This was the first time I’d been to Levi’s Stadium since the 2014 season because ... well, you saw the past two seasons. In addition to seeing what the team was doing on the field, I was curious to see what the fan experience was like. Levi’s Stadium has garnered a pretty poor reputation since its inception, and rightfully so. If you’ve been, you know the deal—the heat, the sterile atmosphere, the traffic, the prices, etc. But with a new regime at the helm and a seemingly added focus on doing more for the fans, I was interested to see if things had improved. The answer? Some yes, some no.
Traffic & Parking
This continues to be a big problem. It took me about 35 minutes to get from San Francisco to get within a 4 or 5 blocks from the stadium; from there, it took another 45 minutes to get to the actual stadium. The traffic directors actually made the flow worse and had things moving slower than if we were operating by the lights. There was a large hold up even getting into the lots because they were scanning tickets for free parking. “Why issue tickets for free parking,” you may ask? Your guess is as good as mine. It seemingly offered no purpose other than to significantly delay people from finding spots and getting inside in an efficient manner. What was more peculiar is that the huge lots closest to the stadium were empty and blocked off. Why push everyone out to the perimeter lots and keep these empty for no reason? All of this was on a day when the stadium was at about 33 percent of capacity; I shudder to think of what fresh hell awaits me when I head down for opening day against Carolina.
Concessions and Entertainment
With two terrible seasons under their belt and fans feeling swindled by PSLs they committed to when the team was still in the Harbaugh glory days, the franchise has some real damage control to do this year. They seem keenly aware of this. The organization emailed a survey to fans during the offseason to gauge fan response and identify areas for improvement. While this was a small token, it was refreshing to see the team offer each person four free concessions during practice. You had a choice of water, coffee, soda, hot chocolate, peanuts, a hot dog, Italian sausage, french fries, or nachos. Beer and other items were available for purchase. Once again, however, it was clear the Operations team needs to step up their game. The staff functioned as if there was no preparation or idea of how things were supposed to be executed. This is year-four and the scene behind the counter looked like if you pulled a group of 20 strangers off the street 20 minutes before the event, gave them shirts and hats, and said, “go serve.” A lot chaos and confusion back there kept things at a snail’s pace.
An added bonus was free admission to the 49ers Museum. I’ve yet to visit the museum, so I ambled over as practice was wrapping up, only to find a mile-long line. The hold up was because they were checking people in at the museum entrance and had security measures. This was a little confusing because you already had to go through security prior to entering the stadium and the museum was closed off to admission outside of the event. Needless to say, I didn’t have the time or energy to stand in a super slow line for an hour, so I passed. I’ll have to check it out next time.
Alright, enough griping like a 75-year old man about parking, snacks, and long lines—let’s get to it.
There were the usual pre-practice festivities. The Gold Rush did some dancing, music blared, and John Lynch addressed the fans and thanked them for coming out. Lynch still has to prove himself as a first time general manager, but his presence as a new face of the franchise is a real breath of fresh air.
The weather was nice; sunny and hot but not oppressive. Field conditions seemed alright. The grass didn’t look pristine but there were no apparent footing issues from players. We'll see how it holds up throughout the season.
Practice began with individual and special teams drills. As you can imagine, it was a little slow-moving and uneventful during this period.
Things started to pick up with 1-on-1 drills. Those were followed by 11-on-11 and the practice closed with simulated game drives.
What and Who Stood Out
The former Buffalo Bill continues to impress. He was extremely active on Saturday and made a highlight reel catch along the sideline—despite the fact that he was ruled out of bounds. Not only has he had an incredible camp but he’s going to be a great guy to root for. It’s clear he’s having a lot of fun out there. He was constantly dancing, celebrating, and getting the crowd into it.
Buckner took part in individual drills but was still moving a bit gingerly on that taped left ankle during them. It wasn't surprising to see him sit out the 1-on-1 and 11-on-11 sessions. With Malcolm Smith being shelved for the season and Joshua Garnett’s status unknown, you have to hope Buckner’s ankle isn’t something that lingers or gets re-aggravated. For the here and now though, it doesn’t seem like an issue.
The undrafted rookie running back had a great performance on Saturday. He had a few pretty runs and even showed off his receiving skills, hauling in a shoestring catch from Matt Barkley. He is looking to make a strong case for a roster spot in a crowded backfield. Joe Williams, the running back I was most eager to see live, was invisible.
By far and away, this is the most concerning unit. The coverage just isn't there. And not to denigrate what’s been a great showing from Hoyer and company, but it’s not like these guys are lining up against Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. There weren’t many incompletions and when there was, it was usually from a bad throw or miscommunication on the offense—not because of what the secondary was doing. Yes, Jimmie Ward is out, but this really looks like a bottom-of-the-barrel unit right now.
The big one, of course, is Malcolm Smith’s season ender. NN’s Jennifer Lee Chan has some more noteworthy ones and details in her recap. To add to that list, Adrian Colbert came down with what looked like a lower leg or right ankle injury. He walked to the sideline after a while on the grass. A trainer looked at him, taped it up, and he returned to action later on but hopped in pain after a play.
Brandon Fusco was starting at right guard and Zane Beadles was in at left guard in place of Garnett.
Overall, the open practice was a good time. It’s a great way to engage with fans during the summer and get them excited for the upcoming season. The overall tone of the players and practice seemed to be even keeled, in a good way. The players were lively, but not unruly or sloppy. Things seemed very well organized and it honestly just looks like everyone is committed and dialed in to securing their spot.