Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN lists 49ers among potential first-to-worst teams in 2020

Aug 11, 2020 at 8:17 AM--

The San Francisco 49ers had a remarkable turnaround from 2018 to 2019. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan hope they have built something sustainable — a team that can compete for championships every year.

But what if it's not sustainable? What if 2019's success was a fluke?

The thought of the 49ers' impressive Super Bowl run being an abnormality is enough to kick off a heated debate among the Niner Faithful. Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, in a feature for ESPN, listed San Francisco as a top candidate to go from first to worst. That means going from a division winner in 2019 to potentially fall to the last place in that division during the upcoming season.

Football Outsiders' metrics give the 49ers a 25.7 percent chance of finishing last in the NFC West. Only the Houston Texans have a higher first-to-worst chance within their division at 28.2 percent.

Schatz bases his reasoning on two factors. The first is the "Plexiglass Principle," the idea that teams that make a significant improvement from one year to the next tend to fall back a bit in the third.

"The 49ers are in line to hit the Plexiglass Principle hard," wrote Schatz. "They are the first team in the history of our DVOA stats (back to 1985) that improved by 20% on both sides of the ball in the same year. Veteran losses such as DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders won't help the 49ers fight that strong probability of a reversion."

Then you have the strength of the NFC West as a contributing factor. Schatz mentions the Seattle Seahawks having Russell Wilson, the fact that under the new playoff scenario, the Los Angeles Rams would have enjoyed postseason play last season, and the potential emergence of a young and talented Arizona Cardinals team.

"The entire division finishes with an average winning record in our simulations," wrote Schatz. "It's not a ridiculous notion that the 49ers could decline a little bit and combine that with a bit of bad luck and go 8-8 -- and finish last in the NFC West despite being an above-average team overall."

Add to that Schatz listing the Cardinals as a likely worst-to-first team, and you can see how, in the analyst's opinion, things could get more challenging for the 49ers in 2020. Arizona, by the way, was listed as having a 20.8 percent chance of winning the NFC West during the upcoming season.

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