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49ers’ Opener in Tampa as Close to a Must-Win as a First Game Can Be

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If they are going to set the tone for 2019, the 49ers need to win on Sunday.

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With a 16 game slate, it seems ludicrous to even entertain the idea that the 49ers are in a dire situation heading into the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

But is it that crazy?

San Francisco’s strength of schedule is ranked as the 11th most-difficult this year. It includes an obscenely early Week 4 bye-week and a brutal six-game stretch against the Packers, Ravens, Saints, Falcons, Rams, and Seahawks to close the season.

2019 is a new year though, so it remains to be seen just how challenging that schedule is until the season gets underway.

The real reason the 49ers will feel the pressure as early as Week 1 is because of internal and external expectations. Everyone in the organization knows the time for this team to win is now. After two abysmal seasons, several high draft picks, a few key free-agent acquisitions, and the return of Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers no longer have credible excuses not to be competitive.

First and foremost, securing an early victory in Tampa is vital to Garoppolo’s self-confidence in returning from injury and silencing offseason questions. He has to prove to himself and the league that he’s a franchise quarterback; that he’s more than just a guy who won five meaningless games two seasons ago.

Early wins and losses can have a significant impact on the culture of the entire franchise—especially one with so many young players who haven’t experienced what it’s like to win. A hot start would finally allow a winning mentality to emerge in a team that’s been so entrenched in losing. All of a sudden, the Niners walk into a Week 3 matchup against Pittsburgh expecting to win, instead of questioning themselves, wondering if this season is about to unfold like all the rest. For Garoppolo, it would mean cementing his place in the starting role versus looking over his shoulder and in ESPN headlines for Nick Mullens.

The same goes for the coaching staff. Shanahan needs to prove that he has what it takes to be a head coach—not just a gifted offensive coordinator who can scheme lesser-talented players into scoring more points than expected. Robert Saleh needs to make a case for retaining his job as a defensive coordinator this season, after fielding a unit last year that consistently failed and registered the fewest interceptions in NFL history. John Lynch will also be under the microscope for the roster decisions the organization has made the past few years; maybe unjustly so, given that Shanahan is the decision-maker when it comes to personnel. And at the top of this food chain sits Jed York, a man clinging to the performance of all the names mentioned above in the hopes of avoiding further public backlash and embarrassment, which has ceaselessly loomed large since the decision to part with Jim Harbaugh five years ago.

This Sunday could be the most important season-opening game the 49ers have had in the past 25 years…maybe ever. If not the most important, certainly the most urgent. A win provides a brief exhale; a spark; the belief that they can succeed this year. A loss has San Francisco heading into Cincinnati under even more scrutiny. Remember, since 2007, only 10 of 91 teams that started 0-2 made the playoffs.

The Niners have a lot to prove from the very start this year. How the team responds to that urgency and performs under pressure will set the tone for 2019.