<
>

After strong finish with Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers can't wait for 2018

LOS ANGELES -- As a longtime veteran, San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley would seem to be a prime candidate for somebody happy for the rest and relaxation that comes with the end of the 2017 season.

But there Staley was after the Niners' 34-13 win against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, pleading the case for his team to play more.

"It's kind of a shame it's coming to an end this year," Staley said. "That's coming from a guy who is in Year 11 and 33 years old. I just wish we had more games because I feel definitely we are trending in the right direction and I feel like we have a special team here. I'm excited to get moving forward to the offseason and into next year."

That's a feeling that was universally shared in the 49ers' locker room after Sunday's win and, really, had already been brewing for the better part of the past month.

The 49ers closed out the 2017 season as the hottest team in the league, winning five straight games and six of their final seven. In the process, the Niners were the only team in the league to go undefeated in December and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, their six wins on the season are the most in NFL history by a team that started the season 0-9. Making that number even more impressive is that the previous high for a team starting 0-9 was three wins.

That final victory also allowed the 49ers to tie the 1989 Detroit Lions for the NFL's longest winning streak to end a season for a team that did not finish the season with a winning record.

Whether momentum can carry from one season to the next is up for debate, but the Niners undoubtedly have something to build on in the new year.

"Every year is different," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We're going to have to regroup next year and I would love to carry this over, but we loved how we finished this year. I get what the guys mean. You know, to win this much at the end of the year, it feels great and you don't want to stop playing, which is unusual when you're not in the playoffs.

"But it's a good feeling that we worked very hard to get to and I think we appreciate it a lot more because we know where we started and where we came from and how we finished. We definitely haven't arrived, but we're happy with how we ended this and we're going to have to go into next year and work to get better and add some guys and make sure we keep the guys on our roster and just continue to get better."

Despite the finishing flourish, the 49ers closed the year with a 6-10 record and join 19 other teams heading toward the long offseason. But while most of those other franchises will take some time to lick their wounds and begin laying out a plan to try to continue playing in January 2019, the 49ers and their fans have a surplus of enthusiasm for next season.

The Niners' excitement is rooted in a number of things, but nothing rings louder than their newfound stability. For the first time since after the 2013 season, the 49ers will go into the offseason with certainty at the three most important positions for any NFL team: head coach, general manager and quarterback.

For those keeping score at home, those jobs will be occupied by Shanahan, John Lynch and Jimmy Garoppolo, respectively. And while Garoppolo is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March, there's not really any plausible scenarios in which he won't be with the 49ers in 2018.

Given Garoppolo's dynamic start to his San Francisco career, buoyed by his production on the field and his 5-0 record as the team's starter, the Niners would like to get a lucrative long-term contract done with him sooner than later. Short of that, the Niners have the franchise tag at their disposal and could use it to extend the window to negotiate with Garoppolo through July. Even if a deal isn't struck by then, Garoppolo could sign the tender offer that goes with the tag and play next season for around $25 million, depending on if the Niners used the exclusive or non-exclusive franchise tender for him.

Garoppolo hasn't yet made plans for his offseason, but he said he intends to go home to Chicago to spend time with his family before returning to the West Coast to begin offseason training. Garoppolo traditionally trains here in Los Angeles but will likely split his time between L.A. and San Francisco.

After Sunday's win, Garoppolo spoke for the first time about what a good fit he's been for the Niners and what a good fit they've been for him.

"I think it was a good match between the 49ers and myself and myself and the 49ers," Garoppolo said. "I think it was kind of a perfect match and it just happened at the right time, and good things are coming from it."

"These guys don't look at themselves as an 0-9 team or whatever they were. Great group of guys coming together and great things came from it, so it's a blessing that I came here, and good things are happening."

Indeed they are. With so many good things happening to finish the season, the Niners now face the possibility that they'll be one of the league's most hyped teams heading into 2018. That buzz already has begun building. A solid offseason spent adding talent to the roster, with their more than $100 million in salary-cap space, and a top-10 pick would do nothing to slow that hype down.

Which is why one of the 49ers' main goals this offseason is to not buy into the hype.

"You've got to stay humble and keep grinding," end Elvis Dumervil said. "Once you're on the map, it's even harder. Once teams know about you more, everybody gives [you] their best shot. We've just got to build from it, embrace it, accept it, but understand that you are not just going to go out there and get it and lay down. You've got to go take it. That's the mindset."

Before the season, the thought that the Niners could be on the verge of a turnaround in just two years might have seemed outlandish. As the calendar flips to 2018, it feels much more like their new reality.