Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


Doubting the 49ers: And the beat goes on

Don Atkinson
Oct 9, 2019 at 5:46 PM2


Brace yourselves, 49ers faithful. As the team continues to rack up wins, the fan-based bandwagon activity is, predictably, starting up. There's been recent sightings of lightly worn Vernon Davis and Alex Smith jerseys in markets outside the Bay area. If the Rams fall to the 49ers this Sunday, expect Amazon sales of Niners apparel to soar.

But while the fringe fans are starting to come alive, many of the NFL's insiders continue to look at the 49ers as if they were a cheap Rolex knockoff: flashy on the outside but ready to quit telling the correct time at any minute. And those critics are digging in.

In the Tuesday episode of ESPN's First Take, commentator Stephen A. Smith continued to downplay what the 49ers have done so far this season, saying "I'll give the 49ers props where it's due, but just because [they're] off to a 4-0 start… there's still three quarters of the season to go." Never one to let reality get in the way of a good argument, Smith added, "I didn't think [the 49ers] were going to be better than the Rams, [or] Seattle, and I'm going to hold on to that all season long, until I have no choice but to think otherwise."

Granted, most of what comes from Smith daily is shaped as a contradictory opinion. But it's still indicative of how the 49ers are viewed by much of the NFL these days. The team is destined, it seems, to be underestimated by opponents and analysts alike. And maybe that's a good thing.

After Monday night's 31-3 pummeling at the hands of the 49ers, Cleveland Browns' head coach Freddie Kitchens blamed the loss on self-destruction, telling reporters, "We shot ourselves in the foot too many times." Not to argue with a coach trying to digest his team's up-and-down play, but Kitchens' conclusion seems off base.

When shopping for answers to explain defeat, many head coaches love to spend time in the self-inflicted wound department, mostly because it's an easier pill to swallow than the alternative: that you got man-handled by a much better team. But that's exactly what happened in Santa Clara on Monday in front of a national audience.

Get one thing straight: Despite what the media says, the Cleveland Browns are not a punching bag in the NFL. They just came off an impressive drubbing of the AFC North Division-leading Baltimore Ravens, and they very nearly beat the Rams in Los Angeles the week before. They have huge offensive weapons in Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry and Nick Chubb. They have Pro-Bowl level pass rushers in Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon.

Yet none of these players had a significant effect on the outcome of the game.

What happened Monday night was not the product of self-harm. It was one team getting wholly dominated by another on both sides of the ball. And that's the real story Freddie Kitchens should have been telling.

But many in the NFL, most especially commentators like Smith, want to find a reason other than the obvious. The 49ers shouldn't be in first place. They shouldn't be undefeated. And they shouldn't be playing like they spent the off-season polishing the Lombardi trophy. And yet they are.

There are many takeaways from this last game, and most have been smartly identified right here on the 49ersWebzone. But some points deserve revisiting, and its worthy to shed light, rather than throw shade, on the undeniable elements of the 49ers rise in 2019.

Varying statistics aside, the 49ers have the best defensive line in the NFL and have linebackers and defensive backs who are playing very nearly to that level. Defensive end Nick Bosa steamrolled the Browns' offensive line Monday night, and yet he's just one of a host of 49ers defensive lineman and linebackers who are destroying opposing offenses this season. And now veteran cornerback Richard Sherman has his unit playing smart, aggressive ball as well.

Though overshadowed by the performance of the defensive unit, the 49ers' offense still seems back-breaking for opposing teams. It has the NFL's fastest running back in Matt Breida, and it may have the best group of running backs overall as well. Breida and Raheem Mostert have both been slashing through defenses that often look to be standing still. Tevin Coleman is back in the mix now and seems destined to humiliate some defenses coming up. If there's an equally talented group of three, they are playing somewhere in an alternate universe.

The downplaying of the 49ers by the media and the NFL's insider mob feeds the perception of the team as over-rated and under-tested. And this 49ers team is absolutely, unequivocally thriving on playing under that misperception. If any team ever relished being viewed as the underdog, it's this team.

Of course, no one should be talking about the playoffs yet, let alone a division or conference title, or Super Bowl win. In that one aspect, Stephen A. Smith is correct: the NFL is not even one third the way through its season. And, the football gods don't like bravado. They have a way of inflicting momentum-killing events onto teams that get overly confident and look too far down the road.

But that's not the 49ers going into Week 6 at Los Angeles. Not these 49ers. This team remains respectful of its opponents, fully prepares for one game at a time, and plays not with wild abandon, but rather with rabid and deadly precision. These 49ers play each snap as if they know they are going to win. And that is starting to make the rest of the NFL seriously soak through its under armor.

And while the rest of the NFL continues to scoff defiantly at the very idea of a 49ers team that might well carve through the second and third segments of its schedule with the same sharpened steel it has used to slice to a 4-0 record, the Los Angeles Rams have the more pressing task of finding a way to stop the opportunistic 49ers offense, while fending off a 49ers defense that is becoming more smothering with every game.

To the Rams' advantage, the 49ers are suffering from some key injuries, and with starting tackle Mike McGlinchey and fullback Kyle Juszczyk now joining Pro-Bowl tackle Joe Staley on the sidelines, springing Breida, Coleman and Mostert loose, and protecting Garoppolo in the pocket, become much tougher tasks for the reserve-heavy offensive line. That being the case, this Sunday's matchup in Los Angeles may be the Rams' best chance of bringing San Francisco's winning streak to an end.

Still, it is the NFL, and if the league is anything, it's unpredictable. And certainly nothing would be more unpredictable, at least in the eyes those roaming the hallways of ESPN headquarters, than an upstart 49er team taking down the defending NFC Champions in their own house.

To the Rams, we can offer wishes of better luck than that experienced by the Bucs, Bengals, Steelers, and now, Browns. They very well may need it. And to the rest of the teams that await ahead, pondering whether the 49ers are really all that special, let me just offer up what the 49ers coaches and players themselves in their careful humility won't:

Yeah, they really are.
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.


2 Comments

  • Marianne Farnow
    The Niners are not only going to defeat the Rams, but they will SWEEP the Rams. Like everyone else, the Rams will not concern themselves with the Niners, and they will overlook them. No one realizes the HUGE defensive improvement. Bosa will be overlooked. The game won't be close. Niners, 31 - 17.
    Oct 10, 2019 at 6:56 PM
    0
  • Ed
    This article sums up my feelings in a nutshell.
    Oct 9, 2019 at 10:29 PM
    0

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