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In the military, units perform after action reviews. Usually conducted directly after missions or training, these AARs are used as an assessment of overall performance. The methods may have changed over the years, but the underlying objective remains the same. That objective is to identify what went well, what did not go well, and what areas need improvement.
So with that in mind, and as the season has been well and truly over for some time now, it’s time to conduct our own after actions review on the San Francisco 49ers 2020 season.
Before any AAR, the parameters of what was supposed to take place are established. In this instance, the 49ers entered the season fully intent on getting back to the Super Bowl. Obviously, the sting of losing the previous Super Bowl to Kansas City was still fresh and the organization was poised for another run at it.
Despite the curveball that the pandemic threw into the situation, once it was announced the season would take place, the mission remained the same. Many of the main pieces of the NFC Champion roster stayed in place. This led many to believe that another shot at the Vince Lombardi Trophy was a foregone conclusion. Sadly, that shot never materialized.
Against that backdrop, here is the after action review for the San Francisco 49ers 2020 season.
One of the best things to come out of this season was the production of some hungry and talented players. Among them were Jeff Wilson Jr., Brandon Aiyuk, and Javon Kinlaw. Each provided some much needed energy to an injury-depleted roster. Each also garnered league recognition at various points of the season.
Wilson Jr. entered the season buried on the depth chart behind the likes of Tevin Coleman, Jerrick McKinnon, and Raheem Mostert. But, with the head-scratching lack of production from Coleman and McKinnon, Wilson’s stock rose. He found himself as an integral part of the San Francisco running back committee and at times outshined his peers.
His biggest day of the season was in the Week 16 take down of the Arizona Cardinals. In that outing he assumed the lead back duties with Mostert out with an ankle injury. He pounced on that opportunity, gaining 183 yards on 22 carries. He added a 21-yard touchdown reception to his total as well.
When all was said and done, Wilson went from being the fourth option on the roster to the team’s leading rusher. He finished the 2020 campaign with 600 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. While he’s still likely to split carries with Mostert next season, he’s proven he can handle lead back responsibilities when called upon to do so.
Another bright spot in a dark season was the outstanding play of rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk. With the loss of Emmanuel Sanders to the Saints, San Francisco was left with one of the youngest wide receiving corps in the league. With four years of experience under his belt, Kendrick Bourne became the elder statesman of the group. It became the perfect opportunity for Aiyuk to stake a claim as a lead wideout.
His charge to seize that role began in Week 7 against the Patriots. Aiyuk broke out with six catches for 115 yards. Following that, he would go on a five-week stretch that saw him post at least 70 yards in each game. In all but one of those games, he found the endzone. Even more impressive is that he accomplished this all with Nick Mullens at quarterback. In the end, the 748 receiving yards he accumulated topped all San Francisco pass catchers.
Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel could become another powerful San Francisco receiving duo. Samuel should enter the 2021 season fully healed from the various injuries that plagued him this season. The two have proven that no matter who is throwing to them, their talent makes them a threat to any secondary.
When the 49ers lost DeForest Buckner in the offseason via free agency, a giant piece of the Super Bowl defense went with him. San Francisco paid a high price for his replacement, taking Kinlaw with the 14th overall pick in the draft. With that type of investment, the bar was set high for the rookie during the 2020 season. While he didn’t turn in an All-Pro performance his first year out of the gates, the future looks bright for the young defensive lineman.
In a season where his fellow teammates dropped out around him, he found success in being an impact player. The modest numbers he concluded the season with don’t tell the entire story of Kinlaw. He managed 1.5 sacks on 19 pressures. His 33 tackles were among the highest at his position. If that wasn’t enough, he even picked off Jared Goff in a win against the Rams. All in all, it was enough to land him on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team. There is certainly meat on this bone and the 49ers should be encouraged by Kinlaw’s first season.
It’s never a good sign when a team’s injured reserve contains more all stars than backups. Such was the case for San Francisco as they navigated through an already treacherous season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 49ers lost far too many key pieces over the course of the year. At any given point, they had to make due without Nick Bosa, Raheem Mostert, Trent Williams, Dee Ford, and once again, extended stretches without Jimmy Garoppolo. Of course, the list didn’t end there. Early in November there were no less than 22 players listed on the injured reserve.
It's obviously difficult to field competitive teams when even two or three star players are injured. When almost every week another starter goes down, it becomes all but impossible. The defense took a massive hit without Bosa, one from which it never seemed to fully recover. Mullens found little purchase in relief of Garoppolo. The only position that seemed to thrive in spite of missing the starter was the running back. Whenever Mostert was forced to miss, Wilson Jr., and sometimes McKinnon, filled in effectively.
With any luck, San Francisco can field a fully-healthy team for the 2021 season. Adding Pro Bowl names back to the mix alongside the seasoned youngsters forced to replace them should provide some serious firepower in the 49ers attempt to regain NFC supremacy.
It would be too easy to blame the disappointment that was the 2020 season on injuries. While that didn’t help, neither did the inconsistent play from the healthy players that took the field. Much of that inconsistency came from the top offensive position and early on, that meant it was tied to Garoppolo.
Overall in the 2020 campaign Garoppolo appeared in six games before departing for good in Week 8. In that span, he had three games where he looked good. The problem is that he also had three games that were not quite as good. Mullens wasn’t able to fare much better, going 3-7 in his time at the helm. The backup tossed for 12 touchdowns as well as 12 interceptions on the season. Not having a strong leading presence on offense left the rest of the unit searching for a rally point. Unfortunately, more often than not, that rallying point was lacking and the offense failed to flourish as a result.
This leaves consistency as the major need for improvement in the 2021 season. If this team is able to come back restored for the new year, it will need to see it’s players perform at the high level they are capable of game in and game out all season long. They cannot afford another instance of greatness in fits and spurts.
All is not lost a year removed from a Super Bowl appearance. There is a solid structure that has been built in San Francisco. There is phenomenal young talent that shows promise alongside All-Pro veterans who will return to their rightful spot in the lineup.
What we learned from 2020 is that it won’t take much to turn a 6-10 record into 10-6 or more in 2021. There is always a pessimistic take to be had, but in this instance, there is more room for optimism heading into next season.
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Safety Jimmie Ward after the 49ers 37-20 win over the Washington Commanders on December 24, 2022.
Wide Receiver Brandon Aiyuk after the 49ers 37-20 win over the Washington Commanders on December 24, 2022.
Linebacker Dre Greenlaw after the 49ers 37-20 win over the Washington Commanders on December 24, 2022.