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49ers: Early Season Pretenders? How the NFL Pundits Are Getting It All Wrong

Don Atkinson
Sep 26, 2019 at 8:40 PM8

Two weeks until the beginning of the end – that's the low-brow fortune-telling amongst many of the NFL's very best armchair quarterbacks this week. Indeed, it's only a matter of time before the 49ers disintegrate before our very eyes, and we're just one game away from the wheels falling off the proverbial wagon in Los Angeles.

For those who are ready to embrace that epiphany of football's elite thinkers, I just happen to have a newly repainted section of the Golden Gate up for sale. Ignore the fact that both the paint on the bridge and the printer's ink on the deed are both still wet. And maybe for those not in need of a bridge, or who perhaps just want to take a more intellectual and analytical look at the 49ers and the state of the NFL, here's another idea that perhaps deserves a warm hug: The 49ers aren't going anywhere except upward and onward.

Reported to you right here by the 49ersWebzone's own David Bonilla after Game 2, ESPN's Ryan Clark called the 49ers "pretenders," and he hasn't been the only one to voice that opinion.

Not to impugn Ryan Clark or anyone else downplaying what the 49ers have done in the first handful of games this season; an opinion is, after all, just that – an idea. But there's something to be said for the contrary argument: that the 49ers are in fact "the real deal," to steal Clark's vernacular.

Off to their best start since the Steve Young-led 1998 team, San Francisco enters its Week 4 bye with its offense ranked second in the NFL in total yards and its defense ranked fourth in total yards allowed. That "combined" ranking places the 49ers first in the league overall, tied with the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.

The team ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing and second in the NFC in scoring. Originally positioned in the lower third of the NFL's well-regarded power rankings, the 49ers are now on the NFL.com ranking at #7. The 49ers also have two of the NFC's top-10 ranked running backs in Matt Breida (fifth) and Raheem Mostert (eighth).

Impressive numbers for a team that, according to Ryan Clark and others, is this year's NFL version of Milli-Vanilli.

Some of the reasons offered for the 49ers' inevitable freefall are suspicious at best. Chief among these is that the 49ers' offense will be shackled by the loss of starting left tackle Joe Staley, by Jimmy Garoppolo's inconsistency, and by the injuries to two of the 49ers' top running backs. And, most prominent of all, that the 49ers' schedule becomes utterly terrifying as they move forward.

But exposed to the harsh light of day, the doomsday predictions look more like the product of backroom tea leaves than real analysis.

Out for another 5-7 weeks, Pro-Bowler Joe Staley spent some quality time prepping his rookie replacement Justin Skule before the matchup with the Steelers, and it showed. Though flagged twice late in the game for holding, Skule otherwise did a respectable job at keeping defensive linemen standing still and off Garoppolo's back side, and he seemed as capable as anyone else on the line.

The test, of course, will be in fending off defensive fronts from the Rams, Packers and others ahead, but from what the 49ers' coaches and Staley himself have to say about Skule, the concerns about the next four or five games without Staley seem largely to be without merit.

Pondering over Garoppolo's inconsistency seems just as much the product of hysteria, mostly because it's based on the wild imaginations of his detractors. Garoppolo has had a few errors here and there, including a bungled snap against Pittsburgh last week, but his performance has gotten steadier and more reliable with each game. His two interceptions against the Steelers were first in the hands of his receivers and should have been caught.

Further, Garoppolo's decision making was sharp and he managed to pull off effective drives when it counted, despite being hurried by the Steelers' pass rushers. Other phases of the 49ers' performance have been a bit inconsistent over the three games, but Garoppolo's play certainly isn't among them.

The concerns of NFL pundits over the 49ers running back situation similarly seem to be constructed mostly of lint and feathers.

Looking to bolster a less than stellar running game, Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch went out and signed elite running backs Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman. Both have been out with injuries, McKinnon lost for the season, yet the team's three rotation backs in Breida, Mostert and newly promoted Jeff Wilson, Jr. have quietly and systematically destroyed the run defense stats of other teams.

The fact is, the 49ers are much deeper at every position than they have been in over a decade, and unlike the 49er teams of the past six years, this team does not seem to get rattled. The offense turned the ball over three times in the red zone during its home opener, but, in business-like fashion, simply shrugged it off and went out and won the game anyway.

As to the schedule: much like a monster under the bed, it's far worse in the imagination than it is in real life. As always, the 49ers have two games with each of their division rivals --- the L.A. Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. They add in road games against New Orleans, Baltimore and Washington, and home games against the Falcons, Panthers and Packers, plus their next home game against Cleveland.

While it makes good NFL drama to hype up the "monsters" of that group, it's hardly the murderer's row it's being made out to be by the pundits. Of those future opponents, only the Rams are undefeated, and they would certainly have lost to Cleveland if not for the latter's total implosion with a first-and-goal from the 2 in their September 22 matchup.

Seattle has looked nothing if not beatable in all three of its games, and the Falcons, Panthers and Browns are all 1-2. Washington and Arizona are both winless. Apart from the two games with L.A., that leaves tough games with the Saints and Ravens, both at 2-1, and the defense-heavy Packers, who fell to the Eagles this week, at 3-1.

It's important to note that Saints quarterback/magician Drew Brees is out (though he may return in time for the 49ers), Rams quarterback Jared Goff has been looking more like the Austin Davis of 2013 than the Jared Goff of last year, and Aaron Rodgers is 35 years old and potentially one blindside sack away from selling insurance full-time.

It's true, the 49ers have not yet proven themselves to be one of the NFL's best. But the fact of the matter is, no one they are scheduled to play has really earned that distinction either. The Rams are, admittedly, defending NFC champions, and of course deserve respect. But, as we all know, what you did last year only goes so far, and after three games, they seem less than terrifying.

This is the NFL and, of course, anything can happen. Injuries, trades, position adjustments and off-the-field escapades of players can change the landscape quickly, robbing any team of its momentum. But what seldom changes from game to game is character, trust between teammates and a sense that, as a group, you can overcome adversity and even the harsh criticism of the public and pundits.

In that way, it seems, these 49ers are anything but pretenders.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • JNC
    Good article, but I don't agree about Justin Skule not being a concern. He had 3 penalties in 160 preseason snaps and 3 more in 100 regular season snaps. WAY TOO MANY PENALTIES. He's holding a lot because he's over matched. Against stronger ends in the next 2 games he's going to be seriously challenged. I think the 49ers will run a LOT until Staley gets back. I also understand some pundits doubts. The 49ers have only beaten weak teams and the 5 turnover game was not impressive. Add losing Staley and Witherspoon and I can understand a "show me" opinion. But seeing how it plays out is going to be very fun to watch.
    Sep 30, 2019 at 12:57 PM
  • Pasodoc9er
    Great piece, Don, and you got it on the button. You put a stake in the heart of these big bad monsters coming up, and for those who missed it, Tampa had one heckuva twosome in Suh and his bud. They were terrors and we still beat them. Likewise, Pitts had their standard hit hard and late and often on QB, and still we beat them...with 5 T.O.s no less. Bill Parcells, if he read the stat sheet, would say no way the 9ers could win a game with 5 T.Os. But we did. And that says something we haven't seen in 20 yrs here...this team is for ...well Team 9ers. No divas, no smarty pants, just tough guys with guts who give their all. The addition of Nicky B, Dee, Kwon, was a knockout. But now...now we got talent to go with our super OC, who is best in the business. Additions of Deebo and Hurd (tho not played yet) were outstanding. May not have a #1 but we got a bunch of guys who can catch the ball...in traffic, up high (kittle) or even bad throws. Our TEs and WRs are finally clicking. The OL obviously got glued together last yr, a learning yr, and this yr...man are they ever a complete turnaround, altho we miss Joe S. Skule didn't do bad, however.
    Sep 27, 2019 at 2:20 PM
  • BW
    IMO the 49ers are relishing the underdog role. The more everyone talks, the more fuel to the fire! PFF currently has Bosa the no. 1 ranked pass rusher in the NFL, and he's still brand spanking new and playing injured. Garopollo still has not played a full season's worth of games. People forget that HOF QB Steve Young was 5-5 in his first season as the starter in SF. It's going to be fun watching all of the humble pie being passed around when the 49ers are in the playoffs!
    Sep 27, 2019 at 11:08 AM
  • NinerTy
    The talking heads have to have SOMETHING to talk about! AND, in order to look viable in this arena, they must line up with has been true historically: the Niners have been losers. OK. But, let's look at the past losing seasons. In a GOOD number of games, the Niners shot themselves in the foot and lost by less than a FIELD GOAL!! The defense was putting serious heat on teams, where all that was needed for victory were either yards or a stop. And let's not talk about the injuries. OK, let's talk about the injuries! They were very limiting to both our offense and defense. But, no one cares! So, when we play teams who may have their star players injured (i.e.. Gurley) I HOPE no one starts to bring up an excuse for their L. Our team is seasoned, the defense is playing very well. The offense will come along, and when it does, I don't think I want to hear from Clark, "Way past his Primetime", or anyone else who feels they are some type of evaluator. Sit back and enjoy the rebirth of the San Francisco 49ers!!!
    Sep 27, 2019 at 8:23 AM
  • dennis hart
    When you have been beaten up for the past (7) years, thanks to Trent Ballke... we now have overcome those obstacles and are finally winning games, and all the armchair experts do not want the 49ers to win, period, Well, that's too bad. Get ready for some football from the 49ers. We do our talking on the football field.
    Sep 27, 2019 at 6:20 AM
  • Rick Reulecke
    Very nicely written article!
    Sep 27, 2019 at 12:30 AM
    Seriously, who cares what Ryan Clark thinks??? He was an afterthought on his own team. Who cares what Deion "Past His Primetime" thinks??? Keep talking. You look dumber by the week. I love it, it's just adding fuel to the fire.
    Sep 26, 2019 at 11:03 PM
  • Donna
    Well written and interesting. Totally agree with everything you said.
    Sep 26, 2019 at 9:22 PM

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