Super Bowl 54: Why 49ers are second-most unlikely participant of all time

Super Bowl 54: Why 49ers are second-most unlikely participant of all time

Outside of the most fervent fans, few logically believed the 49ers were a Super Bowl-bound team before the 2019 season began.

Coming off a 4-12 campaign with starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo recovering from an ACL tear, expectations were for San Francisco to improve, but likely fall short of a playoff berth. Most believed they would finish behind what were assumed to be more impressive rosters in the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks.

But behind a thoroughly dominant defense and a strong running game, the Niners blitzed the regular season en route to a 13-win season and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Are they the most unlikely Super Bowl team ever?

Close, but not quite according to ESPN.com’s Bill Barnwell, who has San Francisco as the second-most surprising Super Bowl participant in NFL history.

“The modern-day 49ers share some similarities with many of the other teams on this list,” Barnwell writes. “They were impossibly bad at forcing turnovers in 2018, with a league-low seven and an NFL-record two interceptions all season. The Niners topped that interception total in the 2019 season opener alone and ended up forcing 27 takeaways, the sixth-highest total in the league.”

On offense, a few dramatic statistical turnarounds fueled the Niners’ surge up the standings.

“The 49ers ranked 30th in the NFL in points per red zone possession on offense last season, but with a better offensive line, they improved to 19th in points per trip inside the 20. They followed in a Shanahan tradition by averaging a league-best 6.7 yards per play on first down and went from inheriting the league's worst average starting field position to its second-best average starting field position, a difference of 6.5 yards per possession.”

[RELATED: 49ers vets give Super Bowl advice to newbies: 'Just say no']

The only team ranked ahead of San Francisco, according to Barnwell, was the 1999 St. Louis Rams, who lost their starting quarterback to a torn ACL in the preseason. His replacement, Kurt Warner, won the MVP and eventually led the team to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Jimmy G and the Niners hope to earn a similar result when they face reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2.

NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday).

Why Marquise Goodwin, 49ers parting ways this offseason makes sense

Why Marquise Goodwin, 49ers parting ways this offseason makes sense

Marquise Goodwin led the 49ers with a career-high 962 receiving yards in 2017. Since then, he has just 581 yards combined in two seasons.

The 29-year-old wide receiver is under contract for the next two seasons, but a change of scenery this offseason could benefit both him and the 49ers.

Through injuries and off-field adversity, Goodwin has played in just 20 regular-season games the last two years. He clearly has fallen down coach Kyle Shanahan's depth chart, and the 49ers parting ways with the seven-year NFL veteran this offseason would give him more time to chase a dream away from the gridiron.

"The Niners would save a little less than $4 million on the salary cap by parting ways with Goodwin, and it would also allow Goodwin, a world-class long jumper, to follow through on his intention to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo," ESPN's Nick Wagoner recently wrote.

Goodwin was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Dec. 10 after dealing with multiple knee and foot issues. Though his time with the 49ers might come to an end, Goodwin clearly still believes in himself.

The 49ers' receiving corps likely will be led by Deebo Samuel next season after he opened eyes as a rookie. Kendrick Bourne is expected back as a restricted free agent, and Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor are returning from injuries.

[RELATED: Juice sick of Jimmy G, Shanahan criticism after Super Bowl]

The 49ers likely will target a receiver in the draft, as this year's class is loaded. They also could look at adding a veteran in free agency or bringing back Emmanuel Sanders, whom they acquired in a mid-season trade.

Goodwin is on the outside looking in after hauling in just 12 catches for 186 yards and one touchdown over nine games last season. Sometimes, change is best for both parties.

How 49ers can add more picks in 2020 NFL Draft, according to Peter King

How 49ers can add more picks in 2020 NFL Draft, according to Peter King

The 49ers own the No. 31 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but they are extremely short on selections this year after that. 

San Francisco has just one pick in the top 150. After the first round, the 49ers won't be on the clock again until the fifth round. They own two fifth-round picks, one in the sixth and two in the seventh. 

Between the second and fifth rounds, it's completely barren for general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan. But NBC Sports' Peter King looked at how San Francisco could accrue more selections this April

Here's what King wrote in his latest Football Morning in America column. 

To project the Niners’ path, I looked north for a clue. The arch-rival Seahawks, with ever-restless GM John Schneider, provided an excellent example in 2019 of how to turn one first-round pick into a bevy of picks, replenishing what would have been a thin crop.

The trades:

Seattle traded its first-round pick, 21st overall, to Green Bay for the 30th, 114th and 118th picks.
Seattle traded the 30th pick to the Giants for the 37th, 132nd and 142nd picks.
Seattle traded the 37th pick to Carolina for the 47th and 77th picks. At 47, Seattle picked S Marquise Blair.
Seattle traded the 77th and 118th picks to New England for the 64th pick. At 64, Seattle selected WR DK Metcalf.
Seattle traded the 114th pick to Minnesota for the 120th and 204th picks.
Seattle picked WR Gary Jennings Jr. at 120, S Ugo Amadi at 132, LB Ben Burr-Kiven at 142, and RB Travis Homer at 204.

So Seattle turned pick 21 into picks 47, 64, 120, 132, 142 and 204 ... two second-round picks, two fourth-round picks, one fifth-round pick and one sixth-round pick.

The 49ers lost their second-round pick when they acquired defensive end Dee Ford in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs last offseason. They then lost their third- and fourth-round picks when they acquired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in a midseason trade with the Denver Broncos.

But they added a fifth-round pick in the Sanders trade and a seventh-round pick from the Detroit Lions in a 2018 trade where they shipped away linebacker Eli Harold.

[RELATED: 49ers in good shape at QB entering the 2020 offseason]

The 49ers don't have too many holes on their roster after losing to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. However, depth is always a must, as they learned this season. With Jimmie Ward being an unrestricted free agent, the 49ers could target a safety early in the draft. They also likely will have their eyes on a loaded receiver class and depth on the interior offensive line. 

To add picks, though, they might have to take a lesson from their biggest rivals.