SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When former coach Jim Harbaugh used to ask the San Francisco 49ers his favorite question — “Who’s got it better than us?” — only one response was deemed appropriate: “Nooo-body.”
If that same question were to be posed to the 2020 edition of the Niners, a more accurate answer would be something along the lines of, well, pretty much everybody.
Coming off a dominant season in which they came within eight minutes of winning Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers are 6-9 and out of the postseason. Since that fourth-quarter collapse in February, little has gone San Francisco’s way.
There’s been the endless array of injuries, a COVID-19 outbreak, a coronavirus-induced relocation from Santa Clara to Glendale, Arizona, and even a series of wildfires that left the Niners practicing under apocalyptic skies with questionable air quality.
“Nah, I don’t think I would have believed you guys,” tight end George Kittle said. “I would have said you were pulling my leg.”
To their credit, the 49ers always understood the pandemic created issues far more serious than their own and did not make excuses for their disappointing Super Bowl season encore. But even if they don’t want to “have a pity party every week,” as coach Kyle Shanahan says, the undeniable truth is this season seemed doomed before it started.
When a group of 49ers gathered in Nashville, Tennessee to workout together this offseason, receiver Deebo Samuel suffered a Jones fracture in his foot that would cost him training camp and the first three games of the season.
Samuel’s injury was a harbinger of things to come. A Week 1 knee injury cost Kittle a pair of games but it was the following week against the New York Jets where things really fell apart. About eight minutes into that game, defensive end Nick Bosa’s left leg buckled as he attempted to disengage from a block. Bosa was taken to the locker room on a cart and an MRI the next day revealed the 49ers’ worst fear: a torn ACL that ended Bosa’s season.
“It’s Nick Bosa, second overall pick, one of the best players in the NFL,” Kittle said. “Yes, it affected our team. You do your best to replace guys, you have guys step up but he’s a superstar. … It’s hard to replace guys like that. He’s one of a kind.”
The injuries didn’t stop there. Before the Jets game was over, the Niners had lost Bosa, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (torn ACL), quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (high ankle sprain) and running backs Raheem Mostert (knee sprain) and Tevin Coleman (knee sprain).
Through training camp and the first 16 weeks, the 49ers have had 30 players land on injured reserve. It hasn’t just been the amount of injuries that’s thrown the Niners’ season for a loop, either. It’s the number of foundational players who have missed time.
Of the 10 49ers with the highest salary cap figures, seven have spent time on injured reserve. During the most devastating stretch, the Niners had more than $80 million in salary cap space on IR.
Even now, there are 17 players on injured reserve accounting for nearly $68 million in cap space. That doesn’t include starting center Weston Richburg and key backup defensive lineman Ronald Blair III, both of whom spent the entire year on the physically unable to perform list.
“It’s tough because you start the season your goal is to make the playoffs and make noise,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “We had high expectations this year but the way the year has gone, it’s really been difficult. It’s been injury after injury. … All you can do is keep fighting.”
Like every other corner of the world, the 49ers have been affected by COVID-19. Before the season started, the Niners had three players — receiver Travis Benjamin and offensive linemen Shon Coleman and Jake Brendel — opt out of the season.
After keeping the number of players on the COVID-19 list relatively low early in the season, the Niners have seen those numbers grow in a fashion similar to the rest of the country. As of this week, the Niners have had 21 players land on the reserve/COVID-19 list because of either a positive test result or being deemed a close contact to someone who had tested positive. Four players have landed on the list twice and integral players like left tackle Trent Williams and receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne missed games while waiting to be cleared.
The day-to-day life for the team has been dramatically altered as well. Meetings are mostly virtual and weight lifting groups or any in-person gatherings are carefully spaced out. Masks are required and food is distributed individually.
“It’s for sure been unique,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “I could go on and on. It’s just all these different things you have to adjust to. And for me, I just feel like it’s all about your mindset with all these things and if you choose to let them get to you and you choose to focus on those things, you’re gonna put yourself in a bad position to be successful.”
As though all of that wasn’t enough, the 49ers were caught off guard Thanksgiving weekend when Santa Clara County announced it was banning all contact sports as part of its extended COVID-19 restrictions. Suddenly, the 49ers were forced to find a new home and within three days were packed up and moving to Arizona to finish the season.
While the Niners won their first game after that announcement, they lost three straight upon relocating and were officially eliminated from postseason contention. But as 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk says, “Nobody cares, work harder.”
“It’s like ‘OK, it’s just another setback, more adversity we have to overcome’ whether it’s the wildfires or COVID or whatever it is.”
Heading into the finale, a franchise-record 80 players have appeared in a game this season for the Niners. The roster has been so ever-evolving that Shanahan has often found himself unable to recognize players on the practice field.
Through it all, the 49ers have found ways to remain competitive even as they’ve trotted out lineups that closely resemble a fourth preseason game. It’s not what anyone envisioned before the season but it’s something Shanahan hopes fortifies his team for the future.
“Every time we get a little bit of juice, it seems like two things are taken away,” Shanahan said. “I think that’s what’s been the challenge, just for the coaching staff and for the players, for everyone in here. That’s why I’ve been real proud of the players and the way they’ve acted, the way they’ve handled themselves and that’s why I’m truly not going to count this year as a negative. It wasn’t fun. It’s not what we or our fans wanted, but I believe the way we went through it, if you go through things the right way, I think it hardens you and makes you stronger and makes you better.”