SANTA CLARA — It certainly didn’t help the 49ers that injuries at quarterback ended Super Bowl dreams in each of the last two seasons.
First, there was Jimmy Garoppolo with a throwing shoulder that needed surgery and a sprained right thumb in a 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams for the NFC Championship. That was followed by Sunday’s Brock Purdy-Josh Johnson disaster with Garoppolo and Trey Lance sidelined and Purdy unable to throw with a torn UCL in his elbow.
The 49ers almost survived the Rams game, losing a 10-point lead in the second half. A 31-7 loss to the Eagles was a foregone conclusion as soon as Purdy was hurt.
The way the losses went down, the 49ers have more work to do this offseason than simply hoping for better luck regarding quarterback injuries.
Any chance of winning either game rested with a quality the 49ers pride themselves on but went missing in action when they needed it most.
The 49ers were the tougher, more physical team in both regular-season wins over the Rams a year ago, but not in the title game. They beat teams physically to such an extent this season that every opponent lost the following week. But let’s face facts: Even with the quarterback issues, the 49ers got manhandled on both sides of the line of scrimmage against Philadelphia.
If the 49ers hope to take that extra step in 2023 and exert their will when the stakes are the highest, Trent Williams and Nick Bosa are going to need some help. There may not be a team with a stable of playmakers to match Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Charvarius Ward, but without the requisite physicality at the point of attack, it’s all window-dressing with an unsatisfying conclusion.
Shanahan is fond of using carries as an indicator when it comes to meting out punishment. The more the better, because it means third downs are being converted and the clock is in his favor. His team is delivering blows rather than accepting them.
In the last two title games, the Eagles (44) and Rams (29) ran the ball 73 times combined, and the 49ers ran it 44 (20 and 24).
While Philadelphia averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, they had four rushing touchdowns and their offensive line got the better of the 49ers’ defensive front. Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa had their moments, but Javon Kinlaw got pushed backward as if on roller skates on more than one play and an Eagles’ offensive line featuring Jason Kelce, Landon Dickerson and Lane Johnson seized the day.
Philadelphia had a 37:26 to 22:34 advantage in time of possession — a stat the 49ers pride themselves on — and the Rams had a 35:39 to 24:21 advantage a year ago.
The Eagles, according to tight end George Kittle, concentrated on shooting gaps and penetrating rather than holding their ground and the 49ers’ offense was helpless to respond. They lost Purdy on Haason Reddick’s sack and outside of one inspiring 23-yard run by Christian McCaffrey had 23 rushes for 58 yards.
With the inability to run, the 49ers were helpless against the Eagles’ natural rush.
“That is a pass rush that we have not seen,” former 49er quarterback Steve Young said on his weekly appearance on KNBR. “Think about the games we’ve played this season, a four-man pass rush that really threatened us? I don’t know that we saw it. You could feel that early. It’s going to be super difficult to deal with these four guys.”
It was slow going against the Rams at SoFi Stadium last season, getting just 50 yards on 20 carries.
Assuming Williams returns at left tackle and Bosa signs a huge extension, they’ll be the 49ers’ two highest-paid players in terms of cap dollars — an anchor and a game-changer at two of the most important positions in football.
How well the 49ers supplement those two spots will have a lot to say about whether they can deliver the goods physically if they return to the NFC title game as they did for the most part during a regular season in which they went 13-4 and a 12-game win streak (including playoffs).
The 49ers could have a hole to fill at right tackle, where Mike McGlinchey played all 20 games. He is a better run blocker than pass blocker, but McGlinchey put himself in position on the open market to earn more than the 49ers are willing to pay.
Next man up is Colton McKivitz, an erstwhile fill-in and technician more so than a force to be reckoned with. There’s also Jaylon Moore, a two-year veteran who played sparingly. The 49ers seemed pleased with the work of center Jake Brendel, a free agent who chances are will be back, while rookie Spencer Burford and veteran Daniel Brunskill split time at right guard.
Left guard Aaron Banks replaced Laken Tomlinson and made strides after being a non-factor as a rookie, validating his second-round status in the 2021 draft.
The 49ers don’t have a draft pick scheduled until the third round this spring, so the odds of an instant contributor with dominant capabilities are slim. Free agency could include Denver guard Dalton Risner, the Eagles’ Isaac Seaumalo and Baltimore guard Ben Powers on the open market.
Bosa and Armstead are the Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside of the defensive front, but the 49ers haven’t been able to pair Bosa with a second edge threat since Dee Ford’s body began to go south on him in 2019.
Samson Ebukam has been consistent if not prolific, with 4 1/2 sacks from 2019 through 2021 (two of those seasons with the Rams) and five in 2022. He is scheduled for free agency along with Charles Omenihu, Kerry Hyder Jr. and Jordan Willis.
The personnel along the defensive front resembles their offensive line supporting cast in that they’re serious, earnest and fairly sound but not particularly explosive. The most convenient solution for the 49ers would be for edge rusher Drake Jackson, a second-round pick a year ago, to make the kind of leap Banks did at guard.
Shanahan made it clear that Jackson fell behind in terms of strength and power as the season went along after showing some early promise as a pass rusher.
Focus on the quarterbacks if you must, but taking the extra step in 2023 will rest with beating opponents to the punch instead of taking it on the chin.
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