It’s safe to say the San Francisco 49ers haven’t had the most inspiring of preseasons. The 49ers followed up a 23-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens with a 34-0 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Broncos in the preseason opener of their brand new stadium. The minus-54-point differential is the worst in the NFL at this point in the year. That’s less than encouraging.
Most people realize by now, of course, that winning or losing in the preseason doesn’t particularly matter. The sheer amount of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, backs that up. But surely it’s not good to be beaten so soundly, even if the game doesn’t count, right?
To try to answer that question, I went back and looked at the point differential for every 49ers preseason since 2000, and then compared it to their point differential in the regular season. In 2000 and 2002, the 49ers played five preseason games, so I prorated them to four games to keep them consistent. In the below chart, blue dots are teams coached by Jim Harbaugh, red dots are Mike Singletary, green dots are Mike Nolan, purple dots are Dennis Erickson and orange dots are Steve Mariucci:
The data points are all over the place and have almost nothing to do with the actual performance in the preseason. There is a trend upwards, yes, but there are far more outliers than points that fit the data.
Sometimes, the 49ers do well in preseason and then back that up with a good regular season. In both of the past two years, the 49ers did fantastic in preseason, with point differentials of plus-37 and plus-53. They, of course, turned those into a Super Bowl performance and an NFC Championship appearance. It’s natural, then, to be worried that this year has gone so poorly—under Jim Harbaugh, preseason has been very important, right?
Not so much. In 2011, the 49ers had a minus-27-point differential, which is the third-worst in the sample. That season, they put up a regular-season point differential of plus-151, their best numbers since the dynasty era of the mid-90s. Similarly, Steve Mariucci’s 2001 club stumbled to a 1-3 record in the preseason and then went on to a 12-4 regular season and a wild-card appearance.
Just as teams can be good regardless of their preseason performance, they can stink as well. Dennis Erickson’s 2004 club was horrible both in preseason (minus-39-point differential) and the regular season (minus-193-point differential). The very next season, however, the 49ers hit a positive point differential of plus-two; they then proceeded to go 2-14 and have arguably the worst season in franchise history.
But perhaps only 14 seasons is a small sample size—maybe the 49ers have just been a bizarre team for years, not fitting in with historic trends. How did the entire NFL do in 2013, comparing their preseason numbers to their regular-season performance?
There are still plenty of outliers here. Seattle and Washington both went 4-0 in the preseason and had opposite fates in the regular season. Denver and Jacksonville combined for a minus-84-point differential in the preseason and likewise went opposite directions.
However, the grouping is much more compact in general, and the trend is much clearer. While this doesn’t tell us much for any individual team, it does at least heavily imply that there is a solid relationship in general between the preseason and regular season in terms of points.
So, we’re back to the original question—do the 49ers have a legitimate reason to be worried about their 2014 situation? There’s been almost no correlation between preseason results and regular-season success in the Jim Harbaugh era—is there a reason they buck the trend, or has it just been random luck?
I hypothesize that there is, in fact, a very real reason why the 49ers’ preseason scores matter even less than that of most teams, and that’s because Jim Harbaugh doesn’t like using his starters in meaningless games.
Take this recent game against Denver, for instance. Using the projected starters provided by Ourlads and the snap counts provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), we can compare the philosophies of Harbaugh and Broncos coach John Fox.
|San Francisco and Denver's Use of Starters|
|Ourlads; Pro Football Focus|
Remember also that the 49ers’ “projected starters” include Quinton Dial and Michael Wilhoite rather than Ian Williams and NaVorro Bowman. That’s 92 snaps given to “starters” who are really just filling in until injured players get back. What we’re seeing with the 49ers, more so than most teams, is the backups playing against starters.
This doesn’t just hold for one game, either—this has been a common trend for Harbaugh’s 49ers. Colin Kaepernick had only 23 attempts in the entire preseason last year, less than every other starting quarterback except Josh Freeman and Robert Griffin III. Alex Smith only had 19 attempts in 2012 as well, with the high-water mark being 36 attempts for Smith in 2011.
So, even more than most teams, the 49ers are relying on backup players to perform in the preseason games. It’s not shocking, then, that they would be outplayed by the opposing team’s starters. Does that mean there’s no cause for concern? Of course not; it looks like the 49ers do not have a solid backup option at quarterback, for example, and the backup defensive line has not been able to get any push against opposing offenses. These are issues, certainly, but they have less impact on the team than there would be if, say, Colin Kaepernick was struggling.
I’d be more concerned about Peyton Manning driving down the field if the 49ers weren’t without Tramaine Brock, Chris Cook, Ray McDonald, Justin Smith, Ian Williams and Patrick Willis, all of whom should be playing when the 49ers take on the Broncos for real. I’d be more concerned about scoring zero points if Kaepernick hadn’t come within inches of hitting Brandon Lloyd on a deep touchdown pass.
So, looping back one more time to the original point: Should you, as a 49ers fan, be concerned about their performance in the preseason?
Yes, you should be worried about the vaunted depth on the roster. You should be fretting about who will take snaps behind center if Colin Kaepernick goes down. You should be worrying about Antoine Bethea’s concussion, though he tweeted that he was doing well after the game.
You should be worrying about the two missed field goals by Phil Dawson, and about Dontae Johnson getting burned by Cody Latimer. You should be worried that, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com, Jim Harbaugh said the 49ers were “definitely off” and need to tighten things down.
You should not be worried that the 49ers aren’t going to be a playoff-contending team in 2014 based on the performance of backups. You should not be worried about the offense failing to score points, considering the first-team offense has consistently moved the ball this preseason. You should not worry about the defense looking poor at the beginning of the games, considering how many starters are resting.
Worry about depth, but don’t panic is the mantra at this point. The 49ers might be providing some hard-to-watch football right now, but these are the understudies. When the stars come out to play against Dallas in Week 1, you should see an entirely different football team.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.