There’s nothing quite like a post-apocalyptic adventure like “The Walking Dead,” “The Road,” “Y: The Last Man,” or the 2021 San Francisco 49ers to keep you glued to the television screen.
The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, but they were forced to deal with an extinction-level injury catastrophe in the following season. They were without Pro Bowl pass rushers Dee Ford (neck, back) and Nick Bosa (knee) for 15 games each, and they were without Dee Ford for 14 games. In addition to their All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) for 11, their All-Pro tight end George Kittle (knee, foot) for 8, and Deebo Samuel, their top wide receiver, (foot, hamstring, Covid-19) for 9, they will be without a number of other starters on both sides of the ball for significant portions of the season.
Additionally, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) was out for ten games, and the fact that he did not get first-team treatment on the team’s injury report is revealing on a number of levels.
According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers have lost the equivalent of 166.6 games by starters due to injury, which is the second-highest total for an N.F.L. club in the last 20 years and the second-highest in the league’s history. If you were to lose 10 starters — almost half of a 22-man offensive and defensive lineup — for the whole season, that would be devastating. The number of players absent from the field due to illness or injury rose throughout the league last season, but the 49ers still ranked first in the NFL in terms of players absent from the field due to illness or injury by more than 30 games. The team’s few remaining survivors staggered to a 6-10 final standings.
One year later, almost all of the 49ers’ irreplaceable players, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, are healed and back on the field. The San Francisco 49ers have begun the 2021 season with two close but still convincing wins against the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles to get the season started off well. Samuel has the most receiving yards in the NFL, with 282 yards. Bosa has three sacks to his credit. Kittle and Ford are once again performing at a high degree of excellence. And Garoppolo has returned to his previous position as the guy who sits behind the wheel of the self-driving car and ensures that nothing goes wrong with the vehicle.
The 49ers are built to be more disaster-proof than the rest of the teams, which made their collapse in 2020 all the more distressing. Shanahan’s system is built on short throws to receivers who excel at sprinting or rumbling for large yards after the catch; as a result, Garoppolo has earned a reputation as more of a desk clerk than a game manager on the field. Similarly, running backs are interchangeable gears in Shanahan’s machine. Garoppolo, Kittle, Samuel, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who was drafted in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and top running backs Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert were all capable of carrying the 49ers to victory last season. All of those guys were out from multiple games last season, including a 34-17 defeat to the Green Bay Packers (this week’s opponent), which resulted in the loss.
For the same reason, the 49ers defensive line for 2020 was expected to have five former first-round choices, including Bosa and Ford: four starters and a backup in case of a flat tyre on the field. Arik Armstead, on the other hand, was the only 49ers lineman to appear in all 16 games. A direct consequence of this, the team’s overall number of sacks decreased from 48 in 2019 to 30 in 2018. Six victories were an incredible accomplishment for Shanahan and his team, especially considering the circumstances.
In addition, the 49ers have not been entirely injury-free thus far in 2021, though it would be naive to believe that any football club could do so. Jason Verrett, a cornerback who had missed almost all of the 2016 through 2019 seasons due to a slew of ailments, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear in Week 1 of the 2019 season. Verrett, in an unusual twist of fate, was one of the team’s most physically fit players last season. Mostert is also out for the season, but the 49ers have bolstered their offensive line with players like rookie Elijah Mitchell, who rushed for more than 100 yards in the season’s first game.