The 49ers are undefeated. You can’t argue with that.
With each additional win this team stacks up, that unbeaten label carries more weight. Going 3-0 against the Buccaneers, Bengals and Steelers (Mason Rudolph edition) didn’t mean all that much.
The fourth win — a thorough Monday-night thrashing of the preseason darling Cleveland Browns — felt like something. Perhaps, most of all, because of a rabid Levi’s Stadium crowd, arguably the best in a short and sordid history of 49er home games in their new house.
This past weekend, though, marked a phase shift.
Critics can point out that the now 3-3 Rams are not what they were a season ago. Beating a team that got run off the field by Jameis Winston doesn’t sound like a massive achievement.
At a certain point, though, the “you haven’t played anyone good” exception fades. Opening the season on a five-game win streak is rarified air in the NFL, regardless of who you’ve played.
Moreover, if a win over the Rams (who are probably at least a little better than their current record) isn’t worth mentioning, how many “good” wins exist in the NFL?
As an example, the 5-1 Seattle Seahawks have also beaten the Bengals, Steelers, Rams and Browns — all by 4 points or less. Their fifth win was a laugher over the Cardinals. They had one chance for a “good” win and lost to the Saints.
The 6-0 New England Patriots, fairly considered the league’s best team, have played a schedule every bit as soft as the 49ers, and dismantled their opponents even more dramatically. Every team plays the schedule in front of them — really good teams crush the lesser opponents to give themselves room for error when they hit the rough spots.
The 49ers’ hot start has done just that. If they go 5-6 in their final 11 games, San Francisco will finish at 10-6 and almost certainly in the playoffs — a hugely surprising success by any reasonable measure.
Barring injury or collapse, that seems imminently achievable. San Francisco’s remaining schedule includes an embarrassing Washington team, two meetings with Arizona and a porous Atlanta defense that should be jockeying for draft position by the time they visit Santa Clara.
The rest of the schedule is tougher: they’ll host the Panthers, Packers and Rams and travel to New Orleans and Baltimore, plus both games against the Seahawks. Tougher, yes, but finding a win or two in that group should be far from impossible for the Niners’ team we’ve seen thus far.
Specifically, that team has a demonic defensive line with as many as four potential Pro Bowlers in Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead; a hard-hitting linebacking corps led by free agent sensation Kwon Alexander; a secondary that has held up remarkably well despite a series of injuries and one of the league’s best rushing attacks.
There’s really no such thing as a meaningless 5-0 record, but what this 49ers team has done is more meaningful than the quality of their opponents in part because of how they’ve been doing it. To borrow a phrase from Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (Google it, kids) — I love it when a plan comes together!
The Niners were bad last year for a variety of reasons: First, their starting running back got hurt; then the starting quarterback got hurt; then the defense turned out to be extremely short on talent. The specifics of that suckitude set the terms of engagement for a critically-important offseason.
The plan was straightforward. Get the quarterback healthy, protect yourself against similar attrition at running back and find a way to improve your defense by leaps and bounds. After two seasons of consistent failure, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan executed their offseason perfectly.
Garoppolo’s health has cooperated so far, and Tevin Coleman looks like a great value add to improve halfback depth, but the master strokes were the defensive improvements. Nick Bosa is every bit the game-wrecking pass rusher he was sold as, and looks to have been the clear right choice with the second overall pick.
More savvily, Lynch swung a deal for Dee Ford that not only addressed the team’s nonexistent pass rush but also gave them a player who single-handedly forced as many turnovers in 2018 as the entire San Francisco roster. Kwon Alexander, whose injured ACL scared some teams away, was ready for Week 1 and has been a force whenever he’s been on the field.
The 49ers are not what we thought they were — they are, however, exactly what Lynch and Shanahan thought they could be. That’s an achievement not only because of the winning results, but because of what it says about a coach/GM regime that had a lot of doubters two months ago.
More than anything, it suggests that the six years of faith Jed York showed in hiring the Shanahan/Lynch pairing was not misplaced, nor was that pair’s belief in embattled defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (now one of the hottest rising stars in the NFL coaching ranks).
Even the nits that seemed pickable in the preseason have proven not to be problematic. No stud wide receiver? It hardly matters when you have George Kittle and an elite rushing attack. An unimproved defensive secondary? It turns out it is both improved (thanks to player development as opposed to player acquisition) and also more difficult to test (thanks to the much-improved pass rush).
The 49ers evaluated themselves correctly, made the necessary summer improvements and have executed an unblemished resurgence through the first third of the season.
To be frank, nothing else much matters — not the schedule, not the lack of an explosive passing offense and apparently not even the loss of both starting offensive tackles and the game’s best fullback.
The 49ers are 5-0, and that’s unimpeachable.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives in Oakland with his wife, son and an aging Shih-Tzu/Schnauzer mix. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 2p-6p every weekday evening alongside Damon Bruce and Ray Ratto. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.