The 49ers didn’t lose a game last season until mid-November. By that point, they had eight wins and a bye to build the confidence, momentum and goodwill within the fan base to create a comfortable margin for error the rest of the way. Bad days at the office were generally met with a shrug, with those inside and outside the organization knowing full-well the 49ers would come back strong.
Faith was well placed in a team that went 13-3 and dominated until things went sideways in Super LIV’s final quarter. Coach Kyle Shanahan pulled a championship window wide open in 2019, and general manager John Lynch reinforced the roster well during the subsequent offseason, leaving the 49ers as an obvious choice to repeat as NFC champions.
That was a fair expectation then. It’s a fair expectation now, even after Sunday’s 24-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium.
That might not parallel what you see and hear on platforms known for overreaction and sweating the small stuff. Don’t get sucked into that abyss despite an early and unexpected loss. Don’t let the first display of 49ers football in seven-plus months carry too much weight and obscure one simple fact.
These 49ers are good. Really good. They weren’t quite good enough on Sunday afternoon, losing to a team with inferior overall talent due to a terrible performance in the clutch. The 49ers were 2-for-13 on third and fourth downs, their first conversion coming with under four minutes left in the third quarter.
That final comeback attempt was off-kilter, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo inaccurate on two key throws and late on another. The defense had a difficult time with Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray when he escaped the pocket, allowing last year’s No. 1 overall pick 91 rushing yards and 30 more yards on unnecessary roughness calls trying to stop him after sliding.
Those are reasons why the 49ers lost a game. They are not causes for greater concern. "We’re not too shaken up about this,” edge rusher Nick Bosa said. “We know what we’re capable of doing, and we’ll come back strong."
Bosa’s sentiment was pervasive among all who joined a postgame video conference. I’ve sat through enough post-loss pressers to know when I’m being fed a line through gritted teeth, when clichés try to cover frustration boiling underneath.
These interactions showed no sign of that. Shanahan and his players made available exuded both disappointment in an outcome and confidence that it’ll be remembered as an outlier over a long haul. “It just comes down to executing down the stretch,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “We got to knock some rust off some things, and there are some communication things we have to do better. But I think, overall, we feel good about where we are. They made some plays at the end and [Murray] made some plays that compromised the defense, but I think it was a great learning experience and it will help us in the future.” So will the return of some offensive weapons. The 49ers worked without receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk due to injury and played the second half with a banged-up George Kittle. It sounds like Aiyuk could make his NFL debut next week. Kittle said he was “fantastic” when asked about a lower leg issue -- whether he is or not remains in some question -- and Samuel could return off injured reserve in time to play the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4.
Reinforcements will be welcome.
While Garoppolo was suboptimal down the stretch and surely will get crushed for it, his receiver corps was not helpful. Only 15 percent of his 259 passing yards and a third of his targets went to wideouts, which allowed Arizona’s defense to key on other areas.
The pass rush wasn’t characteristically dominant, but Murray’s speed, arm talent and increased bulk make him a formidable challenge that might soon be feared on Lamar Jackson’s level. That’s why we shouldn’t lessen expectations on this team after a single game, especially one forced to slog through the deep NFC West. In other words, keep Sundays free beyond Week 17.
This Sunday’s mistakes are correctable, not due to a talent deficiency. That's the main takeaway from a season opener that went awry.
“It doesn’t feel good losing any football games, but we understand that it’s Week 1,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “We have a long season to go. We have a lot of things that are in our control that we can clean up that might’ve made the outcome of that game better for us. It’s a matter of getting back to work tomorrow, being honest with yourself while watching the tape, identifying what went wrong and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”