Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
If you watched Thursday night’s game hoping for some Kyle Shanahan magic, it was not anywhere to be found. Not with Shanahan’s red hat (the one he wore last season), not with Nick Mullens, not with anything, well, other than Richie James Jr.
The 49ers finally looked like the JV team they’re quickly becoming thanks to an astonishing number of injuries, and their playoff hopes, which seemed to be hanging precipitously in the balance since Week 2, are all but dashed.
The 34-10 loss was the logical conclusion to a game in which San Francisco was without:
- Its top five centers (one opted out and one retired in training camp), with Weston Richburg and Ben Garland not expected to return at least until after the bye week and Hroniss Grasu benched, leaving Daniel Brunskill at center and Tom Compton at right guard
- Its starting left tackle – Trent Williams is on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Justin Skule started in his place and allowed *gulps* three sacks. Shon Coleman, who would have competed for that spot, opted out of the season
- Its starting quarterback – Jimmy Garoppolo was placed on injured reserve before the game and is out at least six weeks, if not the remainder of the season (depending on if he needs surgery)
- Three of its top four running backs – Raheem Mostert is recovering from an ankle sprain, Tevin Coleman re-aggravated his knee sprain and Jeff Wilson Jr. is on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain
- Its top tight end and best player – George Kittle was also placed on injured reserve before the game and is likely out eight weeks, i.e., likely the remainder of the season
- Its top three wide receivers – Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne are all on the reserve/COVID-19 list (and Samuel has a hamstring injury), and Dante Pettis was cut, leaving Trent Taylor, with nine receptions entering Thursday, as the lone receiver to catch a pass to play in the game. Taylor had one catch for nine yards, with just over a minute remaining in the game. Richie James Jr. took over just about all the receiving responsibility. Jalen Hurd tore his ACL in training camp and Travis Benjamin opted out of the season.
- Four of its top six edge rushers (and two of its top three) – Nick Bosa is out for the year with a torn ACL, Dee Ford might be out for the rest of the season with a back injury, Ziggy Ansah was quickly placed on injured reserve with a torn bicep and Ronald Blair III is still on the physically unable to perform list, having needed corrective surgery after complications from an ACL repair
- A starting defensive tackle – Solomon Thomas tore his ACL two plays after Bosa and is out for the year (Jullian Taylor was also cut off PUP this week)
- Three linebackers – Kwon Alexander was traded this week to the New Orleans Saints (Kiko Alonso, acquired in the trade, is on PUP and wasn’t eligible to play this week due to COVID-19 testing restrictions), Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles was out with a hamstring injury and Mark Nzeocha is on injured reserve
- Their starting corner – Richard Sherman has a nagging calf injury and there’s no immediate timetable for his return. Both Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett were each burned by Davante Adams (to be expected, and Verrett was mostly solid)
During the game, at least two names were added to that list. Jaquiski Tartt suffered a foot injury and did not return and K’Waun Williams suffered an ankle injury and did not return.
There’s nothing, at least tactically speaking, to be learned from this game. Aaron Rodgers (25-of-31, 305 yards, 4 TD), Davante Adams (10 catches, 173 yards, 1 TD) and Aaron Jones (15 carries, 58 yards, 5 receptions, 21 yards) pieced up the 49ers with ease.
The one positive is that it seems the 49ers realized what was always obvious from training camp; that Richie James Jr. is actually a pretty damn talented outside receiver—far more than he is a returner or slot guy—resulting in a eight-catch, 180-yard, 1 TD performance, it was a bludgeoning. Without Dante Pettis (who always appeared a better slot receiver than outside receiver, the inverse of James), he had free reign.
Other than that, though, it was a bludgeoning. Justin Skule allowed three sacks, Nick Mullens threw one interception and at least three other interceptable passes.
There is, however, a confirmation of what was suspected entering this game: the 49ers are so very close to being cooked. It would be easy to declare the season dead because, well, it obviously is, but if this team returns Trent Williams, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne in a week-and-a-half, there’s a chance it’s not completely done-and-dusted.
That qualifier stated, it’s fair to say the prospect of the playoffs is overwhelmingly unlikely. I won’t put a percentage on it, because, well, percentages make me a bit queasy as of late.
What’s obvious is that there are simply one too many injuries for this team, and the arrow is firmly pointing towards a quasi-tank. There are still two “easy” games on the schedule against the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team, but if this team remains as currently constructed, there won’t be easy games.
And the supposed coaching advantage they had protecting them appears to perhaps be overstated. Since Deebo Samuel went down injured, Kyle Shanahan has done nothing to try and replace his impact. The orbit motions, shovel passes, easy receptions; Shanahan has not attempted to use anyone, whether it be Brandon Aiyuk, Richie James Jr. or Kevin White in that sort of role, except at sporadic times.
Listen, maybe you try it with those guys, they fumble immediately or cause an interception. But try… something. The 49ers were getting walloped, down 28-3 and Shanahan didn’t incorporate any of that motion into the offense. He got the ball in James’ hands on a few screens, which worked to great effect, but it was that motion that allowed this offense to thrive.
It’s that motion, and incisive dink-and-dunkiness that turned the offense from the one which looked totally out of sorts against the Eagles and Dolphins, to the dominant one against the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots. And Shanahan hasn’t tried it since Samuel went out. Maybe it would backfire, but so does playing Marcell Harris (an absolute coverage liability) over Tarvarius Moore, and the 49ers seem set on that.
The remainder of this season is clearly a time for talent re-evalution; for the 49ers to assess who’s worth retaining and who is a net negative. They are coming up on an offseason which will define the Shanahan-Lynch legacy, and if things continue in this fashion, they might find themselves looking closer to the front of the draft than the middle for a new franchise quarterback.