Will the 49ers struggle if they just recover?

There is nothing more captivating than a post-apocalyptic adventure like “The Walking Dead”, “The Road”, “Y: The Last Man” or the San Fr...


There is nothing more captivating than a post-apocalyptic adventure like “The Walking Dead”, “The Road”, “Y: The Last Man” or the San Francisco 49ers 2021.

The 49ers reached the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, but experienced an extinction-level injury cataclysm in 2020. They lost Pro Bowl pass runners Dee Ford (neck, back) for 15 games. and Nick Bosa (knee) for 14. Professional cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) for 11, All-Pro tight end George Kittle (knee, foot) for eight, their top wide receiver, Deebo Samuel, (foot, hamstrings, Covid-19) for nine, as well as various other starters on both sides of the ball for the big chunks of the year.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) also missed 10 games; the fact that he doesn’t receive the top spot on their injury list is revealing on several levels.

According to football underdogs, the 49ers have lost the equivalent of 166.6 games per starter to injury, the second-highest total for an NFL team in the past 20 years. It’s like losing 10 starters – almost half of a 22-man offensive and defensive lineup – for an entire season. Covid-related absences increased rates of ‘injury’ in the league last year, but the 49ers have consistently led the NFL in terms of players unavailable for health reasons for more than 30 games. The few survivors on the team managed to finish 6-10.

A year later, nearly all of the irreplaceable 49ers stars are healthy and back on the pitch, just like Garoppolo. The 49ers started the 2021 season with narrow but still convincing wins over the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles. Samuel leads the NFL with 282 receiving yards. Bosa registered three sacks. Kittle and Ford are playing at a high level again. And Garoppolo has returned to his role as a person sitting behind the wheel of the self-driving car and making sure nothing goes wrong.

The 49ers are designed to be more disaster-resistant than most teams, which made their 2020 meltdown all the more frustrating. Shanahan’s offense emphasizes short passes to specialized running receivers or rumbling for big wins after the catch; Hence Garoppolo’s reputation for being more of an office worker than a game manager. Running backs are also replaceable cogs in Shanahan’s machine. The 49ers could have performed effectively last season without a combination of Garoppolo, Kittle, Samuel, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who was a 2020 first-round pick, and top running backs Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert. In several games last season, including their 34-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers (this week’s opponent), they were deprived of all of those players.

Likewise, the 49ers’ 2020 defensive line was to feature five first-round picks, including Bosa and Ford: four starters and a spare tire in the event of a puncture. But Arik Armstead was the only 49ers lineman to start all 16 games. As a result, the team’s sacks total fell from 48 in 2019 to 30 last year. Under these circumstances, six wins were a remarkable achievement for Shanahan and his team.

Not all of the important characters from the 2019 Super Bowl campaign have returned this year. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s experience in building a desperate semi-functional roster from rookies and leftovers has made him extremely qualified for the Jets head coach position. Sherman was not re-signed after last season; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are apparently interested in adding it for their Super Bowl victory lap.

The 49ers also haven’t completely avoided injury so far in 2021, although it’s naive to think any football team could. Cornerback Jason Verrett, who missed nearly every 2016-19 season with a battery of injuries, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 1. Verrett, oddly enough, was one of the most successful players. healthier team last year. Mostert is also lost for the season, but San Francisco has been stocking up on reinforcements like rookie Elijah Mitchell, who rushed for more than 100 yards in Game 1 of the season.

Speaking of reinforcements, the 49ers traded the draft this spring to select the North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the third overall pick. Lance’s arrival suggested that Shanahan was looking for more than just management at the job, but also signaled the organization’s confidence that the team would improve just by being healthier. This has proven to be true so far.

Aside from a few changes, the 49ers are playing well with a starting lineup that looks a lot like their Super Bowl 2019 lineup / 2020 injured reserve roster, while Lance has been limited to gadget play tasks.

Football Outsiders research suggests that there is a significant year-over-year correlation in a team’s injury rate. That’s bad news for the 49ers, who have finished in the first half of the league in games lost to injury for eight consecutive seasons. The good news is that last season’s injury rate was so catastrophically high that some regression to the NFL average is almost inevitable, according to the principles of central tendency. Things just need to get better. If they don’t, at least Lance’s immense talent is equipped to survive a “Mad Max” scenario as the 49ers sift through the rubble and attempt to rebuild themselves.

Despite their early season wins, the 49ers appear to be a cut below contenders like the Buccaneers. The Packers’ game on Sunday will be its only real test against a playoff-caliber opponent, before the team embark on divisional clashes in NFC West, a ruthless environment for a team with glaring weaknesses. Another 49ers Super Bowl run may have to wait until Lance is ready to replace Garoppolo and get Shanahan’s offense off autopilot.

But post-apocalyptic fiction is more about survival than success, perseverance than triumph. The 49ers have done a good job so far to put 2020 behind them and come back as close to par as possible. That doesn’t make them champions. But that certainly makes them relatable.

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