Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
It wasn't supposed to be this way. For all the debate over whether expectations surrounding the 49ers were too high, it was widely anticipated to be an exciting campaign for San Francisco.
But approaching Week 6 any excitement surrounding the Niners has been washed away by a sea of injuries, a laundry list of casualties from a brutal start to the season leaving Kyle Shanahan to operate with a shell of the team he and John Lynch put together.
Those healthy enough to line up against the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday were unable to beat a previously winless team at home, dropping the 49ers to 1-4 and ending any faint hope of them being able to post a competitive record.
The biggest source of frustration for Shanahan and Lynch will be that they never really had a chance to see their plan for 2018 take shape. San Francisco had huge plans for big-ticket free agent running back Jerick McKinnon, particularly as a receiver, but he was lost to a torn ACL a week before the start of the season. In the third game of the year, Jimmy Garoppolo was lost to the same injury, and the 49ers postseason hopes went with him.
Even since that devastating blow, the injury gods have been utterly relentless, and the Niners now face slogging through what looks meaningless 11-game stretch with a roster seemingly unable to avoid getting hurt and only the prospect of a very high draft pick to look forward to.
Still, it is tough for most to give up on a season after just five games, and those seeking inspiration over how to enjoy a campaign that has had the life sucked out of it would be well served to look to Franco-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus.
Camus believed there is no meaning to life, but also felt that, instead of wasting time searching for meaning, people should instead find joy in the little things.
Such a school of thought can be applied to the 2018 49ers season, which appears dead and devoid of meaning in terms of the team being a competitive force. Yet, disappointing big picture aside, there are plenty of little things for San Francisco fans to enjoy as this young roster develops minus its most important player.
Matt Breida has had to battle through injuries but in McKinnon's absence has blossomed into an electric starting running back averaging 7.7 yards per tough. Tight end George Kittle is enjoying a breakout campaign while an offensive line that has also fought through injury issues has been one of the best in NFL through five weeks. The selection of rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey, Pro Football Focus' highest-graded run-blocking tackle, with the ninth overall pick appears vindicated, with the vastly improved play up front a key reason why the Niners have the fourth-ranked rushing attack in the league.
On defense DeForest Buckner has once again excelled at generating pressure from the interior, Reuben Foster and Fred Warner have formed an extremely exciting young linebacking duo and Richard Sherman has played at an All-Pro level, giving up just one catch for 18 yards this season, per PFF, and providing the 49ers with a lockdown corner on one side of the field.
In what will in all likelihood be a losing season for the 49ers these are simply bright spots that can provide some reason for cheer. However, an elite offensive line, top-tier options at running back and tight end and a premier cornerback will be big parts of the equation for what the 49ers hope will be a playoff ready team when Garoppolo returns in 2019.
There are still holes to be addressed, particularly at edge rusher, before San Francisco can be considered ready to make a deep playoff run, but the more the offensive line and the key members of the defense excel, the more fans can feel confident about a team that will approach the offseason with a plethora of cap space and potentially a top-five pick. San Francisco's season may now be meaningless, but a more micro look at this team gives cause for hope that the same will not be said about next year.
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