Preseason games are supposed to be perfunctory, forgettable affairs. They’re dress rehearsals — glorified practices — where the score doesn’t matter.
The main goal of these contests is to execute the boiled-down game plan effectively and get out without any injuries.
The 49ers did neither Thursday.
Yes, there were some positive moments from rookies Richie James and Jullian Taylor, and yes, Reuben Foster and DeForest Buckner both had big defensive plays in the first quarter, but all-in-all, the 24-21 win over Dallas was a no-good, very bad day that highlighted the 49ers’ biggest issue going into the 2018 season: a lack of depth.
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In the first quarter alone, four important 49ers — three starters and a key backup — went down with injuries. Starting linebacker Malcolm Smith left the game with a hamstring issue, tight end George Kittle left with a shoulder injury, Solomon Thomas took a blow to the head that chased him from the contest, and then Matt Breida injured his shoulder, just for good measure.
All four players are critical to the 49ers’ chances of competing for a playoff spot in 2018, and while the injuries could be minor and the regular season doesn’t start for another month, each separate exit provded a reminder that while the 49ers are now playing with hype and expectations — for good reason, too — they are also a team in the second year of a massive rebuild.
The 49ers might have the top-end talent to compete with anyone in the NFL this year, and that’s a testament to the work coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have done since arriving after the 2016 season.
Teams like the Browns, the Jets and the Bears seem to be in a constant states of rebuild, but the 49ers’ braintrust was able to take a roster that was a byproduct of compound mismanagement and turn that trash-day heap into a team that could well enter the 2018 season in a position to compete for a playoff spot in 18 months. That isn’t easy and any possible success the 49ers have this season shouldn’t be taken for granted. But football is a game of attrition, and while the Niners have a solid starting lineup, as far as I know, there’s never been an NFL team that’s gone the entire season with the exact same starting 22.
Good teams have solid starters. But great teams have solid backups, too.
The 49ers might be part of the former category, but Thursday’s preseason opener showed that this roster — while certainly deeper than last year’s team — isn’t deep enough to make the 49ers great.
Not yet, at least. (Though the fourth string looked great against other fourth-string players…)
Shanahan and Lynch have this franchise on the right track — there’s no doubt about that — but the meaningul parts of Thursday’s game (again, ignore the fourth quarter game between the future CFL players) were dreary callbacks to October 2017, when the 49ers were winless and all the talk in Santa Clara was about what quarterback the team would take with their high first-round draft pick.
When Thomas went down, Cassius Marsh entered the game at defensive end, opposite Taylor, the seventh-round rookie who played 15 games in college but started Thursday’s game because of an injury to Pleasant Grove High product Arik Armstead.
For a pass rush that is already uninspiring with Thomas and Armstead healthy, the idea of starting Marsh and Taylor in a regular season game should make Niners’ fans quiver — but that’s the reality of the team’s situation.
Kittle going down highlighted the lack of depth at the tight end position, too. Yes, the Niners still had Garrett Celek, but the promoted third-string was Cole Hikutini, also of Pleasant Grove and a member of last year’s practice squad who dressed for three games and had two catches. He’s a nice enough player — he’s probably going to make the 53-man roster — but he’s not striking fear into the hearts of opposing defensive coordinators now, is he?
In the same vein, Smith’s injury Thursday’s brought Elijah Lee, a practice squad player last year with the Vikings, onto the field. If he sees serious playing time in the regular season, you can bet that opposing offensive coordinators are going to crumple up their original game plans and go to a new scheme that attacks him on every play.
We won’t even bother to mention Beathard’s day. So much for all those positive reports out of training camp. Shanahan might want to wrap Garoppolo in bubble wrap when the Niners travel to Houston next week to scrimmage and play a preseason game against the Texans.
Yes, it’s just the first game of the preseason — there’s a long way to go between Thursday’s game and the start of the regular season. And perhaps some of these players would rise to the occasion if they needed to see serious snaps in a regular-season game — after all, Taylor looked tremendous on Thursday. Playing time in August can help with that.
But while the Niners’ brass is encouraged by the improvement at the bottom part of the team’s roster and rightfully confident in their coaching ability, it’s evident that this team, from Garroppolo to the final practice squad player, is still a work in progress.
I don’t have any doubt that Shanahan and Lynch will get the Niners to the point where they have a roster as robust as any in the league, but at the start of year two, it’s evident that they’re not there yet.
And while that’s not a problem right now, but it absolutely could be in the regular season.