At some point, it feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
All the conversations surrounding the 49ers headed into the 2021 season included the obvious caveat: “if they stay healthy.”
If they stay healthy, the 49ers have a real shot to win a loaded NFC West. If they healthy, they might have one of the best rosters in the entire NFC. If they stay healthy, they might have more talent than their Super Bowl season of 2019.
If they stay healthy, they could win the whole thing.
Through one game, they haven’t stayed healthy — which leads to the question, is all the focus on injury prevention somehow leading to more injuries?
It’s an impossible question to answer and it might be harebrained to even ask. But even golfers do all they can to avoid slicing a drive out of bounds and still find themselves dropping a breakfast ball after hitting two tee shots into the mush.
The 49ers lost three starters in the Week 1 victory over the Detroit Lions. Two for the season with knee injuries (running back Raheem Mostert chipped cartilage and Jason Verrett to his second torn ACL) and linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who’s expected to be out until at least mid October following surgery to repair a groin injury.
The violent game of football leads to many bumps and bruises, of course. The 49ers are not the only team dealing with injuries and a case could be made they haven’t been dealt a catastrophic injury to a star just yet.
But this is also a team coming off a 2020 campaign that lost key starters Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Deebo Samuel and Mostert for significant time leading to a 6-10 finish despite fielding almost the same roster that had a lead in the fourth quarter of the previous Super Bowl.
Injuries hurt 49ers
Advanced analytics website Football Outsiders has tracked a stat called adjusted games lost to measure the impact of injuries for years. The 49ers in 2020 ranked dead last in the NFL, losing an astounding 166.6 games to injured players. It was the second highest total of any team since 2001. Conversely, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the healthiest team in the league, losing 30.6 adjusted games to injury, and won the Super Bowl.
Somehow, San Francisco has finished in the bottom 12 of the stat for eight straight seasons, which predates 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan by four years going back to Jim Harbaugh’s last two seasons in 2013 and 2014.
“That’s part of football,” Shanahan said this week when asked if there’s a here-we-go-again feeling about injuries. “I’m not going to sit here and be a therapist to everyone about it. I thought we got out of the game mostly healthy.“
Which adds another layer to Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who are coming off an encouraging thumping of the Atlanta Falcons, 32-6, last Sunday on the road.
With talented offensive and defensive lines, a could-be-ascending quarterback in Jalen Hurts, promising skill players Davonta Smith, Myles Sanders and Jalen Reagor, and what should be a raucous atmosphere at Lincoln Financial Field in their home opener — welcoming fans back after the pandemic kept them away — the 49ers will have a hard time rolling the Eagles like they did the Lions through three-plus quarters in Week 1.
Losing Verrett hurts. He was the 49ers’ top cornerback heading into the season. The expected starter opposite him, Emmanuel Moseley, has been dealing with a knee injury that prevented him from playing last week and has him uncertain for Sunday.
In Mostert’s absence, rookie sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell recorded 104 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut. Replacing Greenlaw, the 49ers will call on third-year pro Azeez Al-Shaair, who quietly had his best game as a pro in Detroit, recording seven tackles, two for loss and a pair of pass break ups.
Aside from the questions at cornerback, the 49ers have said they still consider themselves a healthy team. And they don’t believe they’ve lost any irreplaceable stars like they did in 2020 just yet.
“I think it’s something that we experienced as a team last year,” tight end George Kittle said to reporters at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia this week. “I think last year was maybe a little bit more, especially to the extent that we had so many guys out at once, especially after Week 2. So guys are like, ‘hey, we’re not going to go down that road again.’ Guys have been very adamant about their prehab, their body maintenance stuff, I think guys are on top of all their injuries and whatever they’re dealing with right now. I think we have a very healthy team right now.”
The 49ers should be the better team than Philadelphia. At most sports books, they entered the season in the top third of the league with a 10.5 game over-under win total. The Eagles began near the bottom at 6.5, but that could look like a steal given they play in the downtrodden NFC East. Their roster features one of the best offensive lines in the league and their defensive line gave San Francisco fits in their win over the 49ers last October, which included a pick-six thrown by Nick Mullens in the fourth quarter.
Not all the news for San Francisco is bad — or injury related.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is coming off his best Week 1 since joining the 49ers. He struggled in his first opener in 2018 in Minnesota and a year later in Tampa Bay, throwing interceptions returned for touchdowns in each. He wasn’t very good in the 2020 opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals, either. His passer rating in those games was 75.8 with four interceptions. Garoppolo’s passer rating in Detroit was 124.2 while he had his sixth 300-yard game of his career.
Shanahan came into the season noting he thought Garoppolo had his best offseason to date. That seemed to manifest against the Lions’ porous defense Week 1.
“I think just the overall seeing the big picture of the defense, the smooth operation between the huddle to the line, all that stuff I think just comes with experience and having run it through practice, through preseason, through the games,” Garoppolo said. “It’s all starting to add up now. And it’s just slowing down for me out there.”
Then there’s the return of Nick Bosa, who said this week he’s encouraged by his first performance since last September’s ACL tear. Bosa played 51 snaps against the Lions while recording his first sack since the injury. Him and Dee Ford, who’s coming back from a back injury that cost him 15 games last season, put their stamp on the game by regularly pressuring Jared Goff.
“It was nice just to get back out there and get 50 plays on turf and feel great,” Bosa said. “So I’m ecstatic about that. And just being back with the guys and knowing that my body’s ready for a season. I’m gonna fix whatever issues technically I had and improve.”
A win Sunday will have San Francisco at 2-0 and feeling good heading into Week 3’s home opener against the Green Bay Packers. And a steady season from Garoppolo paired with big comeback from Bosa could keep the 49ers on track to contend.
If they can stay healthy.