A 1-4 start to 2018 has prompted many San Francisco 49ers fans to place blame all over the place this season. But injuries are the key factor at play here, not Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch or Robert Saleh.
It’s totally understandable fans of the San Francisco 49ers are looking for a scapegoat or two five games into 2018.
The Niners are 1-4 over that stretch, having lost all their losses in a disjointed and non-cohesive fashion. And San Francisco nearly coughed up its one win, barely hanging on to defeat the Detroit Lions back in Week 2.
So who deserves the blame?
Well, it’s not so much “who.” Rather, “what.”
Injuries, not head coach Kyle Shanahan nor general manager John Lynch, bear the brunt of the blame. Losing key players, either for the season or an extended period of time, is to blame. Not defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
Now this isn’t to say Shanahan, Lynch and Saleh are in the clear from receiving criticism. One can argue Shanahan has struggled to instill discipline. The 49ers are tied for sixth most penalties through five weeks (39). That, mostly, is on the coaching staff. Saleh should have some question marks drawn around him, especially when he calls for a zone blitz that puts defensive end Solomon Thomas in coverage.
Lynch didn’t totally upgrade the roster either. Case in point, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen has more receiving yards through five weeks (589) than the entire Niners receiver corps (578). Just think what this would look like if San Francisco added now-Chicago Bears wideout Allen Robinson in free agency last offseason.
But Robinson wouldn’t have changed the fate the 49ers suffered early in 2018 — losing their top two offensive weapons early, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon, to season-ending ACL injuries.
Think about some of the top teams out there with a dynamic quarterback-running back duo. Imagine the Los Angeles Rams without either quarterback Jared Goff or running back Todd Gurley. They’d get by minus one of those two. But both? Apply the same theory to the Kansas City Chiefs or, better yet, the Green Bay Packers minus quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The 49ers were doomed as soon as Garoppolo went down. They could have gotten by without McKinnon, as No. 2 back Matt Breida picked up the slack nicely.
Before he was hurt with a high-ankle sprain in Week 5, of course. Notice a theme here?
It doesn’t get much better on the defensive side either. The secondary, namely with defensive backs Adrian Colbert, Jaquiski Tartt and Richard Sherman, has been banged up on a regular basis. Had this group remained fully healthy over the first five weeks, Saleh’s scheme would have worked better. Perhaps nowhere near perfection. But better.
All the injuries, many of which haven’t even been mentioned, do call to question one aspect — depth, or lack thereof.
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This brings us back to Lynch, who could have done more to address the shortages via free agency. The problem, though, is bad teams always wind up overpaying free agents to come to town. It’s an unfortunate reality. So rather than grab a swarm of impact free agents, as well as quality backups, Lynch and Co. were forced to rely on more of the lower blue-chip talents the past two offseasons.
And if you tack on the wholesale changes Lynch ushered in following the Chip Kelly era of 2016, the current 49ers front office was basically working off an expansion-team roster.
Garoppolo’s emergence last year led many of us to believe the rebuild was much further along than it actually was. His absence after Week 3 revealed the truth in two forms. One, the Niners are right about where they should be in the rebuild process after just a year-plus of the new regime.
That’s not exactly a long time in the grand scheme of things.
And two, perhaps most telling, the 2018 49ers took a gamble on the possibility they could compete while avoiding injuries wholesale.
They lost that gamble, and it’s showing.