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“What’s cool is this is the first time we’ve gone without preseason,”
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan sounded like a teen that convinced their parents to lend them the family car for a weekend as a guest on the Chris Simms Unbuttoned podcast. There was a level of giddiness in his voice that reflected the excitement he felt as if he cracked a secret code to unlock a productivity level not seen yet in the NFL. “That does help a lot because usually you got to put in those travel days for that. I don’t care as much about the game, but you miss practice the day before, practice the day of, practice the day after.”
“So knowing that we don’t have those, even if we have less days, we might be able to make it up because we don’t have to travel to games. So we might be able to get the same amount of work in.”
The 49ers spent the majority of their truncated offseason working on fundamentals while stressing keeping physicality to a minimum in order to minimize the chance for injuries prior to the season beginning. The 49ers know the situation all too well after running back Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL on the final play of the final day of training camp in 2018. It ended up being a major blow to Shanahan’s vision for the offense and hampered the team’s ability to spread out the offense in the ways it needed to to operate at full steam.
Watching the 49ers first game against the Arizona Cardinals, however, showcased a team that seemed to be missing those initial moments of live action. “We had a couple opportunities on defense and you just miss a couple plays when they're there and that's what happens.” Shanahan said following the game. “Last time we played these guys, it came down to the wire, just like this one did.”
“It’s definitely a different challenge than usual,” Nick Bosa said following the game Sunday night. “but in this division, you’ve got to deal with some pretty good quarterbacks, so, we could do a lot better.”
As Bosa eluded to, this team knows what they are capable of. They know because this is largely the same team that was several minutes away from winning the Super Bowl the year before. Starting the season against an immensely talented and athletic player like quarterback Kyler Murray was always going to be tough, but having to knock rust off without preseason games and having to mentally prepare for a player of his caliber are two wholly and separately monumental tasks that any team should have to worry about in a first game of the season.
“Um, you know I think just, uh, he’s just a dynamic player and we knew that. I guess just making sure our integrity in our pass rush lanes were on point.” Fred Warner stated in his press conference following the game. “It just takes all of us to get to him when he starts to break the pocket.”
This cohesion between the defensive front and the secondary is what is cultivated during these initial trial-by-fire games. They are meant to be ugly, and bring back memories of pop warner football games as their main goal is to show the coaches and players what they are capable of together and who is ready for the rigors of a full season competing against NFL level talent.
“I’m all for the preseason because there are a couple guys we’ve never seen in a game who are pretty good in practice and you throw them out there in a preseason game and they freak out and you’re like, ‘All right, they’re not ready, we got to put them on the practice squad,’” Shanahan continued with Simms. “And that’s good to know.”
“It’s also good when we can’t decide. They’re neck and neck. It’s nice to just let it play out and see what happens. But this year is different.”
Thinking of the 49ers’ loss to the Cardinals Sunday as their “preseason” game paints the game in a different picture. The missed blocks and tackles go from infuriating breakdowns to things that will get worked out in practice before the next game. The secondary’s miscommunication in the fourth quarter that led to the DeAndre Hopkins 33-yard catch to the one-yard line becomes a mental error that develops into a learning experience for a still young and developing team.
“I think we had every opportunity to win that football game.” Warner continued during his press conference. “Gotta give them credit for obviously pulling it out. I think, just, simple things we need to fix to make sure we’re executing at a higher level. I think ultimately that’s what’s going to allow us to win more football games.”
Shanahan has been a pioneer in efficient practice time management, and he understands better than anyone that this loss falls solely on the shoulders of each player as well as himself. While it is impossible to control what the pandemic flowing through the country is capable of, he is entirely capable of controlling how the team responds to the measures put in place by the NFL and, in turn, what they are capable of following this loss.
“We just got to be more on top of our assignment.” Warner said. “I think there were a lot of self inflicted wounds today. They obviously made enough plays to win the game.”
“We just got to be better at the end of the day, and we will be.”
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