Whenever someone in sports media or a fan compares two players/teams to each other it can sometimes be very subjective. What one person sees may differ from what another person sees. Therefore, I try to be very careful when I do find similarities and try to compare players or teams to one another. But one comparison that I’ve been making for a while now but have been hesitant to say out loud in fear of jinxing them is that of the 2019 San Francisco 49ers and the Super Bowl-winning 2017 Philadelphia Eagles. It’s certainly a lofty one to make, but in all honesty, the similarities between the two are too interesting to be ignored.
From Bad to Good
In 2016 the Eagles went 7-9 and finished in last place in the NFC East. As a result, the number of people that had good reason to believe they would be a contending team in 2017 was few and far between. Head Coach Doug Pederson, though, was one of those few. He saw the amount of talent that the team had acquired in the offseason and how guys like Carson Wentz, Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, and several others were taking their games to the next level.
In 2018 the 49ers went 4-12 and finished 3rd in the NFC West. Not only did Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL injury significantly hurt the 49ers chances that season, but also the roster overhaul Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch had planned was still a work in progress. The 2019 offseason turned out to be a tremendous one for them as they filled many of the glaring holes still on the roster, especially on defense. Going into the 2019 season the team was loaded on both sides of the ball with great young talent that fit the scheme they were asked to run.
Many have doubted the 49ers for much of this season, similar to the way many doubted the Eagles in 2017. It can be difficult to believe that a team can go from being one of the worst in the league one season to being a Super Bowl contender the next. But in a league that’s known for its parity, the Eagles and 49ers flew under almost everyone’s radar.
Dominant Rushing Attack
While Carson Wentz and Nick Foles got much of the spotlight during that 2017 season, people forget how great the offense was on the ground. The Eagles ranked 3rd in the league in rushing yards per game that year and used a committee of Jay Ajayi (who was acquired in the middle of the season and become the team’s lead back), LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement. Ajayi added explosiveness to the ground attack and gave the offense a RB who could run outside zone schemes very well, Blount was the punishing bruiser that no one wanted to tackle, and Clement filled in for Darren Sproles as the “change-of-pace” back. The offensive line was not only physically imposing but also incredibly mobile, constantly executing blocks at the 2nd level. It was a very difficult rushing attack to stop.
The 2019 49ers rank 2nd in the league in rushing yards per game, behind only the Baltimore Ravens. That’s a result of Shanahan being a master at run designs and teaching his players how to execute accordingly. Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida may have subtle differences here and there, but in the end, they’re all explosive one-cut runners who have a great understanding of how to run the scheme the way they’re supposed to. The same goes for the entire offensive line, FB Kyle Juszczyk, and TE George Kittle. All together they create so many running lanes for the RBs to run through, often making their jobs very easy. Watching their rushing attack is like watching a masterpiece of art.
Run blocking is tough but it’s much easier in SF. Shanahan does an excellent job of setting up his run game for success with formations. Check this out. pic.twitter.com/Wppv6KagqE
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 22, 2020
Well-rounded WR Corps
Neither the 2017 Eagles nor the 2019 49ers have a true elite talent at the WR position. However, what they do have is a deep group filled with good talent.
The Eagles had Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and Torrey Smith. Alshon was signed in the offseason and gave the offense a receiving threat who could constantly win on the outside. Smith was also signed in the offseason and gave the offense a necessary deep threat. And Agholor surprised everyone as he emerged as an explosive playmaker from the slot. None of them accumulated 1,000 receiving yards, but each of them made big plays week in and week out when needed.
The 49ers have Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel, and Kendrick Bourne. Sanders was acquired via trade before the deadline and was an immediate fit in Shanahan’s system. All 3 of them are, to be honest. Shanahan’s system calls for precise route running, as timing is a key element in the passing attack. There’s a lot of misdirection and play-action involved, so the receivers need to be at a certain spot at a certain time. They also need to be good after the catch, which they are.
The Eagles and 49ers may not have an elite WR, but they do have an elite TE at their disposal.
Zach Ertz is the best route running TE in the league. He’s not a standout athlete, but his knowledge of leverage is second to none and his hands are very reliable. And even though you’ll never look at him as a superb blocker, he’s made enormous strides in this area and is far from the liability he once was. Overall, I see him as the 2nd best TE in the NFL.
With Ertz ranking 2nd, that puts Kittle as my top-ranked TE in the NFL. His ability as both a blocker and receiver allows the Niners offense to do a lot of things in their running game and off play-action. There’s no denying that he’s the best blocking TE in the whole league, but he also may be the most athletic and physically imposing. He’s like the Marshawn Lynch of TEs; just ask the New Orleans Saints defense.
D-Line / Pass Rush
When you talk about each team’s defense, you start with their defensive lines. A big part of why both defenses are so good is because they dominate the line of scrimmage and get after the QB with just their front 4. There’s rarely a need to blitz.
Remember how deep the Eagles D-Line was. It consisted of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, and Beau Allen. Schwartz continuously rotated guys in and out during a game so that everyone was fresh. This paid off as the season went on and they got into playoff time. Also, having a guy like Graham who can play both inside and out helps a lot with the pass rush. The prime example of this is the play that is arguably the biggest in franchise history.
Not to be outdone, the 49ers D-Line is just plain scary. It’s led by Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford. Bosa has a chance at winning both the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and the Defensive Player of the Year award. Buckner has been a great interior lineman that no one talked about for a couple of years now. And Armstead and Ford are great pass rushers in their own right. Other players like Sheldon Day and Solomon Thomas have had their moments and played well when called upon. And this isn’t even including the guys on IR who contributed throughout the season as well: Ronald Blair, Julian Taylor, DJ Jones, and Damontre Moore.
Nick Bosa has been a MACHINE all season 💪😤
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 31, 2019
Secondary Led by Standout Veteran
Each team’s secondary has a group of solid/good defensive backs led by one standout veteran leader.
The Eagles had Malcolm Jenkins. The 49ers have Richard Sherman.
Ever since he joined the Eagles in 2014 Jenkins has been one of the better safeties in the league. That wasn’t always the case, though. He was originally drafted by the New Orleans Saints as a CB but wasn’t re-signed by the team once his rookie contract had expired. The Saints felt as though he hadn’t lived up to his draft status and didn’t warrant an extension. Luckily for the Eagles, his best years were still ahead of him. Jenkins was the vocal leader on the back end of that Eagles defense still in his prime during that 2017 Super Bowl run. He did it all at the safety position; played deep coverage, matched up man-to-man against TEs, RBs, and slot receivers, and was often in the box in run support.
Sherman was let go by the Seattle Seahawks after 7 seasons. The team felt he was on the decline, especially after he ruptured his Achilles. That looked to be the case in 2018, his first season with San Francisco, as he looked like a shell of himself while fighting back from the injury. But this season Sherman has turned his career back around. He may not be quite as good as he once was, but he’s still one of the better corners in the league and has played at a very high level for the 49ers all season. Sherman’s been a valuable leader, giving them invaluable championship experience during this surprising run.
The most telling stat in football is turnovers, and it’s no coincidence that both the Eagles and 49ers were amongst the league leaders in that category. As a matter of fact, their numbers are identical. Both teams averaged 1.8 takeaways per game and ranked 4th in the league.
TBD: Super Bowl Champions?
There’s still one more comparison that remains to be seen, and we’ll know the answer by the end of the day on February 2nd, 2020. Can this 49ers team do what the 2017 Eagles did and cap off their surprising season with a surprising Super Bowl title? They’ve been the most consistent team in the league all year, but none of it will matter, none of these comparisons to the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles will matter if they don’t win this final game.
Whether they win or lose, one thing is for sure: it has been a lot of fun watching them this season. I know you can never assume or predict that a team will return to the Super Bowl shortly after playing in one, but with Kyle Shanahan locked in as Head Coach for several more years and all the young talent they have, it’s hard not to believe they’ll continue to be contenders beyond this season. And with the Eagles making the playoffs in both 2018 and 2019, that would be another parallel between the two.
— J.G. 🇺🇸 🇵🇭 (@JGPinoy916) January 22, 2020