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Kurtenbach: The 49ers used a classic formula to turn their season around

Kurtenbach: The 49ers used a classic formula to turn their season around

It took two games — two wins, in seven days —  for the 49ers’ turn their season around.

The next two games will go a long way to defining it.

Credit to Kyle Shanahan and his team. Lesser teams would have started going through the motions after being punked, at home, by Arizona Cardinals backup Colt McCoy in Week 9.

Instead, the Niners used the embarrassing loss as a rallying cry.

And in the past two games, they have figured out who they are and what they do best.

It’s a good thing, too. It came just in time to make the holiday season interesting.

Blowout wins over the Rams on Monday and Sunday’s 30-10 beat-down of the Jaguars in Jacksonville have the Niners back to .500 — at 5-5, they are tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC.

You gotta love the NFL rewarding mediocrity by adding a seventh playoff spot last season.

And wouldn’t fate have it that the 49ers are going to play the Vikings next Sunday at Levi’s Stadium? That is followed by a divisional showdown with their arch-rivals, the Seahawks in Seattle.

Looking back on it, “interesting” might be underselling it. With seven games left, it seems as if every possible outcome for this season remains on the table for the Niners.

This could be as good as it gets for the 49ers this season. The recent four-game losing streak was no fluke.

But these last two games weren’t a fluke, either. It could be the start of a run over the final seven games.

The Niners changed. They adapted. They’re back in control.

So who are these new 49ers — a team with hope and possibility in front of them? What has this team become the last two weeks?

Drives of 18 and 20 plays to start the last two games tell you everything.

Yes, they’re the bullies in the neighborhood.

So, of course, they’re led by a guy named Deebo.

(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) 

Tactically, the adjustments the Niners have made are straightforward — they’re going back to Shanahan basics: The Niners head coach and offensive coordinator is asking quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to get the ball out of his hands as soon as possible after the snap. The goal is to put it in the hands of the Niners’ playmakers, post-haste. Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and their ever-changing stable of running backs, which now includes Samuel, give the Niners the best chance to win.

And the quickest way to remove the ball from the quarterback’s hands is to hand it off. The Niners have run the ball 40-plus times in back-to-back games now. It’s an insane number that almost guarantees a win.

Now, is every play a big gain? Hardly. In fact, the advanced stats say that the Niners’ run game the last two games has been more a hindrance than a benefit to the Niners’ winning effort.

But the on-field results say quite the opposite. The Niners are setting a tone with their run game. They’re establishing that they’re the tougher, meaner team and there’s not much the other team can do about it.

Go ahead, sell out to stop the run against San Francisco. The Niners will still run it and gain three or four yards. That wasn’t something this Niners team — specifically Shanahan — was doing the first two months of the season.

But a modest gain in the box score can be a huge gain in the psychological battle that is professional football.

Because if you beat the defense at their own game enough times, you’ll have the opposition questioning everything. The defense is supposed to be the crazy ones on the field, but the Niners’ offense has been the aggressor, and that gives them control of the game.

That tone carries over to when the Niners are on defense, too. Those maniacs have too much pride to let the offense be the more aggressive unit, so they’re playing their best football as of late.

It creates an old-school vibe and, for the first time since the 2019 season, the Niners are playing truly complementary football.

(AP Photo/Gary McCullough) 

And while the Niners want to run the ball on first, second, and third down, they’ll concede the final down if there’s too much distance between the ball and the first-down marker.

But the goal doesn’t change on those third-down throws. Garoppolo is still tasked with being the fastest part of the Niners’ offensive supply chain.

Garoppolo followed his 2.3-seconds-to-throw game against the Rams Monday — the fastest average time to throw in the NFL that week — with a 2.5-second, snap-to-throw performance against the Jags.

When you can throw the ball to Samuel or Kittle — both will run over three dudes after the catch — or Aiyuk, whose Mr. Elastic arms make him a QB’s best friend on third down, it’s not a bad idea to spend less time thinking and more time getting them the ball.

Now, this kind of offense requires great blocking — patricianly from the Niners’ receivers — and no turnovers to work. But it has worked the last two weeks, quite well.

Combined, it might be one kind of smoke, but it creates an impressive cloud.

And don’t forget, it did take the Niners to a Super Bowl in the 2019 playoffs.

I’m fascinated to see how far it can take this team.

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