The San Francisco 49ers were a six-win team last season in Year 1 of their rebuilding project under Coach Kyle Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch.
But they were a six-win team that could dream of much, much bigger things, after ending the season on a five-game winning streak with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into the lineup.
And now, early in this offseason, their aspirations of being significantly better in very short order have become even more realistic. Garoppolo, the franchise centerpiece obtained in a trade-deadline deal last season with the New England Patriots, singed a record-setting five-year, $137.5 million contract. And Saturday the 49ers made cornerback Richard Sherman’s stay in free agency extremely brief, agreeing with him to a three-year deal worth up to about $39 million.
Sherman, released Friday by the Seattle Seahawks, remains in the NFC West. And if he can return to the level at which he has played throughout his career — not a given, as he works his way back from the ruptured Achilles’ tendon that cut short his 2017 season while pushing 30 — he could help the 49ers supplant the Seahawks as the division’s primary challenger to the Los Angeles Rams.
“I think every team can take a big leap forward,” Shanahan said at the NFL scouting combine. “It’s always nice to end the year on a positive stretch. I said this to a number of people: I learned the way to get people to feel good about 6-10 is to start 0-9. I’m glad we didn’t do it the other way around. It’d probably be a totally different feeling. But that still was our record. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I was very excited how we came together at the end. I think it made going through that at the beginning worth it.
“I think our team got closer through it. I think we got better through it.”
Shanahan and Lynch were given identical six-year contracts to lead the Niners’ bid at a return to prominence. The Garoppolo trade greatly accelerated that retooling process. The 49ers now know they can win with Garoppolo; they’ve seen it. They also know that Garoppolo will be around for the long term. Adding Sherman makes it clear they believe they can take the next step to contender status in 2018.
But they are taking nothing for granted, they say.
“We also know that there’s a lot that remains,” Lynch said at the combine. “The story is not yet written, and Jimmy knows that. That’s one thing he’s very cognizant of, that we’ve got a lot of work to do. And we’ve got a lot of work to do as a team. Bill Parcells said it best: ‘You are what your record says you are.’ We were a 6-10 team. We were 1-5 in our division. Did we finish strong? Absolutely.”
The Rams clearly are the division’s team to beat. They won the NFC West last season with Sean McVay, a prodigy of a rookie head coach, turning Jared Goff into a franchise quarterback and helping running back Todd Gurley finish second in the MVP race. The Rams have been very aggressive this offseason, trading for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to bolster a defense overseen by coordinator extraordinaire Wade Phillips.
But with the Seahawks dismantling their roster and the Arizona Cardinals in quarterback-less limbo, it now appears the 49ers have a clear path toward emerging as the division’s No. 2 team.
For years, Sherman and the Seahawks were the NFC West’s standard-bearer, the team that was being chased.
“When I was young, when I was a rookie and second year, it was San Fran,” Sherman said following an October game last season. “San Fran was the big, bad wolf and Seattle was the up-and-comer. And then the next year, it’s us. And then the next year, you’re saying Arizona is better than us. And now it’s the Rams. It’s always somebody new. So we don’t worry about things like that. We just continue to play our game and do what we’ve got to do.”
Sherman now will get a chance to be back on a team that’s doing the chasing. If he can do his part, the 49ers just might be able to stay closer to the Rams than anyone would have guessed when the 49ers were 0-9 a few months ago.
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