Philadelphia — The 49ers’ grief didn’t end with a 31-7 loss to the Eagles, due to two more quarterback injuries in a season that saw them both stand out. I moved to the locker room after the game, where linebacker Fred Warner sat almost motionless in his booth for several minutes.
Some teammates who passed Warner’s spot stopped to pat him on the back and exchange words of encouragement. The linebacker finally got to his feet a few minutes later and moved toward 49ers’ safety Talanoa Huvanga, who was sobbing in the middle of the room. These two share a long embrace.
Earlier, Warner came across 49ers’ defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who is working on interviews to become an NFL head coach. There seems to be a good chance that Ryans, who has been on the 49ers staff since 2017 — the season before Warner was drafted — won’t be with the team anymore next season.
“I hadn’t thought about it until this point,” Warner said. “Obviously you think you’re going to win it all. But seeing him was emotional. The first time it hit me was that it was the last time with him. We came up with this thing together. I owe it all to him. He’s the reason I’m the player I am today.” He fully deserves to go on to become a head coach.
“I was definitely very touched today.”
An All-Pro player during his playing days, Ryans helped nurture Warner into the top-level player he is today. Ryans was a Warner Center coach from 2018 to 2020 before succeeding Robert Salih as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 2021.
Last season, both Warner and the 49ers defense reached new heights under the Ryans. The unit finished ranked first in the NFL in a range of categories, including DVOA, points and yards allowed. But that clearly wasn’t enough in Philadelphia on a day that saw the 49ers play nearly half the ball without a QB healthy enough to throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers mourned a special season that ended in an emotional overdrive
“We finished with the best defense in the league,” said Warner. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t do enough today to give our team a chance to win. It sucks, but this was a special group.”
The 49ers only allowed a 121-yard pass to Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in what was easily his lowest performance of the season. One of the most explosive offenses in the game, Philadelphia managed just 3.8 yards per game.
But the 49ers defenders, with a new pain in their eyes, insisted they could have done more. They lamented the injuries they sustained, including three penalties that helped extend the Eagles’ signal 14 games late in the first half (there were many more flags after that, as the 49ers finished with 11 penalties on the day). And they marveled at the fact that the 49ers, who lead the NFL with 22 interceptions this season, weren’t able to score a single touchdown in the game where they needed one the most.
“We can score in defence, too,” said Hovanga. “It’s not always an offensive game where they are the only ones who can score.”
Was this self-criticism harsh? Certainly in the void. Defeating the No. 1-ranked Eagles on the road in Sunday’s conditions, after all, might have been a nearly impossible task for the 49ers to win.
But constant thinking has become a staple of this defense in recent years, especially once QB injuries start to mount over the long haul of the 2021 season. It’s important to keep in mind that the 49ers have developed a dominant defensive standard. They were tired of seemingly small bugs and obsessed with fixing them. “Solid” did not please the players and coaches of this unit, even after the victories.
“Our defense has to be great for us to be good,” said the 49ers’ left fielder Trent Williams after the 49ers beat the Cowboys during the playoffs last season. “They were great. I don’t think we would be where we are today if we had above-average defense.”
Only the 49ers’ defense started moving, Williams said, and it’s only improved since that point, adding cornerback Charvarius Ward — who helped cover the Philadelphia game in the downfield with excellent coverage against deep shots on Sunday — and retooling the safety prior to this one. season. This improvement at the back end is what helped balance the 49ers defense and propel them into first place for the first time in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure this season (the decorated 2019 team finished runner-up in DVOA).
That opens up the question that leaves losing this NFC Championship Game: Can the 49ers keep what they’ve built defensively, or will this season’s critical mass of QB injuries ultimately mean a missed opportunity for a truly impactful defense to win the Super Bowl?
Replacing Ryan, should he leave, would certainly be difficult. He’s clearly evolved into his role as coordinator for the first time in 2021. By the time the Ryans have persevered through those early pains, the results have been amazing for the 49ers, who may have to resume that cycle next season if they end up needing defensive coordinator. new.
The 49ers may also need the support of their secondary, which could lose a valuable veteran presence. Safety Tashaun Gibson Sr., who led the team with five interceptions, is slated as a free agent. So is Jamie Ward, the 49ers longest serving lineman since 2014.
The 31-year-old Ward made a successful transition from safety to nickelback this season and said he’d be open to a return to the 49ers, but his other words in the locker room after the game — spoken in the past tense — made the signing seem unlikely.
“I was a great team player, that’s who I was and that’s who I was,” Ward said. “That was my role here. And I think I took advantage of that. I felt like I was making plays wherever they put me. I’ve dealt with injuries my whole career. It bounced back. Resilience, man, at its best.”
“I’m good at safety and I’m good at a nickel. I’m a good soccer player, so that will help me in free agency.”
Ward’s versatile skill set won’t help any 49ers prospect attempting to pay him in free agency as the team faces a salaried clutter situation moving forward. The 49ers have more than $217 million in 2023 commitments on the books. The cap is expected to grow from this season’s $208.2 million level, but it’s easy to see where paying players like Ward will get tough. There is work elsewhere on the list, after all. Right tackle, Mike McGlinchey is also slated for free agency, among others.
The 49ers may be able to re-sign cornerback Emmanuel Mosley, who tore his ACL in Week 5, to a relatively reduced deal. But they still have to retool much of their defensive line, which hasn’t offered a truly dominant complement to Nick Bosa’s edge-rush since DeFord began struggling through injury issues in 2019.
Having such a peer for Bosa this season could give the 49ers a huge boost, but that would be difficult since rushing games on the edge of the first division are not commonly available on the open market, and the 49ers first pick in the 2023 draft isn’t decided to come until Late compensatory part of the third round.
On top of that, five of the team’s defensemen — Samson Ipokam, Jordan Willis, Charles Omeniho, Kerry Hyder Jr. and Kevin Givens — are slated for free agency, so significant resources should be directed at simply revamping the front. Taking rushing to another level, at least in theory, would come at a high price – and Bossa himself is poised to secure a lucrative contract extension this off-season.
With so much uncertainty around it, it’s impossible to firmly judge the future opening of the 49ers championship window today. But the new consequences of high-stakes losses amplify the NFL’s lack of success — a dynamic the 49ers have already avoided by reaching three of the past four NFC games.
“After the Super Bowl, I felt the same way about (Joe) Staley and a lot of the guys on the O-line who had this idea that they wouldn’t get another chance,” Bossa said after Sunday’s game. “I feel the same way about the older guys here like Trent who did everything right and they should be rewarded for that, but it’s a really tough league.”
McGlinchey said, “It’s annoying that this league has such a spin that you can’t keep the whole team together. We’ve got a lot of guys, a lot of good players, and a lot of people who deserve to get paid.”
One such player may be linebacker Aziz Al Shaer, who came to the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and has developed into a key cog that symbolizes the defense’s exceptional depth.
Poet is also slated to be a free agent this season, which may have prompted him to consider after the 49ers’ locker room was mostly emptied on Sunday.
The poet said: “Man, it’s brothers.” “We’ve been through a lot together in the last four years. This team has literally been on roller coasters, playing all four quarterbacks we had. At some point, I thought[Kyle Gocek]was going to go over there and play quarterback. He just shows up.” Resilience.So much fighting, so much gratitude for these guys.
“So much respect to everyone. Top to bottom, the organization is top notch. Consistently, being at these types of games for the past four years has been great to me. We obviously couldn’t get it done, but being here again with a group Different from guys who haven’t been here before – that’s special.”
With heartbreak Sunday, the next challenge is here. It’s time to see if the 49ers can re-establish their defense in a way that makes a run like this season possible again.
(Top photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)