When the coronavirus pandemic brought the NFL to a screeching halt this spring and summer, the league lost organized team activities and mandatory minicamps.
The lost offseason means players new to teams will have less time to jell with teammates before the regular season begins. This could give teams with more continuity an advantage, and the Super Bowl LIV participants — the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers — are among the league leaders in snaps returning.
The Chiefs rank No. 2 overall in returning snaps with 84.7% while the 49ers are not far behind at No. 4 with 82.6%. The Niners also rank No. 1 overall in defensive snaps returning.
For a full list of returning snaps across the league, click here, but here’s a deeper look at how the Chiefs and 49ers think about what they have coming back during these extraordinary circumstances.
Chiefs: ‘I don’t see how it could be a disadvantage’
With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, a tight salary-cap situation and a roster with few glaring holes, the Chiefs believed their best chance for winning a second straight Super Bowl championship in 2020 was to run things back with as many of the same players and coaches as possible.
They didn’t know this at the time, but as things would turn out in a season unlike any other, this strategy could provide big advantages when there are no in-person offseason conditioning programs and no spring practices or mandatory minicamps.
Familiarity in this instance might breed success.
“When you have the chance to return so many players and you have a coaching staff stay together and have a group that went through a long season and played right through February, we’ll see what happens moving forward,” general manager Brett Veach said. “But I think it certainly plays in your favor for the continuity and knowing the playbook and knowing what’s expected.
“Whenever we get back into the swing of things with camp, whether it be shortened or whether we start at the original start date, I think guys just knowing how things operate and knowing the terminology and the playbook, I don’t see how it could be a disadvantage. I think it would certainly put us in a good position here.”
The Chiefs return 43 players who participated in at least one game for them last season and one more who will make their roster in 2020 but spent all of 2019 on the injured reserve list. They are bringing back 20 of their 22 starters from Super Bowl LIV and 36 of the 46 players who were in uniform that night.
On offense, they will have their top five pass-catchers, four of their top five rushers and, of course, Mahomes. On defense, six of their top seven leaders in sacks, their top seven tacklers and all eight players who made a regular-season interception are back.
The Chiefs also will have coach Andy Reid and 25 of his 26 assistant coaches from 2019, the one departure being the assistant special teams coach.
“As many guys as you can keep, you’d love to do that,” Reid said. “To have people that kind of know what you’re doing and how you go about business, I think helps both the coaches and the players. … To have all of that continuity there I think is important.”
49ers: It’s ‘really important to have that continuity’
Soon after coming up short against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch vowed to keep as much of their NFC championship team together as possible.
Shanahan and Lynch acknowledged it would be impossible for all of their most important pieces to return but they’d do their best. That plan was in place well before the coronavirus pandemic had become a pandemic and altered the future of the sport and the world.
Soon after, the 49ers’ aim for continuity appeared more prudent than ever. They said some hard goodbyes to the likes of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (traded to Indianapolis), left tackle Joe Staley (retirement) and receiver Emmanuel Sanders (signed with New Orleans) and diverted those resources into re-signing end Arik Armstead, free safety Jimmie Ward, center Ben Garland and defensive lineman Ronald Blair III.
What’s more, the Niners managed to avoid losing any of their coordinators and only defensive backs coach Joe Woods and pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin departed for promotions.
As it stands, the Niners figure to welcome back 18 of 22 starters with new faces expected to plug in at 3-technique defensive tackle, wideout, right guard and left tackle.
In an offseason full of uncertainty, Zoom meetings and virtual training sessions, having a roster and coaching staff on the same page could be more important than any time in recent memory.
“I would say, especially this year, it’s going to mean a lot,” guard Laken Tomlinson said. “Because right now we obviously can’t be together, we can’t work together on the field or anything like that. … It’s really important to have that continuity right now in these times.”
Like most teams, the Niners have spent their online sessions reinstalling most of the schematic things they already had in, but with so many returning players, it frees up veterans to focus on details and coaches to hone in on helping the rookies and new additions who will be asked to help fill some of the vacancies.
It also allows veteran leaders to help some of their inexperienced teammates get acclimated. That’s especially important in the case of players such as receiver Brandon Aiyuk and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, the team’s first-round picks who are being asked to step in for Sanders and Buckner, respectively.
“A lot of the onus does come on us and the coaching staff and everybody else involved to make sure they are up to speed and have the right mindset going into training camp when that time comes to make sure they’re in shape and know what to expect,” linebacker Fred Warner said.
Much will be expected of those new additions as the Niners attempt to skirt recent history for teams losing the Super Bowl the prior season. Just three Super Bowl era teams have returned to the big game the year after losing it and walked away with the Lombardi trophy, with the 2018 New England Patriots the only team to do so since the 1970s.
The 49ers’ hopes of joining that exclusive club will come down to far more than roster and coaching continuity, but with no guarantees of a normal NFL season in the offing, they’ll take any edge they can get.
“When camp rolls around we’re going to not miss a beat,” end Nick Bosa said. “We’re going to get right to it. It might take a couple practices, but I’m confident in our team. And now that we’ve been together … and most of the guys have been there, I think we’re going to be one of the teams that really takes advantage of this.”