Were the 2019 49ers a Flash in the Pan?

After a 4-12 finish in 2018, the San Francisco 49ers skyrocketed to 13-3 in 2019, not only winning the NFC West, but earning the conference's top playoff seed on tie-breakers, and using the home-field advantage gained from that to win the NFC championship.

But it has been all downhill for the team from there: first, they allowed 21 unanswered points in the last seven minutes of Super Bowl LIV to blow the game, subjecting them to the dreaded Super Bowl Runner-Up Jinx that has seen only three such teams in the last 26 years reach so much as the conference championship game the following season — and in two of those cases the exceptions sort of prove the rule, in that the team having done so was the Patriots, who even went so far as to defeat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII after having lost Super Bowl LII to the Eagles.

And San Francisco's 2020 season has been one big dumpster fire largely due to injuries on both sides of the ball: on offense, both quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (the deadly high ankle sprain) and All-Pro tight end George Kittle (broken foot) are likely out for the season (or the team will be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs when either are ready to return), and running backs Raheem Mostert (ankle, injured reserve) and Tevin Coleman (knee), and wide receiver Deebo Samuel (hamstring).

Defensively, the injury list is headed by 2019 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa (torn ACL, out for the season) defensive tackle Solomon Thomas (also out for the season with a torn ACL), cornerback Richard Sherman (calf, out since Week 1), and strong safety Jacquiski Tartt, who is out for the season with a turf toe (who ever heard of a player sustaining a season-ending turf toe injury?).

Currently 4-6 and in last place in the NFC West, the 49ers are very likely to finish in that position given the aforementioned litany of injuries — and what does history tell us about teams that go from finishing first in their division one season to finishing last in their division the following season?

Answer: they very, very rarely bounce back to win their division the season after that. Only six teams have gone from first to last to first again in their division in three consecutive seasons — and that goes back to 1933: the Bengals did it from 1988 to 1990, the Broncos from 1989 to 1991, the Lions from 1991 to 1993, the Eagles from 2004 to 2006, the Buccaneers from 2005 to 2007, and the Texans from 2016 to 2018.

That's six times that it has happened out of 395 potential situations in NFL history — just over 1.5 percent of the time.

And it stands to reason: a team just doesn't come back from an extremely disappointing season the following year as if nothing had happened, even if injuries can plausibly be cited as an excuse. Plus, until, and unless, they prove that it is unjustified, such a team is going to be a heavy underdog every time they play a good team from the year before — and that cannot help, but have a devastating psychological impact on the vast majority of teams in that scenario.

Besides, the 13-3 season the 49ers had finished with in 2019 was their first winning season since 2013 — adding that much more ammunition to the argument that it was a fluke. And look at what happened to the Raiders after they lost Super Bowl XXXVII to the Buccaneers: they have not won a single playoff game since, and did not even manage so much as one winning season until 14 years later.

The bottom line is that if you think you can't do it, you probably won't — and that's what the 49ers figure to be facing in 2021, and perhaps beyond.

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