No one can blame the 49ers coaching and conditioning staff for proceeding with extreme caution this offseason. They’ve been one of—if not the most—injury-riddled teams the past two seasons.
2019 has continued the trend so far.
They lost offensive lineman Shon Coleman for the season. Center Weston Richburg has yet to partake in offseason activity coming off of surgery. Jimmie Ward broke his collarbone wearing shorts in OTAs and has only participated in walk-throughs. Trent Taylor is nursing a foot sprain back to health. First-round selection Nick Bosa is recovering from a high ankle sprain that may cost him the regular-season opener and possibly more games. Prized free-agent Dee Ford has barely practiced due to tendinitis in his knee. George Kittle has taken the past week or so off with calf tightness. Jerick McKinnon’s “set back” in ACL recovery has eliminated him from all but one practice; he may spend the first half of the season on injured reserve. Offensive linemen Joshua Garnett and Mike Person just recently returned to practice.
For a team that’s only gone through two preseason games, that’s a hell of a list. As a result, the 49ers seem to have dialed back practice intensity and participation levels. Given the injury history, it’s hard to fault the organization for prioritizing a healthy roster going into the regular season.
The issue, however, is that practice still matters tremendously (a real revelation, I know)—especially for a young roster, in a pressure-fueled season, with new players at key positions. There’s no question San Francisco has to be careful in making sure they have these playmakers available. The price of that caution? A reduction in meaningful practice time with the first team intact; a greater limit imposed on the experience they need to prepare. That could make for a rocky start to the season as they adjust to game speed and playing together. The first few games may be the first time some players are even really playing since last season—which means we could be seeing the 49ers stuck in preseason mode during the regular season, working out the kinks, playing against teams that already handled that in the offseason. While Jimmy Garoppolo’s very-small-yet-very-awful sample size against Denver shouldn’t be overblown, the reality is that he and the rest of the Niners only have a couple weeks to right the ship and improve chemistry.
This weekend’s game in Kansas City should be a better indicator. It’s been reported that Garoppolo will play at least the whole first half, and Jimmie Ward will make his preseason debut. A sound performance from the starters will quiet the noise. If it’s another rough outing, the concern and chatter will only grow until the team touches down in Tampa next month.
San Francisco starts the season with two very winnable games against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. Securing wins in those games is vital to instilling confidence and hope in a young team. Moreover, those games are crucial because the schedule gets extremely challenging after that.
The Niners need a fast start to 2019 or the whole season could up in smoke before it truly begins. The question is: how realistic is it to expect that when several key players have missed so much time during training camp?