Expectations in sport. When high – as with the Rams, Bears and Chargers, all of the playoffs last year – it can lead to frustration with seasons that have failed, as these three teams have experienced. If the Cowboys fail to win the NFC East and then win at least one playoff, we can add them to that team.
The other side is a team that goes far beyond expectations, which is the best situation for a franchise and team of execs. The prime example of this season is of course the 49ers, who were 4-12 in 2018 and enter Week 17 at 12-3 with the NFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the line at the Seattle’s Sunday Seat’s matchup.
I’ve been on both sides of the rotation to appreciate the excitement that San Francisco general manager John Lynch and his organization have felt.
PLAYOFF PICTURE: Removing the 49ers sowing scenarios
In 1999, I joined the Titans as president after the team had finished 8-8 in three straight sets. The local fans weren’t thinking of the playoffs and certainly not the Super Bowl. He was more focused on a Tennessee Vols football team that just won the national championship.
Two days after my hiring, the team’s owner, Bud Adams, told the media that it would be a playoff or pink slip for coach Jeff Fisher and GM Floyd Reese if the team did not make the playoffs. Our team started 6-1, went 13-3 in the regular season, hit the accounts in the “Wild City Miracle” game and settled in the Super Bowl. We got a foot close to sending the title game overtime against the Rams (who also had an unexpected 4-12 overturn in the Super Bowl).
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A big similarity between the Titans 99 and this year’s 49ers is that both teams drafted a defensive end in the first round, which brought down the rushing pass and overall defense among the league’s best. Jevon Kearse was the key addition to the Titans team as 14.5 sacks and eight forced nails led our defense, improving from 30 sacks to 54 sacks the previous season, third in the league.
San Francisco selected Nick Bosa No. 2 overall in last April’s draft and has nine sacks, 41 contenders, two rebounds, one forced fumble and one interception. It’s a big part of the 49ers’ defensive improvement from 13 defenses last year at No. 2 this year with 47 sacks (number 5 in the NFL with one game left) compared to 37 last season. Kearse has been selected as the defending champion of the year and Bosa has a good chance of achieving that honor.
Both the Titans in 1999 and the 49ers 20 years later were led by third-year starter fighters – Steve McNair and Jimmy Garoppolo – and neither QB had started a playoff. The lead for both teams was a tight end – Frank Wycheck for the Titans and George Kittle for the 49ers.
Another key factor common to both groups includes the most important state next to the final turnover score. For Tennessee at that time, it was a plus-18 (from 0 in 1998), while for San Francisco it was all 4, a huge improvement from the previous season. One such leap in efficiency is the credibility of both offenses and defensive teams.
In 1999, there were three divisions and five playoff teams at each conference, and as the top wild card, I played home accounts before hitting the road against Indianapolis and Jacksonville. If the 49ers lose to Seattle, they will start the playoffs as a wild card and seed no. 5, a tough spot that will put them on the road for as long as it takes for the Vikings to reach No. 6 in the NFC Championship, in which case the 49ers would host. That puts extra pressure on San Francisco to find a way to win in Seattle against a winning Seahawks team that has lost its first two runs and the best offensive tackle.
Against Spread Straight up
I’m sure Lynch is as excited as I am about how the season unfolded. There have been games that have announced the 49ers as a team to be reckoned with, as their road wins 20-7 over defending NFC champion Rams in Week 5 and an amazing 48-46 victory in New Orleans three weeks ago when Garoppolo threw for 349 yards and four TDs – similar to the Titans’ season, when a Week 3 point win at Jacksonville and a 24-21 Week 8 win for the Rams made us think it could be a special season.
I was cautiously optimistic about getting into the playoffs that our team could do, but I didn’t really think of the Super Bowl. Lynch may have a different mindset, but I’m sure he wonders just how far his team can go in the starting lineup, especially if the 49ers get into the fifth seed.
Other questions about Lynch’s mind are whether Garoppolo will deliver to the clutch, as McNair did for us, and whether the defensive unit can deliver regular season success. My Titans had to beat excellent QBs to Peyton Manning and Mark Brunell, while Kurt Warner got us through. Lynch hopes his dominant defense can contain strong NFC offensive teams led by big fighters such as the Packers ‘Aaron Rodgers and the Drew Brees Saints’ trio (who threw five TD passes against the 49ers), a record. Michael Thomas record and productive running back Alvin Kamara.
As always, the proof will be in the pudding in January – and possibly in February.
Jeff Diamond is a former Titans president and former Vikings vice president / general manager. He was elected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also broadcasts online media work. Lectures on corporate / political groups and college lessons on negotiation and sports administration / sports administration. He is the former chairman and CEO of the Ingram team. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL.