Is getting healthy enough to make the 49ers contenders?

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There’s nothing quite as gripping as a post-apocalyptic adventure like ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘The Road’, ‘Y: The Last Man’ or the 2021 San Francisco 49ers.

The 49ers reached the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, but experienced an extinction-level catastrophe in 2020. They lost to Pro Bowl pass rushers Dee Ford (neck, back) for 15 games and Nick Bosa (knee) for 14. Pro cornerback Richard Sherman (calf) for 11, All-Pro tight end George Kittle (knee, foot) for eight , their top wide receiver, Deebo Samuel, (foot, hamstring, Covid-19) for nine, plus several other starters on either side of the ball for big stretches of the year.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) also missed 10 games; the fact that he doesn’t receive a top bill on their injury call is telling on several levels.

According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers lost the equivalent of 166.6 games to starters to injury, the second-highest total for an NFL team in the past 20 years. That’s like losing 10 starters – almost half of a 22-man offensive and defensive lineup – for an entire season. Covid-related absences increased the number of “injuries” in the league last year, but the 49ers still led the NFL with more than 30 games in players unavailable for health reasons. The team’s few survivors stumbled to a 6-10 finish.

A year later, nearly all of the 49ers’ irreplaceable stars are healthy and back on the field, as is Garoppolo. The 49ers have started the 2021 season with narrow but still convincing victories over the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles. Samuel leads the NFL with 282 receiving yards. Bosa registered three bags. Kittle and Ford are playing at a high level again. And Garoppolo has resumed his role as the one who gets behind the wheel of the self-driving car and makes sure nothing breaks.

The 49ers are designed to be more disaster-proof than most teams, which made their 2020 collapse all the more frustrating. Shanahan’s offense emphasizes short passes to receivers who specialize in racing or rumbling for big post-catch gains; hence Garoppolo’s reputation as more of a receptionist than a game manager. Running backs are also replaceable sprockets in Shanahan’s machine. The 49ers could have operated effectively last season without a combination of Garoppolo, Kittle, Samuel, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who was a first round pick in 2020, and top running backs Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert. In several games last season, including their 34-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers (this week’s opponent), they were without all those players.

Likewise, the 49ers’ defense line for 2020 was slated to include five previous first-lap picks, including Bosa and Ford: four starters and a spare tire in the event of a flat tire. But Arik Armstead was the only 49ers lineman to start all 16 games. As a result, the team’s pocket total dropped from 48 in 2019 to 30 last year. Under the circumstances, six wins was a remarkable achievement for Shanahan and his staff.

Not all of the key figures from the 2019 Super Bowl campaign returned this year. The experience of Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh desperately assembling a semi-functional roster from rookies and scraps overwhelmingly qualified him for the job as head coach of the Jets. Sherman was not re-signed after last season; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are reportedly interested in adding him for their Super Bowl victory round.

The 49ers also haven’t completely avoided injuries so far in 2021, though it’s naive to think any football team could. Cornerback Jason Verrett, who missed nearly all seasons from 2016 through 2019 with a string of injuries, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 1. Strangely, Verrett was one of the team’s healthiest players last year. Mostert also lost for the season, but San Francisco supplied reinforcements like rookie Elijah Mitchell, who rushed over 100 yards in the season opener.

Speaking of reinforcements, the 49ers traded in the draft this spring to select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the third overall pick. Lance’s arrival suggested that Shanahan was looking for more than just button management for the position, but also signaled the organization’s confidence that the team would get better simply by getting healthier. That has proved true so far.

Aside from a few changes, the 49ers are playing well with a starting lineup very similar to their 2019 Super Bowl lineup/2020 injured reserve list, while Lance has limited himself to playing gadgets.

Research from Football Outsiders suggests that there is a meaningful correlation from year to year in a team’s injury rate. That’s bad news for the 49ers, who have finished eight seasons in a row in the top half of the league in games lost to injury. The good news is that last season’s injury rate was so catastrophically high that some regression to the NFL average is almost inevitable, according to central tendency principles. Things just have to get better. If they don’t, at least the hugely talented Lance is equipped to survive a ‘Mad Max’ scenario as the 49ers sift through the rubble and try to rebuild.

Despite their early season wins, the 49ers appear to be a notch below competitors like the Buccaneers. Sunday’s Packers game will be their one and only test against a playoff-caliber opponent before the team embarks on divisional matchups in the NFC West, an unforgiving environment for a team with glaring weaknesses. Another Super Bowl run by the 49ers may have to wait until Lance is ready to replace Garoppolo and take Shanahan’s offense out of autopilot.

But post-apocalyptic fiction is more about survival than success, perseverance than triumph. The 49ers have done a great job so far in putting 2020 behind them and getting back to as close to normal as possible. That doesn’t make them a champion. But it certainly makes them recognizable.

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