SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Make no mistake, the San Francisco 49ers are a team in crisis.
Less than 10 months after coming up just short in Super Bowl LIV, the Niners’ issues are all encompassing.
San Francisco has been battered by injuries. The offense has had little rhythm behind a line that has struggled to find cohesion and a rotating cast of skill position players. The defense has been decimated at edge rusher, misses the defensive tackle who was traded in the offseason and is digging deep into the practice squad to have enough cornerbacks on Sundays.
In their next seven games, the Niners will play the Rams twice, the Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints and Bills, all of whom are legitimate playoff contenders.
If all of that wasn’t enough for the 2-3 Niners, consider that they’re coming off a 26-point loss to the Miami Dolphins, the third-largest defeat by a defending conference champion to an under .500 team in the Super Bowl era. If this season isn’t going to slip away before the calendar turns to November, the 49ers must find answers in a hurry.
As the Niners prepare for the Rams on Sunday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), coach Kyle Shanahan must set the tone for a turnaround.
“There’s no magical thing that you can say when you play like that,” Shanahan said. “I just try to hold us all accountable. Know it starts with me. … There’s nothing to talk about. That’s called getting better. I think there’s a lot of aspects of our game that obviously we can get better at and I’ve got to make sure I put our guys through that and find a way to do it.”
As a kid, Shanahan would go to his father Mike, then the Denver Broncos coach, on Fridays and ask how certain players had done in practice that week, or if an injury was going to force someone to step in and how that player might perform in Sunday’s game.
Mike would always remind Kyle most every player was a play away from being in the game.
“Growing up a coach’s son maybe helped me understand that urgency at a young age,” Shanahan said. “You just learned that, every coach knows that going through the NFL. That’s why you put a lot of pressure on those guys every week because if they think it’s a redshirt year and they think they just get to develop and work three days a week, those guys get shocked and then when they do get their opportunity, they don’t get another one after that. So, I constantly try to tell those guys, because I’ve seen too many people get surprised when they’re up and then this league passes them by very fast.”
Those lessons have never been far from Shanahan’s mind in his three-plus seasons as a head coach. When the Niners suffered a spate of injuries or went on lengthy losing streaks in 2017 and 2018, it could simply be chalked up as growing pains for a rebuilding team. Those days are gone.
After the Niners’ turnaround last season, they became a league darling again, the roster bursting with talent led by a dynamic head coach and a creative staff. When trouble struck in 2019, the Niners got contributions from up and down the depth chart. Little-known names such as offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill, tight end Ross Dwelley and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley parlayed those cameos into larger roles.
Those players were ready for the moment because Shanahan drilled into their heads from the moment they arrived they’d one day be needed to do more than help the starters prepare.
“As a professional, it’s our expectation, our job to be able to step in at any time,” quarterback Nick Mullens said. “But, his team meetings, the way he influences, the videos that he shows us, the different things he does to motivate us, it keeps us going. He always tells us you’re either getting better or worse. So, that sits in my mind every day.”
That motivation often comes in the form of unrelenting, unvarnished truth. Sometimes that means turning on the tape and calling out players for blown assignments or poor technique.
After a Week 1 loss to Arizona, Shanahan showed the game tape to the entire team, pointing out individual mistakes along the way. On a third down early in the game, tight end George Kittle didn’t run a good route and the Niners came up short of the conversion. Shanahan didn’t spare the All-Pro.
“The best thing Kyle has done, over and over, and he’s done it since my rookie year, is just how brutally honest he is with the team,” Kittle said. “And week in and week out, he doesn’t sugar coat anything. If we lose, ‘Hey, this is why we lost.’ … So when you have guys being held accountable which is what Kyle does with the entire team, it doesn’t matter who you are, our level of play is at a high standard. We expect guys to go out there and perform at a very high level — at an elite level.”
This time, though, the stakes are much higher. These Niners earned the expectations they haven’t met so far. All of which makes this next stretch of games a pivotal moment for the franchise. Sure, teams that lose the Super Bowl are notorious for struggling the season after losing in the big game. But the 49ers are just the 10th with a losing record after five games, and eight of the previous nine with that distinction missed the playoffs.
Everything the Niners did in the offseason was meant to extend their championship window. That included the decision to trade defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, something Lynch has called the hardest thing he’s done as a general manager. If the window closes now, who is to say when or if it will open back up?
After the Week 2 win against the New York Jets in a game that included a season-ending injury to defensive end Nick Bosa and short-term injuries to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Raheem Mostert, Shanahan was able to point to more recent experiences. He stood before his team and reminded it of what happened in 2019.
Shanahan went over all the injuries they suffered that season, noting their injured players combined to miss 147 games. He told them it was time for everyone to step up even if someone like Bosa is irreplaceable. For one week, at least, it worked as the Niners dominated the lowly New York Giants.
That momentum hasn’t carried over, though, as the Niners lost to the previously winless Eagles and were embarrassed at home by the Dolphins. Knowing what’s ahead, Shanahan is aware of what must happen to prevent this season from spiraling into a missed opportunity.
It starts with him.
“I’ve just got to keep my thumb on everyone,” Shanahan said. “There was nothing to sit here and feel sorry about yourself. You’ve got to be ready for what you’re going to get and it’s well deserved, but we’ve got to close the doors, go out to the field and go to work. You either get better or worse and if we don’t get better, it’s going to be a long season.”