Preseason football is a lot like professional wrestling. You know it’s not real, but it can be pretty convincing at times.
So it was at Levi’s Stadium Sunday, where the hometown Niners hosted the left-town Raiders in the teams’ final tuneup before the regular season kicks off. As usual, the starters only played a few series before giving way to backups fighting for a spot on the roster. The utterly meaningless result? Niners 34, Laters 10.
Lemme say this about San Francisco’s starters. The Niners looked great. The Raiders? Not so much. (Enjoy Las Vegas, fellas. Just don’t bet on yourselves.)
The Niners open the season the week after next, at Detroit. They’ll follow that up with a cross-country trip to play the Eagles, before returning to Levi’s for the home opener against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sept. 26.
By then, we should know a lot more about this 49ers vintage. Will Jimmy Garoppolo remain the starting QB? Will first-round contender Trey Lance take any meaningful snaps? Is Nick Bosa back in quarterback-crushing form? And, regardless of who’s behind center, is this offensive line up to the challenge?
These questions and more, Faithful fans, will be answered on the field as the team’s 75th season unfolds. In the meantime, here are five key elements to consider before football stops being polite and starts getting real.
The 49ers’ defensive line is the strength of the team. Anchored by Bosa on the right side and Arik Armistead on the left, the Niners have the luxury of bringing in waves of talent to overwhelm opponents with a relentless rush and a stout run defense. As usual, injuries are the only thing that can stop the d-line. With both Bosa and super sub Dee Ford both sitting out parts of training camp, the questions have already begun. But kudos to GM John Lynch for providing defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans with a deep bench. “I mean, having Dee and (DL) Arden (Key) and (DL Nick) Bosa and (DL) Samson (Ebukam), having all those guys available we can do a lot of things,” said Ryans. “All those guys are very talented and you have unlimited option with what you can do.” Additional kudos for signing linebacker Fred Warner to a record-setting, five-year, $95 million contract. Mr. Warner should continue to thrive behind a line that gobbles up blockers, freeing him to rack up tackles.
Like many NFL teams, the 49ers offensive line is a bit of a mystery. On paper, they should be solid. Left tackle Trent Williams is a mountain of a man who can pass block and serve as a human road grader. On the other side, Mike McGlinchey is a tremendous run blocker who has improved his pass protection. Cal alum Alex Mack signed on to shore up the middle, where the six-time Pro Bowler should make a difference. But like everything else, he’s in his 11th season and health will be the X-factor. To be frank, the O-line has looked a bit troubled in the preseason. The two guards, Laken Tomlinson on the left and Daniel Brunsill on the right, will be a big part of the equation for the starters. The second-team line has looked porous, to be kind. If key starters go down with injuries, the 49ers will have a hard time protecting Jimmy G and his young protege. And the running back situation drops off dramatically after Raheem Mostert. (Rookie backup Trey Sermon will need to step up.) So, stay healthy and things look good. Suffer some injuries and the 49ers go from from Super Bowl contender to circle the bowl pretender.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan has played it coy throughout the preseason, refusing to name Garoppolo as the starter, feeding sports talk hysteria about Lance, and his amazing physical abilities. It reminds me a bit of the Alex Smith/Colin Kaepernick dynamic back in the day. But let’s get real. Shanahan will start Jimmy G and create some interesting packages for Lance to get his feet wet. (That decision was made easier for the opener when Lance revealed a throwing hand injury Monday, putting him out of commission for a week.) Asked if that’s what he expected, Garoppolo played it cool: “Yeah, I have a pretty good idea. It’s whatever Shanahan decides, yeah. I have a pretty good idea. I’m pretty happy with where I’m at right now and everything and just the offense as a whole. Yeah, Kyle’s the head man. He’ll make the call.” Starting Jimmy is the best path forward for this team. Worst case scenario would involve, once again, some key injuries on the offensive line, which could get Garoppolo hurt and force Lance into a bad situation before he’s ready. Did you notice I’m concerned about injuries?
Whoever is taking snaps for the 49ers, they need to get the ball to all-world tight end George Kittle. Arguably the 49ers’ best player, Kittle came to camp looking leaner and stronger than ever, which should create an even bigger mismatch when he’s running seam routes against slower linebackers in coverage. He had an eventful offseason, moving into a new home with his wife, south of Nashville, and helping to organize offseason workouts with NFL colleagues, which came to be known as “Tight End U.” Kittle is a gregarious team leader who reminds me a lot of Hunter Pence during his heyday with the Giants. As goes Kittle, so go the 49ers.
When Lynch and Shanahan drafted Trey Lance in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, they created an immediate personnel problem. Whether Lance plays, or not, the messaging was clear. The team is not convinced that Garoppolo is the future, and they laid a big bet on a relatively unproven college kid with huge physical upside, but who played at North Dakota State. That’s a long way from Notre Dame, if you get what I’m saying. Whether or not Lance pans out, the near-term challenge for Shanahan will be to keep the locker room on the same page. Everyone knows that the most popular player among fans is always the backup quarterback. But in the locker room, a tried and true starter who’s been through the wars with his teammates is hard to displace. Kittle, for one, has been very vocal this offseason, declaring with no uncertainty that he wants Jimmy G at QB. Shanahan will have to handle the pressure of a quarterback controversy for the first time. When he was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta, QB Matt Ryan was unchallenged. Garoppolo has been the man in Santa Clara since he and Shanahan arrived. Now? It’s going to be tricky keeping fans, players and the media all happy while every move gets second-guessed.
Shanahan expandedthe challenge ahead at his Monday presser: “(Y)ou always try to think …, ‘Hey, what helps us win’ and keep it there. At the same time, I get spending the draft picks to get a young quarterback and you’ve got to do what’s right for that guy, too. And I think what has been tough on Trey is he didn’t get to play football all last year. (He sat on North Dakota’s season.) So regardless of what happens, I’m always trying to make sure that Trey doesn’t go another year without playing football. We’re going to make sure that we do what’s best for him. Getting him reps on the practice field, hopefully in games too and we’ll see how this all pans out. But my order of thinking always starts with what’s best for this organization, what gives our organization the best chance to win. And then after that I’m always thinking of the individual.”
Sounds like a plan, Coach Kyle. The 49ers look solid going into the season. My prediction: 10-6 with a second round playoff loss. Head trainer Dustin Little will be named team MVP.