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The obvious and under-the-radar moves that helped 49ers turn early mess into playoff season



© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 San Francisco 49ers were always expected to be a dominant team. This is a group which entered the season with arguably the best left tackle, defensive end, middle linebacker, tight end and fullback in football.

That’s without mentioning Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, the latter of whom has put himself into near elite status after his first 1,000-plus-yard season… or mentioning Charvarius Ward, Arik Armstead, Dre Greenlaw, and so on.

But this team also relied on a handful of key additions to evolve, develop and recover from key injuries. Here are the additions, in varying degrees of prominence, which filled in the gaps and helped an already skilled team prosper into a second half juggernaut.

Brock Purdy

It almost feels like we’ve all settled into the reality of Brock Purdy’s tenure without the appropriate pomp and circumstance this situation demands.

It is difficult to appreciate the absurdities of life while remaining in the moment. The human brain can’t live in a state of perpetual awe. You have to process what’s happening and at some point accept that, “OK, I guess Brock Purdy is just the guy now.”

There is also a rhythm to an NFL season that naturally discourages reflection. Brock Purdy and the 49ers can’t spend too much ruminating on the majestic and preposterous nature of Brock Purdy’s journey because as far as they are concerned, their job is just starting.

The immediacy of the playoffs, and the poise that Purdy has displayed in this nonsensically impressive six-game stretch, has normalized what he’s done. His obsession with preparation and borderline unnerving maturity have prevented him or anyone else from getting caught up in the moment; though the playoffs will surely test that.

What is perhaps wilder is that it he seems not just capable, but likely to shepherd this team to a Super Bowl appearance with a blend of intelligence, precision, off-schedule ability and aggression that many great quarterbacks possess.

The apotheosis of Purdy, somehow, may still lie further down this unreasonable road. There is more of this story yet untold.

But it must be appreciated, in this moment, that the 49ers may have found their franchise quarterback with the final pick of the NFL draft. The “Mr. Irrelevant” label even provides a lazy title for a future, cheaply-made Hollywood biopic.

As John Lynch detailed on KNBR on Thursday morning, that was likely only possible because Purdy stayed in school for an extra year, fell down draft boards, and San Francisco, prompted by Kyle Shanahan’s desire to add another young quarterback to the mix, pursued a late-round quarterback.

Purdy fit the bill, and was fawned over by area scout Steve Slowik, then by QB coach Brian Griese and Assistant QB Coach Klint Kubiak. He beat out a veteran in Nate Sudfeld who the 49ers had guaranteed $2 million, and was so impressive they opted to keep three quarterbacks on the active roster.

Only after (regular) season-ending injuries to Trey Lance and to Jimmy Garoppolo — something that should have derailed the season — did Purdy get his chance.

And here we all are, not just intrigued by him, but expectant that he — and the most talented roster in the NFL — will be able to do enough for the 49ers to potentially win a Super Bowl.

Regardless of what happens in the coming days and weeks, it cannot be undersold how ridiculous it is that the 49ers found Purdy where they did.

Christian McCaffrey

The other most obvious name on this list. Where would the 49ers be without McCaffrey?

San Francisco’s offense was stuck in mud for the first half of the season. Then McCaffrey, in one fell swoop, snapped the entire operation into action. With his ridiculous three-TD game against the Los Angeles Rams — who continue to be the regular season salve and kindling for the 49ers’ second half runs — on the ground and through the air as a passer and receiver, the offense woke up.

He had more all-purpose yards than any running back in the NFL in his first full healthy season since 2019, when he was a first team All-Pro, becoming the third player — along with Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk — to record a 1,000-1,000 yard season as a rusher and receiver.

McCaffrey was the catalyst for the 10-game winning streak that turned this season from a muddled mess into one with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. The second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023 and fifth-round pick in 2024 have all but been forgotten.

The notion, posited by a fair few folks, that this trade was a win for the Panthers, has been erased.

McCaffrey has been the key cog in the 49ers offense, averaging 15 carries for 70 yards and 5 catches for 44 yards and one TD per game starting with the Rams game.

Brian Griese

This is as much a credit to Griese as it is a criticism of Rich Scangarello, who returned to the 49ers as quarterbacks coach after a high-profile failure in one year as the Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator, and who was just fired as the University of Kentucky’s offensive coordinator. 

Griese, meanwhile, has been showered with praise.

He’s managed three quarterbacks, all of whom have different skillsets, and all of whom had praise for him. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a position coach players will openly criticize, but there’s been a distinct appreciation for Griese’s experience playing the position and how he’s related that to players.

“I think [his experience] is huge,” Shanahan said. “Brian has had a lot of success in this league as a player and he had to go through a lot of adversity as a player. I mean he’s the one who had to come in and fill in for John Elway, so you talk about some pressure there. It’s good to have him where he can calm [Brock] down a little bit in games and just bounce stuff off of him, but I think Brian’s done a real good job with those guys.” 

Garoppolo, specifically, noted the difference in having a guy who actually played the position.

“It’s pretty cool. I’ve never had a quarterback coach that played quarterback,” Garoppolo said. “I think I’ve said this before, but he just sees it as a quarterback. It’s different. Everyone thinks they see it as a quarterback, they don’t. So that’s the reality of it. But you know when you have a guy that you could talk the same language with, seeing the same picture… it allows you to play a little more free.”

Offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Foerster has been one of the better interviews these season, speaking with candor and admitting to the platitudes coaches speak with, especially in addressing media.

He prefaced a question relating to Griese by saying he’s obviously not going to criticize a coach on the staff, as a way to clarify his answer was sincere.

“He’s done a really good job, honestly, he has, he’s embraced it,” Foerster said. “He’s been great with the players. He adds a perspective. He’s all in. He’s very honest. He’s very professional. He’s got his opinions. He speaks them. There’s nothing better than to have a guy that’s willing, who has an opinion, right, wrong or indifferent, and he’s willing to speak it, because we do need everybody’s thoughts and opinions as Kyle’s trying to formulate how we go forward. And Brian’s not afraid to do that.

“And he gives a perspective both as a former player and now being close to these quarterbacks and having a connection because of that former player, it’s been really, really cool to watch he and Klay Kubiak work with these guys and Brian’s done a great job.”

Purdy’s opinion obviously matters more than just about anyone right now.

He shared his appreciation for Griese being straightforward with him:

Griese just does a good job of keeping it real. He doesn’t try to tell us one thing just to make you feel good. He wants to win, and he tells us the truth and he is hard on us, especially in the meeting rooms.

He’s like, ‘Hey man, you got to get better here, you got to get better here. This is the read, you got to trust it,’ whatever it may be.

But if you do a good job and make a play, even if it’s off schedule, he’s going to be the first to tell you like, ‘Man, that was awesome.’

So, he does a great job of having the balance of being the discipline coach, but also showing love and building you up, so he’s done a great job with it. It’s his first year, but I feel like he’s been coaching for 20, so it’s awesome.

It’s not a major surprise that Griese has liked working with Purdy; Lynch said he and Kubiak were vocal about their interest in drafting him.

But the fact that you get clear anecdotes relating to not just the value of Griese’s experience as a former player at the quarterback position, but his ability to communicate honestly and impart wisdom, is a clear, substantial improvement from what the 49ers had in the past.

Ray-Ray McCloud

McCloud has been a major bonus for the 49ers. He can run some of the stuff the 49ers ran for Deebo Samuel, and has arguably been more effective at it because defenses don’t respect or account for McCloud going in motion the same way they adjust for Samuel.

You’ll see a ripple in the linebacker corps for McCloud as opposed to a tidal wave of defensive movement to account for Samuel.

But his impact, and the main reason he was brought in, was to increase the 49ers’ special teams unit. It was part of a special teams effort that included the addition of Oren Burks and (also on this list) George Odum.

And he’s been stellar, without losing fumbles. From Wednesday’s preseason’s prediction revisit piece breaking down McCloud’s return performance this season:

McCloud also nearly led the league in fumbles since he was drafted out of Clemson in 2018. Coming into this season, he had 11 fumbles over six years, the sixth-most in the league for a non-quarterback.

He fumbled twice again this season, but he recovered both. That was a decrease from four with the Steelers in 2021, two of which he lost. In each of the prior four seasons, he’d lost exactly two fumbles. He didn’t lose one this year.

McCloud was fantastic for the 49ers this season and seemed to perpetually be one block away from taking a kick or punt to the house. He consistently pulled out NBA-like ankle-breakers and put San Francisco in solid field position, finishing second in punt return yardage (356 yards) and 10th in kick return yardage (599 yards).

Pro Football Focus ranks him as the third-best punt returner in the NFL this season, whatever that means. The point is, if you watch him return, you’ll know he consistently slips multiple defenders and is dangerous on just about every opportunity he gets.

George Odum 

Leading the league in special teams tackles with 21. The next-closest player has 17. Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles is tied for fourth with 15. He’s the ninth-highest ranked special teams player by Pro Football Focus.

T.Y. McGill, Hassan Ridgeway

These aren’t the most exciting names on the list, but without Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw for most of the season, the 49ers needed serious help on the interior.

It was one of the very few positions where depth was a legitimate concern following the preseason. But the veteran Ridgeway, who spent three years each with the Colts and Eagles, was a crucial part of the defensive line.

He, and T.Y. McGill, a Vikings practice squadder who performed well against the 49ers in the preseason, were key cogs in that unit. They plugged gaps in the run game and offered valuable, solid snaps at a position where the 49ers were desperate for support.

The 49ers are sixth in ESPN’s run stop win rate metric, at 32 percent as a team, and those two were a key part of it. It’s a shame Ridgeway’s pectoral injury ended his season early.

Kerry Hyder Jr.

The last time Hyder was a 49er, he had a resurgent, 8.5-sack season with his old defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and was the team’s sack leader. But it was part of that cursed 2020 season in which the 49ers were historically injured.

He parlayed that into what was effectively a one-year, $3.65 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks.

While Hyder had just 1.5 sacks last season and 1.0 this year, he’s been a key part of the interior, and has created the inside push that has led to sacks and turnovers on a handful of occasions, which don’t show up on the stat sheet.

Perhaps as important is his role in the locker room. You always hear about how important it is to have savvy vets in the locker room and Hyder has been evidence of that.

His locker is next to Trent Williams, and when you enter that locker room, depending on the day, you’ll frequently see Hyder breaking down film or discussing the nuance of pass rushing with Williams. After games, Hyder, Williams and Nick Bosa have a meeting of the minds. They sit together by Williams and Hyder’s lockers and discuss the intricacies of the game, breaking down individual plays, what went wrong or right and why.

Drake Jackson told KNBR that he’s leaned on Hyder for mentorship more than any other player this season. He said he has anxiety, and it flared up the transition to the NFL. He’s leaned on Hyder over the course of the season for advice that’s helped him calm himself and build professional habits.

Jake Brendel

To lose a potential Hall of Famer in Alex Mack, a seven-time Pro Bowler, and find an impressive, above-average center in Jake Brendel, is impressive work.

The 49ers gave the keys to the offensive line to a 30-year-old who had a cumulative 250 offensive snaps in his career, betting that the UCLA product’s athleticism and intelligence would translate.

It has. He and Aaron Banks, who are locker mates, and sit across from Trent Williams, consistently chat about their craft.

Brendel was named a Pro Bowl reserve in his first season as a starter after being a total question mark, and overcoming some exchange-related issues early on. His impact should not be understated.

Tashaun Gipson Sr.

Gipson was a former Pro Bowl safety. But the life of a safety in the NFL is absolutely brutal. Ask Jaquiski Tartt, who went from (under-appreciated) hero in the Divisional Round win over the Packers (saving an Aaron Jones touchdown that ended up with a blocked field goal) to goat, when he dropped a sure interception.

The former Pro Bowler hasn’t dropped much. He has a team-high five interceptions, the most since his 6 INTs in his 2014 Pro Bowl season with the Browns.

His experience, and general level of patience in coverage, has made up for some of Talanoa Hufanga’s hyper-aggression. It also allowed the 49ers to move Jimmie Ward to nickel, where Ward has been outstanding.

Gipson was an off-the-street pickup, and with veteran, big-name safeties, the expectations are often low. For him to provide starter value at age 32 on a minimum deal is an astounding value for the 49ers.