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Barber: Comparing 2019 squad to 49ers' last Super Bowl team

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SANTA CLARA — There’s a lot of talk lately about the 1981 49ers, authors of The Catch and a legendary Super Bowl goal-line stand and other wonders of your parents’ generation. Specifically, there is talk about how much this current 49ers team resembles that other one.

It’s true that they share a narrative arc. The 49ers went from 6-10 in 1980 to 13-3 in 1981, beating an iconic NFL franchise (the Cowboys) in the NFC title game and generally taking the league by surprise behind an offensive whiz of a head coach. Swap Dallas for Green Bay, and you might be describing the 2019 Niners, who improved from 4-12 to 13-3.

It’s a treacherous comparison to make, though. In the 1980s, the 49ers built an organization that competed for titles even after the quarterback, the head coach and most other parts had been replaced. Bill Walsh’s offensive system changed the entire NFL. For everything Kyle Shanahan and his team have accomplished this season, we still have no idea if they can write that sort of legacy. Reminder: They haven’t won a Super Bowl yet.

Anyway, Jim Harbaugh’s 2012 49ers are a more apt analog. Harbaugh bore no relation to Shanahan, in personality or in approach to coaching, but the team Harbaugh took to Super Bowl 47 in January of 2013 bears a much closer resemblance to the one that flies to Miami on Sunday.

Just for fun, let’s pit the two versions of 49ers teams head to head. Walk with me through the position groups.

QUARTERBACK: Apples and oranges? Jimmy Garoppolo and Colin Kaepernick are apples and carburetors. Try to erase the images of Kaepernick during his 49ers decline, when he was surrounded by bad teams. The NFL hadn’t figured him out in 2012, and he was devastating defenses. Kap’s regular-season QBR that season (71.8) was better than Garoppolo’s this season (60.2). I do think Jimmy G can thrive in more varied situations, but this category seems close.

RUNNING BACKS: The question is, are three fast, productive running backs — Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida — better than one workhorse back in Frank Gore? The answer: Any team would be thrilled with either option. Kyle Juszczyk is better than Bruce Miller at fullback, but I’m not giving either group a sizable edge.

RECEIVERS: Another tough choice. Harbaugh’s 49ers got contributions from Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and aging Randy Moss, plus tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Current tight end George Kittle is better than any of them, but the overall groupings are fairly even. Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne have become a solid trio. But again, don’t degrade the memory of Crabtree because you watched him slip; he put up an 85/1,105/9 slash line in 2012. Sorry, this one is more or less a wash, too.

OFFENSIVE LINE: I’ll come back to this.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Hmm, let’s try this instead …

FRONT SEVEN: It isn’t just that coordinator Vic Fangio ran a 3-4 defense in 2012, while Robert Saleh runs a 4-3. It’s that the relative emphasis is reversed. Fangio’s 49ers had a solid defensive line and arguably the greatest collection of linebackers in NFL history.

Saleh’s unit has the best D-line in the league, backed by solid linebackers.

So it’s easier, if admittedly sneaky, to reverse the contest and match strength against strength. With Dee Ford healthy, Saleh’s defensive line is a nightmare for quarterbacks: speed off both edges, a collapsing pocket in the middle. I’m sorry, though. I watched Fangio’s linebackers in person many times, and I’ll never admit there was a better group at any position. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith weren’t just dominant in 2012. All three were playing at a Hall of Fame level. And the fourth linebacker, Ahmad Brooks, was pretty damn good, too.

How about the defensive line of Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald vs. the linebacking corps of Fred Warner, (a relatively diminished) Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw? Maybe a slight edge to the 2019 crew. All in all, though, this contest of 7-on-7 is equal.

SECONDARY: Richard Sherman, even at 31, is probably better than either Carlos Rogers or Tarell Brown. But those two were capable, and Sherman’s current partner, Emmanuel Moseley, is talented but unproven. Fangio’s safeties were Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. Neither had Jimmie Ward’s range, but those guys had some pop. Jaquiski Tartt would have fit right in with them. Throw in nickel back K’Waun Williams, an improvement over Chris Culliver/Perrish Cox, and I’ll give a small edge to 2019.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker David Akers, after an incredible 2011 season, was a liability in 2012. Robbie Gould was, too, for a while this year, but he’s been kicking well lately. Andy Lee was better than Mitch Wishnowsky. Coverage seemed good for both squads. Not making a proclamation on this one.

OFFENSIVE LINE: I saved this for last because it’s the only group that offers a measurable gap. The 2012 49ers’ O-line was appreciably better than 2019’s. Both had Joe Staley, but 28-year-old Staley was better, more agile, than 35-year-old Staley. And the interior line that started Super Bowl 47 — left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone — was a couple rungs better than Laken Tomlinson, Ben Garland and Mike Person. That’s the major difference between now and then.

Add it all up, then, and those 2012 Niners look slightly better on paper. Were they, though?

My gut says no. And so does the record. Harbaugh’s team went 11-4-1 and had to steal a tight one at Atlanta in the NFC title game to advance to the Super Bowl. Shanahan’s team was 13-3, every loss close, and has mowed through the opposition in the playoffs. Anyway, the 2019 squad just feels superior, more balanced and more reliable.

Why, though? What allows the 2019 Niners to meet or exceed the 2012 version? I say it’s Kyle Shanahan and his offensive system.

Greg Roman, the former offensive coordinator, probably took too much heat for any struggles the 2012 team might have had. Roman has done so well in Baltimore that he is now mentioned as a head coaching candidate. But it never felt like he squeezed everything possible out of the ’12 team. His play-calling did not elevate the offense. Shanahan’s does, though. He has helped to turn Juszczyk and Kittle and Mostert into the best versions of themselves.

You will probably recall that the 2012 Niners came within one play of winning the Super Bowl. Roman called three straight passes to Crabtree inside the final 2 minutes from the Baltimore 5-yard line, and each fell incomplete.

It’s impossible to know whether the 2019 Niners will get such an opportunity. Their opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs, are loaded. But if Super Bowl 54 were to end with the 49ers looking at first-and-goal from the Chiefs’ 7, I’d have faith in Shanahan to get them a touchdown. He is the true difference in this frivolous comparison.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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