For the third time in four years, the San Francisco 49ers finished their season so close, yet simultaneously so far from hoisting their first Lombardi Trophy since the 1994 season, following their season-ending 31-7 defeat in the NFC Championship Game at the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles. The team seemed to be quarterback-proof, winning 12 games in a row prior to Sunday's loss thanks to a treasure trove of offensive riches -- running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, tight end George Kittle and left tackle Trent Williams -- and the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense (16.3 points per game) and total defense (300.6 total yards per game) led by the NFL's sack leader (18.5) and likely Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end Nick Bosa.
However, the plan fully unraveled when quarterback Brock Purdy -- who transformed from the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft into one of the hottest passers in the league through his first seven starts -- suffered an elbow injury on San Francisco's opening drive and his backup, fourth-string, journeyman Josh Johnson suffered a concussion. Entering the 2023 offseason, the 49ers don't have a significant number of needs to address, so if they fortify just a handful of position groups, they'll be back in Super Bowl contention once again next season. Here are three things the 49ers could fix or improve upon in order to get over the NFC Championship Game wall in 2023.
1. Figure out the quarterback position: Trey Lance, Brock Purdy or ... Tom Brady?
As mentioned above, all this team need is stability at the most important position in football in order to win big. The 49ers nearly won a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and consistently contended when he was healthy. However, the 31-year-old is set to hit free agency for the first time in his career, so he's likely out door. That leaves the mystery box that is Trey Lance -- the 22-year-old the 49ers traded four draft picks for, including three first-round picks, to select third overall in the 2021 draft before making only two starts in 2022 -- and Brock Purdy -- the 23-year-old last pick of the 2022 NFL Draft whose 116.0 passer rating from Week 14 through the divisional round of the playoffs led the NFL in that span. That passer rating was also the best in a seven-game span by a 49ers quarterback since Hall of Famer Steve Young in 1996-97.
However, both quarterbacks will be returning from injuries entering the 2023 season, with Lance coming off a broken ankle and Purdy reportedly suffering a torn UCL in his throwing elbow that is expected to sideline him until around training camp. Enter the Tom Brady possibility. The 45-year-old has beaten the game of football with seven Super Bowl rings and every major passing record in both the regular season and playoffs. Yet, his 13-year marriage to international super model Gisele Bündchen ended allegedly in part do to his desire to continue playing football. The one thing Brady, a Bay Area native, hasn't done in his storybook career is play for his childhood team. The free agent-to-be became quite nostalgic before playing a road game at the 49ers in Week 14 this season.
"That's where I fell in love with football," Brady said. "We'd sit up there in the nose-bleed (section). ... It was just a great time. There were so many great players, a great era of football. I loved the 49ers. I loved them in college, and then they skipped over me six times (in the draft) and I started hating the 49ers. That's just the way it went down."
Allowing Brady to heal the wounds of being passed over by the 49ers could be a win-win scenario for both parties. Bringing in the G.O.A.T. on a one-year deal allows both of their young passers to be fully healed and to learn from the best on how to play their position. It also allows for the 49ers to see what their offensive core of McCaffrey, Samuel, Aiyuk, Kittle and Williams would look like with the best to ever do it at the controls. With the salary cap raising by about $16.5 million next season, San Francisco could have the room to slot Brady onto their balance sheet if he's willing to take a hometown discount. The last time Brady was plugged into a new team with plenty of weapons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were lifting the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions just a few months later to conclude the 2020 season.
2. Extend Nick Bosa
The 2022 NFL sacks leader has made the Pro Bowl in all three of his healthy NFL seasons -- 2019, 2021 and 2022 -- putting the 2020 season in which he tore his ACL far in the rearview mirror. The 25-year-old, former second overall draft pick has lived up to the hype, and he will likely become just the third player in team history to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award, joining Hall of Famer Deion Sanders (1994) and three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield (1997). Having him and fellow first-team All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner secured on long-term deals provides San Francisco the potential to continue having the league's top defense for years to come.
3. Bolster the depth on the offensive and defensive lines
The Philadelphia Eagles have laid out the blueprint to their playoff domination, outscoring the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers by a combined 69-14: top tier line play. The Eagles have the lowest pressure rate allowed in pass protection (3.5%) and they broke the NFL single-season rushing touchdowns record, including the postseason, with 39, one more than the Frankford Yellow Jackets scored in 1924. Defensively, Philadelphia became the first team in NFL history to have four players record double-digit sacks, and they have 78 as a team, only five away from the single-season record, including the postseason, that was set by the 1984 Chicago Bears (82).
For the 49ers, they have a few holes on the offensive line that they need to address in order to better protect their quarterbacks. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey, right guard Daniel Brunskill and center Jake Brendel are all hitting unrestricted free agency. With the raised salary cap and the five draft picks the 49ers have currently, they need to address those positions. San Francisco will likely be acquiring another compensatory draft pick should defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans be hired to be another team's head coach, something that appears more likely by the day. On the defensive line, they're mostly set except for edge rusher Samson Ebukam's impending free agency. Adding solid rotation players across from Bosa will be an important task as well this upcoming offseason so that teams can't just send double and triple teams at him for the vast majority of games. Solidifying those groups will have the 49ers in a strong position to make another run next season.