The 49ers’ two wins and one loss over three weeks of action in 2021 reveal a lot, and whether or not it’s positive or negative depends on your perspective.
The 2021 San Francisco 49ers are a weird bunch.
It’s too much to overreact to their 30-28 Week 3 Sunday Night Football loss to the Green Bay Packers, although one can point out the numerous chances the Niners had to win that game, or at least put themselves in a better position to do so. Better clock management late in the fourth quarter, cutting down on those crucial defensive pass-interference calls on third downs, more innovative play calling on both offense and defense, better quarterbacking from Jimmy Garoppolo and so on.
Still, San Francisco is 2-1. Seventeen other teams around the league would happily trade places with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad, at least in terms of a record through three weeks.
That said, the 2021 49ers are either off to a good start, or they’re poised for a lot of problems and challenges in the very near future.
It all depends on how you see things.
49ers still haven’t played their best football yet, right?
If you read enough of my stuff, hopefully you pick up on the idea I try keeping as level a head as possible. I’ll stay away from getting too exuberant when the team wins two games in a row to start the year, and I won’t get too down after a hard-fought prime-time loss against a Packers team many thought would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season.
To focus on the positive, let’s recognize a few key things.
The Niners haven’t come close to playing a complete game with all three phases working at their best and in unison. In Week 1 against the Detroit Lions, it was the offense that had to shoulder the load, while the defense — particularly against the run and late in the fourth quarter — was vulnerable en route to that 41-33 finish.
Go forward a week, when Garoppolo and the offense went stagnant for the better part of three quarters, San Francisco’s defense and special teams picked up the slack and came away victorious, winning 17-11 over the Philadelphia Eagles.
OK, so one can argue both the 49ers’ opponents to start the year aren’t particularly good. Yet the Niners had to beat both teams on the road, and both during their 2021 home openers, somewhat negating the “level of competition” argument.
And even in the Week 3 loss to Green Bay, a game in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense commanded nearly every facet, San Francisco still managed what should be recognized as a serious comeback and put itself in a position to win the game late.
Perhaps some better clock management and/or a single defensive play before the clock expired, and we’d be looking at a 3-0 49ers team right now.
One which still hasn’t been firing on all cylinders as expected. Right? Right?
Or maybe the 49ers are a good team, just not a great one
Look, the Niners are going to lose games this season. And losses like the one in Week 3 present more than enough evidence to suggest San Francisco will have a tough, tough time making it back to the Super Bowl two years removed from the last time having done so.
Shanahan’s clock management late in Week 3 hopefully sparks a learning moment. But it’s still hard to decipher what he’s trying to do with Garoppolo and rookie quarterback Trey Lance. I get the notion Lance isn’t ready just yet. But in two of the 49ers’ first three games, the offense under Garoppolo has been stagnant for a significant portion of each contest.
And to keep up with two high-flying offenses the Niners will have to face over the next two weeks, the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, things aren’t going to get any easier if Shanahan wants to keep pace and avoid having to play the catch-up game.
Particularly with San Francisco’s rushing attack, already suffering plenty of attrition at the position, isn’t able to get going, putting more pressure on Garoppolo, who might not be equal to the task of shouldering an ad hoc pass-first offense.
Then, there’s the defense.
It’s full of holes, yes. Particularly at cornerback. That’s a discussion for another time, and it’s a big one. But there’s enough talent to cover up many of those shortcomings. One of the problems, though, is first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is still learning on the job, and he’s making plenty of mistakes we saw his predecessor, now-New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh, make between 2017 and 2018.
Ryans didn’t have a lot of solutions in Week 1, particularly against the Lions’ run game and tight end T.J. Hockenson. And in Week 3, Ryans was completely outcoached by Green Bay and overmatched by Rodgers.
There are likely going to be plenty of up-and-down moments over the rest of the year, too.
Conclusion on the 49ers is still inconclusive
Again, a 2-1 start with a could-have-won Week 3 loss as the most recent memory isn’t a sign everything is falling apart. No need to panic.
That said, it’s hard to identify the areas for improvement and suggest they’ll improve dramatically.
Garoppolo, while good enough, has his limitations. And without a solid run game — the 49ers are averaging only 3.6 yards per rush attempt — Garoppolo will be asked to shoulder more of the load. At 29 years old, it’s not like he’s going to make vast improvements over what we’ve seen from him going back to 2019. And it might not totally change until Lance is ready, and Shanahan doesn’t appear committed to making that shift anytime soon.
And the defense? Well, the problems many thought would exist are indeed there, namely the lack of cornerback depth. It’s not likely to improve much either, putting more pressure on Ryans to develop as a coordinator faster than Saleh did, even though Ryans is equipped with much better players than Saleh’s first two years in 2017 and 2018.
If there is a conclusion here, it’s that the next two weeks before the Niners’ Week 6 bye will be telling, either showcasing why San Francisco just needed to find a rhythm.
Or why the disjointed efforts over the first three weeks of 2021 could be problematic over the rest of the season.