About one year ago, we were getting ready for the San Francisco 49ers to take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. The Niners came up short and Patrick Mahomes won his first Super Bowl. But the future was bright in San Fran with Kyle Shanahan and a ferocious defense leading the way.
One year later, things have changed. The Niners were snakebitten to the point it nearly defies belief in their attempt to defend their NFC title in 2020, losing quite literally every important player for at least multiple weeks due to injury. Jimmy Garoppolo missed almost the entire year along with George Kittle. Nick Bosa tore his ACL. The team finished 6-10 and last in the NFC West.
No use crying over spilled milk. It's tough to swallow, but sometimes this just happens to even the best teams in the NFL. Losing your best overall player, your starting quarterback, and your top defensive stud is impossible to recover from and end up in any state resembling contention. The 49ers will reload and be back in the same spot next year, but with their best guys healthy. That isn't the problem in the Bay Area. The problem is that while all that happened, their pals in the NFC West took big swings to load up and become contenders in their own rights
The Arizona Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins, which admittedly wasn't as much of a "big swing" as it was highway robbery of the Houston Texans and literally every team in the league would have made the same deal. But they made it regardless. It helped Kyler Murray put together an impressive sophomore campaign and established the Cardinals as a legitimate playoff team to watch for in the coming years.
The Seattle Seahawks traded two first-rounders to land Jamal Adams. Which isn't a no-brainer in the same vein as the Hopkins deal, but it made the Seahawks better. Russell Wilson remains a top-five quarterback and Adams can help spearhead a league-average defense at worst, a substantial improvement over the years prior. Giving up that kind of draft capital for a safety is a matter of much debate, but either way, the team got better on one side of the ball and Adams will be in Seattle for a long time.
Then there's the Los Angeles Rams, of course, who shook up the football world mere days ago when they traded two firsts and Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford. Whether or not Stafford can lead a team to a championship is, again, a matter of much debate. But it's indisputable that Stafford is an upgrade over Goff and makes the Rams a better team than they were this time last week.
Each of the three other teams in the NFC West have markedly improved since the Niners ran through the playoffs to the Super Bowl. And the Niners, well, have not done anything. Their first-round pick from 2019, Brandon Aiyuk, seems like a legit playmaker. They did trade for Trent Williams. But they have not had a position-overhauling transaction like their division rivals.
That doesn't mean San Francisco will be a bad team. Not by any means. Jimmy G's stock has sunk considerably since February 2020, but he's still at worst a competent commander of Shanahan's offense. The defense will be back to an above-average unit with Bosa back in the fold. That's good enough to finish the season with a record above .500 and a shot at the playoffs.
It just might not be enough. Especially considering the Niners have to play all of the above teams twice a year. There's an arms race happening in the division, and San Francisco is getting left in the dust.