SANTA CLARA — When it comes to bad teams, I’m a believer in finding the silver lining. For the 49ers on Sunday, there were none to be found.
Kyle Shanahan’s offensive line continually lost the battle at the point of attack throughout the first half. The team was sloppy on both sides of the ball, committing 10 penalties for 74 yards. Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter and didn’t return.
And Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton struggled mightily but still coasted to a 23-3 victory.
“It was probably as disappointing as it could have been,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said. “… When you get it handed to you like that, you just have to go and figure out what’s wrong, make the corrections and move on.”
As opposed to last year, there was no hot start followed by a massive letdown. It was all letdown.
The low, turning point
After recording three tackles in three turns on the field, Foster got his right foot trapped under himself and had to leave the game. It looked bad and the 49ers braced themselves for the worst.
Shanahan said the team thought it could’ve been a broken tibia, Foster himself said the training staff feared it was a knee injury. It turned out to be an ankle sprain.
While the prognosis was positive, the play on the field went incredibly negative. Precisely one play after Foster was carted off the field, the 49ers allowed Newton to find Russell Shepard, who got loose for a 40-yard touchdown. After forcing a pair of punts in their first two defensive possessions, the Niners lost their edge.
“I thought our defense battled all game,” Shanahan said, rightly pointing out that it wasn’t that unit that lost the game.
Fortunately for the team’s long-term prospects, pain from the injury lessened with time, leading Foster to lobby the training staff to let him back on the field. It wasn’t convincing. But if there’s one iron-clad conclusion to take from this game, it’s that the Niners are a better team when he’s available.
It’s usually not a good sign when the debut of your offense-focused coach is defined by a lack of production on that side of the ball.
Drives that started with some promise ended in turnover more often than not. Hoyer threw an interception to halt the Niners’ first drive of the second half, completely missing the fact that Luke Kuechly had dropped into coverage from his linebacker position. He also lost a fumble when the Carolina pass rush easily got into the backfield and landed a big hit.
But it was the inability to convert first downs that was most damning. The 49ers finished 3-for-15 on third- and fourth-downs. They were going to go for it at the end of the third, but a delay-of-game penalty forced them to kick the field goal.
So if you think about it, they were one fortuitous mental lapse away from being shut out.
An optimist would argue Shanahan’s aggressive bent indicates the head coach’s confidence in his offense, but the attempts weren’t strong enough to claim any kind of moral victory.
Why they can’t have nice things
This offseason, the 49ers passed on adding a franchise quarterback. Sunday showed why.
Hoyer was sacked four times as his offensive line struggled with the more experienced Panthers front seven.
“Brian got hit too many times,” center Daniel Kilgore stated the obvious. “I think anybody standing back there would be uncomfortable. He just got touched too many times. I don’t think there was any confusion on the gameplan. I think everybody was dialed in.”
That quotation alone should tell the Faithful why the team passed on drafting a QB. Why subject someone who is in your future plans to that kind of punishment?
The best teams are built from the inside-out. It’s the most effective method to protect your most-expensive investments and ensures you can attack on the ground and through the air. The Niners aren’t even close to being strong up front. So their games will continue to end like this until then.