How COVID-19 Will Affect the 49ers

Gilbert Brink
Jul 22, 2020 at 9:56 AM

We need football, badly.

Americans turn to entertainment to escape the troubled realities of their daily lives. Whether it be the job you hate, the relationship you're stuck in or the general emptiness of your bank account, we collectively turn to entertainment as a way to escape unpleasant situations and engross ourselves with ones that bring us a much needed distraction. In 2020, now more than ever, we, as a nation, need that beautiful distraction known as the National Football League. Four of the five most watched television programs in the US last year were NFL games. We need football, badly.

Shortly after 49ers fans suffered a heart-wrenching loss in Super Bowl 54, the country would be hit with the tidal wave that is COVID-19. In March 2020, the country shut down. We became involuntary home school teachers, digital conference professionals and junior varsity infectious disease experts. We masked up, we stayed away and we hoped for the brighter days to come later in the year when we could sit back, crack a beer and watch America's game every Sunday. Yet, here we are, some four months later and currently doing worse than we were in March, a time in which all sports events ceased to function immediately, causing the longest sports hiatus in many of our lifetimes.

Socially, we have adjusted. Though COVID-19 runs rampant through many of our communities across the country, Major League Baseball is set to begin its season tomorrow and the NBA will resume its season in early August. Both of these leagues will serve as a test-run for the NFL to observe how a pro sports league can operate in a country flush with an infectious disease pandemic.

NFL training camp is set to open July 28th and over the past week the NFLPA has aggressively pursued the proper protections to be in place for players safety. Players took to social media as the hashtag #WeWantToPlay became a trending topic on Twitter with notable players, including 49ers CB Richard Sherman, Seahawks QB Russel Wilson and Saints QB Drew Brees, all voicing their concerns over the safety of training camp. Since then, both sides have come to mutual agreements eliminating all pre-season games and increasing testing protocols for all players. With both sides seemingly locked in, for now, training camp will begin next week and the 49ers will embark on their "Legendary Revenge Tour." Though the NFL season may start, the coronavirus won't stop and it will surely have a large effect on the 49ers and the NFL.

Goodbye Pre-Season

The pre-season is generally a dull experience. After the first week, the thirst to see live football has been quenched and what remains are three more weeks of unnecessary games filled with injury concerns. There has been a recent trend for significant players to simply sit out the pre-season. In 2019 the majority of the LA Rams starters did not play a single snap in August. A reluctance to place your premium players at risk in a scrimmage-on-steroids makes sense. This year, nobody will have to make that decision because the NFL has decided to entirely scrap the pre-season.

Eliminating the pre-season will come to the benefit of some 49ers, and to the detriment of others. Generally, one can imagine that there will be fewer injuries to the team as a whole. In June the 49ers had two starters go down with injuries that will extend into the fall: WR Deebo Samuel and KR Richie James Jr. The lack of a pre-season will not hinder these players, but it will make it difficult for the 49ers to gauge the ability of their replacements without having live in-game footage to do so.

Both Samuel and James Jr. are receivers, and that unit is the one that would stand to benefit the most from pre-season games. The 49ers have a few players coming off season-ending injuries (Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd), an intriguing rookie class (Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings) and a former Shanahan disciple in speedster Travis Benjamin. Those are five receivers who could have really used the opportunity of an opposing defense to display their skills against.

Instead of live action, the 49ers will have to do their best evaluating talent simply off of the training camp practices. Even those practices, as important as they are, will be padless practices for the first 20 days. Shanahan and Lynch will be busy this August.

No Fans, No Problem?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the 49ers probably will not have any fans in the stands this season. This might not be too strange for the 49ers, as fans just seemed to find their way into Levi's Stadium this past season. All jokes aside, the concept of playing games in empty stadiums will be strange to say the least. Offenses will surely benefit from the silence, while questions surround how the lack of energy will affect the entire roster.

Attending an NFL game in-person is an exhilarating experience. If you have not done so yet, once this national nightmare is over, make it a priority to grab a few friends and make your way to your local NFL stadium. A raucous home crowd can rattle the opponent and inspire the host, making a stadium a veritable nightmare for teams to visit. For 49ers fans, that nightmare has been CenturyLink field in Seattle for the past decade. The 49ers slayed that demon last December to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC. In 2020, it should be much easier this time around with no 12s in the seats.

One aspect of the empty arena that's overlooked is the potential loss of revenue. Owners stand to lose a seismic amount of money if there are no fans in the stands. One thing about owners that is certain: they want every dollar possible. If ownership looks to recoup some of their losses of 2020 by slashing the salary cap of 2021 the 49ers may have a big problem on their hands. The fingerprints of this concept can already be seen throughout the league as many teams have been hesitant to extend current players worthy of new deals.

Enter 49ers TE George Kittle. The most dominant tight end in football is due a new contract but both the 49ers and Kittle have been unable to strike a deal. If the salary cap is reduced greatly in 2021 it will be difficult to sign Kittle to the large, long-term deal that he rightfully deserves. 49ers fans should hope the owners don't seek to re-coup lost money from 2020, and do right by the players. If so, the 49ers should be able to do right by George Kittle.

Familiarity > Fresh Faces

Fresh faces often bring hope and excitement to an NFL franchise. Whether it be new players or a new coach, new faces inspire a fanbase to believe that its fortunes could turn around. In a typical NFL season, this is a logical approach. During a pandemic-stricken season, having newcomers at key positions will be a death knell to many franchises.

Sorry Cincinatti QB Joe Burrow and Giants head coach Joe Judge; players and coaches like yourselves are in a horrible position to succeed in 2020. Today is July 22nd, there not been a single OTA, mini-camp or in-person team meeting held so far across the entire NFL. The first time these men gather with their teams will be next week, and they will be so far behind teams with long-standing starters and foundational coaches on the sideline.

The San Francisco 49ers are in a very good place in this regard. Kyle Shanahan is heading into his 4th season as head coach and the 49ers return 20 of 22 starters to the field. The only starters missing from the 2019 NFC champion are retired LT Joe Staley and recently traded DT DeForest Buckner. Replacing these two players will not be easy. But when GM John Lynch traded for LT Trent Williams the 49ers hit the jackpot. Not only is he a splendid talent, Kyle Shanahan coached Williams early in his career with the Washington football franchise.

So much of the 49ers offense relies on the schemes of Kyle Shanahan, having veterans like QB Jimmy Garoppolo, WR Kendrick Bourne and RT Mike McGlinchey leading the way is a legitimate advantage on offense. On the defensive side of the ball, they return 11 of 12 starters, with DT Javon Kinlaw replacing DT DeForest Buckner. It's tough to replace a talent like Buckner, but Kinlaw's job will be relatively simple: see ball, get ball. The 49ers are among the few teams that gain a great advantage over the rest of the league due to the consistency of their roster and coaching staff.

It won't be the same, it may not even happen to completion, but the 49ers "Legendary Revenge Tour" will kick off on July 28th 2020. In a season in which the 49ers look to return to the Super Bowl, uncertainty will swirl around all 32 teams. One thing is for certain: we all just want to see them play the game we love so much. Stay safe, stay smart and please stay on the field this fall.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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