Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports



During the first quarter of what would end up being a Week 1 loss to the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch sat in a Levi's Stadium suite with Adam Peters and other personnel staff. He had his fists clasped in frustration. Lynch may have even thrown out a colorful metaphor or two. After all, he had just witnessed one of his offseason prizes, rookie linebacker Reuben Foster, go down in what first appeared to be a very serious injury. Foster grabbed at his lower right leg following a run-in with Panthers lineman Matt Kalil.

The first thought that jumped into the minds of fans who saw the replay on television was that Foster's potentially promising season might be done. Probably fearing the worst, Lynch continued to watch as Foster was carted off of the field and taken to the locker room for X-rays.

Lynch has had an impressive first offseason as general manager of the 49ers and comes off extremely well in front of the media as the face of the organization.

"I didn't know he was Captain America in real life," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan jokingly said during the team's State of the Franchise in late-May.

However, on Sunday, Captain America could do nothing. The 49ers' superhero was helpless. All he could do was sit and watch. This was not unexpected for Lynch. After all, he knew that once the 53-man roster was set, the majority of his work was done. All he could do after that was wait and see what happens on Sundays.

"I'm excited, just like I would be for any other kickoff weekend," Lynch told KNBR last week. "But come kickoff, there's not a damn thing I can do. And that's what my buddies that are in this business – the John Elways – told me. It's a very helpless feeling because you've done your work. You've done everything you can and so you better go at it hard and really be thorough in your processes because once you get there, there's not a whole lot. We can continue to tweak the roster and we won't be afraid to do that. But really, our work's done now and you just support these guys."

Luckily for Lynch and the 49ers, they dodged a long-term injury when it comes to Foster. Less than 20 minutes after being taken into the 49ers' locker room, the star linebacker returned to the sideline under his own power – but with a noticeable limp. 49ers medical and training staff continued to work on his leg while Foster campaigned to return to the game. Staff and teammates insisted he not overdo it.

"I told him when he was on the bench, 'Take it a day at a time,'" said second-year defensive lineman DeForrest Buckner. "The competitive nature in all of us makes us want to get back out there and play. I told him it's a long season, so he's just got to get that thing right."

Fans cheered and chanted Foster's name as he returned to the sideline. While his quick return may have been a surprise to 49ers fans, it wasn't to teammates like Buckner.


"He's a competitive guy," Buckner said. "He couldn't be out there with his brothers so he wanted to support. I respect him for that."

Prior to leaving the game, Foster was impressing. He had three tackles and nearly hauled in an interception off of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Following Sunday's loss, Foster downplayed the injury and even insisted that he would be ready to go as soon as Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks.

"I wanted to go back out there," Foster told reporters. "It was loosening up. It doesn't hurt anymore. I'll be good against Seattle."

Obviously, if it were completely up to Foster, he would probably be all set to go against the Seahawks. However, the 49ers have shown that they will be careful with players returning from injury. Free safety Jimmie Ward, who suffered a hamstring injury at the start of training camp, is an excellent example of that. He was activated off of the physically-unable-to-perform list on August 23 and was still not ready to play in Sunday's game, which took place 18 days later.

Foster is expected to miss some time with a high-ankle sprain, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. However, things could have been a lot worse for this young 49ers team. The exciting Foster has quickly become a face of the franchise. Had the injury been season-ending, it might have been detrimental for the 49ers because the rookie was expected to be part of the foundation that the team is building around.

"You just don't want to see that," said NaVorro Bowman following the game. "You prepare so much with one guy and then it being his first game, a lot of things went through my mind for him, personally and us as a team. That is the worst part about this game."

It looks like Foster will be back this season – hopefully, sooner rather than later. As for the rest of the team, it looked very much like a work in progress on Sunday. Last season, the 49ers ranked last in the league in passing while averaging just 182 yards per game. On Sunday, the revamped offense, which includes new starting quarterback Brian Hoyer, had just 166 yards through the air. It was a step back with the 49ers hoping to bounce back with two steps forward on Sunday.

On the bright side, the 49ers defense, which allowed a franchise- and league-worst 2,654 rushing yards (166 per game) last season, allowed just 116 yards to the Panthers. In 2016, the 49ers defense allowed nearly 241 yards passing to opposing offenses. They allowed just 171 to the Panthers. That's even more impressive when you factor in the secondary's lack of support from the 49ers pass rush, which was unable to get to Newton.

For the 49ers defense, Week 1 was an improvement. Things could have been much worse. In fact, last season against Carolina, they were much worse. Compare Sunday's numbers to last season's Week 2 matchup when the 49ers defense surrendered 353 passing yards, 176 rushing yards, and 529 total yards to the Panthers offense.

There were fair expectations from fans going into Sunday's game. Few expected the 49ers to have overnight success following a massive rebuild that is in its first year. When asked about the empty seats at Levi's Stadium on Sunday, an embarrassing trend throughout last season, Shanahan still apologized to the fan base following the game, urged the Niner Faithful to remain faithful, and promised to continue to work hard to turn things around in San Francisco.

"I didn't notice the attendance or anything but I thought the fans were great," Shanahan said. "Came out early in the game and I thought they were loud. I heard all of them early. I don't think we gave them much to cheer for in the second half so definitely can't blame them for that. Definitely want them to stick with us.

"I think this has been a great fan base for a long time. I think it still is. They haven't had a lot to cheer about recently but I can promise them we're doing everything we can, working as hard as we can to change that and we're going to do it as soon as we possibly can."

There were no bags on the heads of 49ers fans. There were no anti-York banners flying overhead before the game. Fans understand that this team is essentially an expansion team and Lynch and Shanahan, armed with six-year contracts and promised patience from ownership, are content with building their roster slowly and correctly. After all, the 49ers have 14 rookies on their active roster with over half of the roster having three or fewer years of NFL experience.

No one is jumping to conclusions just yet. While it may not have shown on the scoreboard, there were signs of progress. The 49ers are preaching patience and fans will need to have realistic expectations for the 2016 season. The future is still bright in San Francisco and a 23-3 season opening loss to a more talented Carolina team will not change that.

"I'll just be like everybody else," Lynch told KNBR while continuing to discuss his helplessness now that the season is in full swing. "I'll be a fan."

Like Lynch, fans will just have to wait to see if the initial progress continues to improve as the season goes on.