The Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed to Super Bowl LV, leading the 49ers to wonder what could've been.
Brady, a 43-year-old San Mateo native who grew up a 49ers fan, was linked to his hometown team during the offseason. Both general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan addressed the 49ers' interest in the greatest quarterback of all time, opting instead to stick with incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo as the 49ers mounted an NFC title defense.
Garoppolo sustained a high-ankle sprain in Week 2 against the New York Jets, and played in just four games for the remainder of the 2020 season. Brady, meanwhile, was his most effective since (at least) his last Super Bowl appearance with the New England Patriots.
It'd be understandably easy to play the result and say the 49ers should've jettisoned Garoppolo to sign Brady, his former mentor in New England, especially amid increasingly loud questions of Garoppolo's long-term fit with San Francisco. Brady reaching his 10th career Super Bowl doesn't mean the 49ers made the wrong call, however, as his Buccaneers benefitted from the kind of good fortune that eluded the 49ers all season.
The 49ers' injury woes have been well-documented, but their troubles stood in staggering contrast to the Buccaneers' lackthereof. Thanks to a handy visualization from Man Games Lost, we can see the 49ers' injured players missed over twice as many games as the Bucs'.
Reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa played parts of two games, while safety Tarvarius Moore was the only player in the secondary to not miss any time. Wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk missed nine and four games, respectively. All-Pro tight end George Kittle played in a career-low eight games.
The 2019 49ers had a Super Bowl-worthy supporting cast, but the 2020 iteration was a hollow show by the end of the season. Brady's presence alone wouldn't have kept the 49ers healthy this season, no matter what he preaches with "The TB12 Method."
The Buccaneers had to deal with their fair share of injuries, but theirs didn't derail their season. Brady had a largely intact supporting cast to throw to, with four different pass-catchers gaining at least 500 receiving yards while playing at least 12 games.
Passing to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Scottie Miller for at least 12 games apiece makes for far more advantageous surroundings than having Kendrick Bourne for 15 games, Aiyuk for 12 and Kittle for eight, as was the case for Garoppolo, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard in throwing to the 49ers' three leading receivers in 2020.
Robert Saleh's defense punched so far above its weight that the defensive coordinator parlayed the performance into becoming the New York Jets' head coach. The 49ers' defense was about on par with the Bucs' this season, even amid the injuries, and perhaps Brady playing in Shanahan's offense -- no matter his age and no matter the supporting cast -- could've turned the 49ers' marginal losses into marginal losses.
That's banking on a lot of "ifs," however, and asking a 43-year-old to lift an injury-decimated offense to the 49ers' heights of 2019 would've been too much. Plus, who's to say Brady doesn't get injured as Garoppolo did playing on the MetLife Stadium turf early in the season?
Brady's success doesn't make the 49ers' lack of it this season any more disappointing, as simply swapping him for Garoppolo wouldn't have made the 49ers healthier in 2020. Although Brady's cap number is lower, cutting or trading Garoppolo would've been less convenient a year ago than it could be this offseason.
The 49ers are missing out on a second straight Super Bowl appearance, but that's not solely because they didn't sign Brady last offseason. No matter how easy he makes it appears, you need a lot of luck on your side to win a championship, and the 49ers didn't have much, if any, of it in 2020.