In grand scheme, 49ers suffered a bad loss in preseason opener


In grand scheme, 49ers suffered a bad loss in preseason opener

A new NFL season is upon us, damn it, and for the next four weeks your nights will be filled with three things.

Anthem Watch, Heat Index Watch, and Injury Watch.

Take Santa Clara, home of the ongoing E-Z Bake Stadium promotion. There, the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys did a thing. Most of them survived. Few of them will remember much about it, save third-string quarterback Nick Mullens, who engineered the final drive in San Franciosco's 24-21 victory.

Sure, some might bubble with glee over the result (let the Mullens-Jimmy Garoppolo controversy begin!), or that there weren’t enough helmet penalties (49er linebacker Elijah Lee topped the list at one), or that Garoppolo didn’t win the Super Bowl Thursday simply by the look on his face, but that’s not what this game was about. It was about a movement subsumed inside a song, the sizzle of fricasseed fan in a section of Levi's Stadium better classified as a hotplate, and trying to avoid the trainers room. This last one didn't work well for the 49ers, not at all.

So let’s review, shall we?

Anthem Watch was highlighted by San Francisco wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who raised his right fist while standing to protest both racial injustices still rampant in the U.S. and to a lesser extent the NFL’s persistently feckless response to the original protests. No other 49ers seemed to take any kind of visible role during the song, and the Dallas Cowboys, inspired by hall monitor/owner Jerry Jones, stood in lockstep on the east sideline to show their enduring respect for employment.

In the stands, there were the usual acres of unused hotplates-with-armrests, as the 90-degree weather dry-roasted the east side of the stadium to its usual char, and said seats remained predominantly unused even after sundown. The annual debate over what the 49ers plan to do with it has been settled – nothing – so this will be an ongoing complaint with no solution planned. Hey, if you can’t stand the heat, try your couch.

But the real event was the high number of injuries, seemingly all by 49ers and some to important figures thereof. More to the point, they all came in the first 20 minutes of play, making the entire game a modified disaster.

The 49ers lost linebacker Malcolm Smith to a hamstring on the fourth play of the game, tight end George Kittle injured his shoulder on a deep pass on San Francisco’s only Garoppolonian possession of the night, defensive end Solomon Thomas was laid out 11 minutes into the game with what was described only as a head injury and did not return, backup running back Matt Breida went down a minute later, also with a shoulder injury, and backup tackle Garry Gilliam went out nine seconds into the second quarter, with a head injury.

“It’s what scares you about training camp, it’s what scares you about the preseason," Shanahan said after the game, explaining the entire August football phenomenon. "You kind of just want the game to end.”

So, even if you allow for precautionary decisions by the 49er medical staff and the two days off that will clarify the nature of the injuries, that part was pretty much a failure -- a bad defeat in a game in which wins and losses don’t matter.

True, it could have been worse – The Great G could have gotten hurt in any of the nine plays in which he participated. But he did not, saving both him, head coach Kyle Shanahan and the angst of the entire 49ers fan base and fantasy players across the globe.

But it was bad enough by practice game standards, even if none of the afflicted miss any regular season time, and is the one reason exhibition football scares the hell out of coaches. Not even they can say “Next man up” with a straight face this often.

Fortunately, everyone has long outgrown the exhibition season as a helpful guide to anything except detailing the health of players who either have dreams to chase, fulfill or complete. Shanahan subscribed to that theory enough to attempt a two-point conversion after the 49ers’ second touchdown in hopes of cutting the lead to a field goal with 4:26 left to play, a decision that, happily for the remaining customers, didn’t matter to the final outcome.

But the game’s outcome didn’t matter at all in the larger picture, any more than the fifth consecutive exhibition season victory by the Cleveland Browns, who have won one non-practice game in the last two years. The 49ers got hammered by injuries they are not yet deep enough to absorb, so Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be interesting days at the Auld Compound.

Call it the game outside the game.

Quinnen Williams, Josh Allen impressed with 49ers before 2019 NFL Draft

Quinnen Williams, Josh Allen impressed with 49ers before 2019 NFL Draft

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- General manager John Lynch spent a portion of his pre-draft session with the media on Monday raving about Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.

On Wednesday, Williams returned the favor.

“They left a great impression on me, just to meet those guys out there,” said Williams, whom the 49ers hosted on a top-30 visit this month. “I met John Lynch. He’s a great guy.”

Williams is a legitimate option for the 49ers to consider with the No. 2 overall pick. Williams’ name has also come up in speculation over the past week that the Arizona Cardinals could select him with the top pick. Assuming the Arizona Cardinals take Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray with the top selection, the 49ers' pick would likely come down to Williams or Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa.

Williams was a first-year starter at nose tackle for Alabama, and he quickly shot up draft boards with a season in which he registered 19.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

“The season he had may have been as good of a college football season that I’ve ever seen,” Lynch said. “He was just dominant.”

As Williams began to talk about Lynch, he laughed about a highlight he saw of him during a TV show about Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. Lynch was a nine-time Pro Bowl player during his 15-year career with Tampa Bay and Denver.

“I saw him juke John Lynch,” Williams said of Sanders. “It was so funny because I know John Lynch now.”

If Williams were to end up with the 49ers, he would likely team up on the interior defensive line with DeForest Buckner. Williams said he met Buckner during his visit to Santa Clara. His takeaway: “He’s huge.”

Williams said he would relish the opportunity to play alongside one of the best defensive tackles in the game. Buckner was named to his first NFC Pro Bowl team after totaling a career-high 12 sacks.

“I’m not going to any franchise thinking I’m the man, thinking this or that,” Williams said. “I’m thinking that I’m coming to any franchise and I’m bringing a weapon that can help the team and push the pocket. This game has turned to a real passing game and me, as a defensive lineman, I’m a pass-rusher. I go get it. But I can also stop the run at an elite level.”

[RELATED: Quinnen Williams leans on family, football after great loss]

Another player the 49ers could consider with the No. 2 pick in the draft is Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen, who led the nation with 17 sacks last season as a senior. Allen mentioned the weather and the food as some of the highlights of his visit to meet with the 49ers in Santa Clara.

Allen came away feeling good about the possibility of playing for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Allen said the 49ers told him he would play defensive end in their defensive scheme.

“My hand would be in the dirt, rushing the passer and setting the edge,” he said.

NFL draft: 49ers GM John Lynch on how he's learned from past mistakes

NFL draft: 49ers GM John Lynch on how he's learned from past mistakes

As 49ers GM John Lynch and his staff head into their third draft, Lynch admits that they are using lessons learned from Reuben Foster and Joe Williams to help prevent the same draft mishaps from happening again. 

Lynch has spoken about needing to be aggressive in taking players that will improve the franchise while taking into account a solid locker room environment. A few of Lynch's picks have backfired, but he says the team has learned from their mistakes. He spoke about how his past two seasons have been a learning process, while also admitting that sometimes you still have to take risks. 

“I think a combination of both,” Lynch said. “If you aren’t always learning, shame on you, shame on us. I think with Reuben, I think we somewhat accounted for it by where we drafted him. I think we had him at a certain value. We didn’t draft him there. That doesn’t excuse us. It’s a shame. 

“We’re very happy to have Kwon Alexander, but that came at a heavy price. We would’ve much preferred to have Reuben still playing here. So, of course, you learn a lesson.” 

The heavy price for the 49ers was Alexander’s five-year $54 million contract. Foster would have cost much less under his four-year rookie contract that was worth just over $9 million. 

Foster had a few red flags prior to the draft, including being sent home from the NFL Scouting Combine after a confrontation with a hospital worker and a diluted urine test. His troubles continued with assault allegations and other off-the-field issues. 

Lynch detailed the slight variations to their pre-draft vetting process that was made, in part, because of what they learned from Foster. 

“There are certain tweaks we’ve made,” Lynch said. “Our 30 visits this year, we brought people more in a group setting. We want to see how they interact with other people. So, those are subtle things that we do.”

Meanwhile, Williams spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve and then was released prior to the 2018 season. He was a player who had great game film, especially just before the draft when he ran for a record-setting 332 yards in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium. 

As with Foster, Williams had his share of red flags as well. He quit football after being at Utah for a season to deal with issues regarding family matters. He rejoined the team when they were in desperate need at running back. 

Since drafting Williams, Lynch has been very vocal about acquiring players who love the game of football, almost reminding himself to not forget the miss in his first draft. The positive side is that the team released Williams after his second offseason instead of holding out hope that he would develop and pan out.   

“As to Joe, I think that was a pick, it didn’t work out,” Lynch said. “But, in every scenario, whether something worked or didn’t work, you take note. We try to do that in each individual case.”
“There’s so much that just goes into the research of these players. You learn something every year. I think the most important thing, you impart upon your scouts, upon your staff is, ‘We have to be as thorough as humanly possible.’”

[RELATED: Final first-round NFL mock draft]

For a GM without front office experience, Lynch surrounded himself with experienced people. The past two 49ers draft classes have been far from perfect -- but that can be said about every draft class. Lynch just hopes to improve each season by learning from his past. 

“Anything we can learn about these guys is valuable information,” Lynch said. “I’m real proud of the work we’ve done with our staff to get as much information to be equipped to make as good a decision as possible.”
“You work hard to try to identify what is the lesson that you learned. We know in-house what those lessons are.”