in love with a rookie quarterback and mortgage their future to move up for him in the draft. Sometimes it works, but when it doesn’t, it sets your franchise back a few years.
The Chiefs traded with the Bills for the #10 pick in 2017 for the right to move and select Patrick Mahomes. But the trade was sensible. Swap first-round picks with Buffalo, plus a third-rounder and the first-round pick in 2018. Had Mahomes not worked out as planned, it wouldn’t have been devastating to the Chiefs. Contrast that to what Washington traded (three 1st rounders and 2nd) to move up a few slots for RGIII. Be willing to move up if needed, but be shrewd and don’t overpay.
The 49ers took even less of a gamble on Jimmy Garoppolo. They traded the #43 overall pick (2nd round) to the Patriots for their unproven but talented backup. That has allowed San Francisco to use their first-rounders on premium talent like Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Mike McGlinchey. They’ve invested first-rounders on the offensive and defensive line and used a 2nd round pick to trade for a promising young player. Smart.
Lesson #3: Don’t Draft Running Backs in the First Round. Ever.
San Francisco was the most dominant run team in the NFC this season and 2nd overall behind the record-setting Ravens. Tevin Coleman was a third-round pick while Mostert and Breida were undrafted. We’ve already discussed their speed, but they were also efficient runners. All three ran for over 500 yards this season at better than 4 yards per carry. (Coleman and Mostert were above 5 ypc.)
Here are the most recent first-round running backs: (2019) Josh Jacobs, (2018) Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny, Sony Michel, (2017) Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, (2016) Zeke Elliott. (2015) Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon. Now, there are some good backs in there. Only one (Michel) played in a playoff game this year.
Now, look at the running backs in this year’s playoffs. The 49ers unheralded crew, Damien Williams (undrafted), Derrick Henry (2nd round), Dalvin Cook (2nd round), Devin Singletary (3rd round), Carlos Hyde (2nd round), Alvin Kamara (3rd round), Aaron Jones (5th round). Only Marshawn Lynch and Mark Ingram were 1st round picks, and Lynch, of course, was picked up off the street after Chris Carson (7th round) went down with a season-ending hip injury. The majority of the running back carries in the Super Bowl went to backs who were undrafted.
Lesson #4: Hire an Innovative Offensive Mind
Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan are two of the sharpest, most creative offensive minds in the NFL. Shanahan uses creative blocking schemes, pre-snap motion, and misdirection as well as any coach in the NFL. The Niners’ attack is predicated on the ground game, but it’s definitely not “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Let’s not forget Shanahan was the architect behind Atlanta’s Super Bowl run and Matt Ryan’s MVP season in 2016. Shanahan knows how to coach offense with the best of them.
Reid has been a great offensive mind for two decades. Reid’s offenses are designed differently than Shanahan’s. An Andy Reid offense wins by putting defenses in conflict. No one uses more Trips formations than Andy Reid. The idea is to flood one side of the field with your best receivers and then flex Kelce out to the other side. Reid’s offenses are also known for their ability to hit you with screen passes at just the right time. If you want to win in the modern NFL, either your head coach or your offensive coordinator needs to be a progressive offensive thinker.
Lesson #5: Don’t Ignore the Tight End
A few years ago, the tight end position looked like it was on its way to becoming obsolete much like the fullback position. The Patriots revolutionized the position by showing that a modern passing attack can center on the tight end position and not the receivers. Now a lot of teams are creating mismatches with their tight end. New England won three titles with Rob Gronkowski. Two years ago, we saw the Eagles win a title with Zach Ertz as a centerpiece. It’s no coincidence that this year’s game featured the two best tight ends in the league in George Kittle and Travis Kelce. If you want to win a Super Bowl, you’re going to need a quality tight end. That doesn’t mean you should run out and constantly draft them in the first round (I’m looking at you, Detroit). In fact, Greg Olsen is the last tight end drafted in the first round to play in a Super Bowl.
I hope you enjoyed the Super Bowl as much as I did! It’s the last time we’ll get to watch meaningful football until next fall. But as your team retools and prepares for a title run in 2020-21, remember what wins in the NFL!