Sunday at Levi's Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers began a difficult task.
The list of teams that have made it back to the Super Bowl after losing it the preceding year is not a long one. The list of teams that have shaken off that loss to win the subsequent Super Bowl is even shorter.
San Francisco's quest to buck those historical trends got off to a shaky start. After building an early lead, the 49ers fell to the Arizona Cardinals, 24-20, and that loss exposed some problem areas that could potentially keep them from making another deep playoff run in 2020.
Things started off well enough. When running back Raheem Mostert took a short pass and blazed 76 yards for a score in the first quarter, the 49ers were up 10-0, and it looked like the team might cruise to victory.
But San Francisco would score just one more touchdown the rest of the way in an offensive performance that was more than a little disconcerting.
In last year's march to the Super Bowl, the 49ers led the NFC in rushing, averaging 144.1 yards per game. San Francisco came up short of that mark Sunday against the Cardinals, though not by a ton. The team's 123 yards and 4.9 yards per carry appear respectable enough.
But San Francisco's running back trio of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon was less than impressive against a Cardinals run defense that was 24th in the NFL a year ago. Those three backs combined to post 22 carries for 98 yards—not terrible, but also not what the 49ers are accustomed to on the ground. especially in a closely contested game.
San Francisco's inconsistent run game in Week 1 was exemplified by one of the game's biggest plays. Early in the second quarter, with the Niners leading 10-7, the team faced a 4th-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line. With a powerful offensive line and a Pro Bowl fullback, it was a situation that was money for San Francisco last year.
It wasn't on Sunday. Mostert was cut down short of the goal line, and the 49ers were turned away.
With the run game operating at less than peak efficiency, additional pressure was placed on the 49ers' passing attack. And at first glance, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn't have a terrible game. The seventh-year veteran threw for 259 yards and two scores without an interception and posted a 103.0 passer rating.
But almost half of Garoppolo's passing yards came on that long catch-and-run by Mostert and a 41-yard catch by fullback Kyle Juszczyk. He completed just 57.6 percent of his 33 pass attempts—a significant factor in San Francisco converting just two of 11 third-down attempts.
There were, to be fair, some circumstances working against Garoppolo in this game. He didn't have second-year receiver Deebo Samuel or rookie Brandon Aiyuk. Star tight end George Kittle was sidelined briefly by a leg injury. And per 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, head coach Kyle Shanahan took his share of the blame for the offense's performance.
"[Garoppolo] had some good plays in there," he said. "... He's gotta play better. We gotta play better on offense, and that starts with me."
Don't worry Kyle. You were already up next.
Shanahan has long been hailed as one of the game's most innovative play-callers. But for the second time in as many games, his play-calling was questionable at times, especially in the second half. Yes, the run game wasn't great Sunday, but abandoning it entirely at the end of the deciding drive was puzzling given the team's injuries at receiver.
After Kittle returned to the field early in the second half, he wasn't targeted for the rest of the game. Not once.
That's more than puzzling.
With the offense sputtering against the NFL's worst defense last year, the NFC's best defense in 2019 was left with little room for mistakes. But the Niners didn't turn in an error-free performance on that side of the ball, either. Far from it.
The 49ers actually surrendered more yards defensively (404) than the Cardinals gave up on average a season ago (402). Arizona piled up 11 more first downs than San Francisco, converted half its third-down tries and held the ball about three minutes longer than the 49ers.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray consistently gashed the 49ers on scrambles, racking up a team-high 91 yards on the ground. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins absolutely destroyed Niners cornerback Emmanuel Moseley in coverage, hauling in 14 of 16 targets for 151 yards.
Just as on offense, the coaching staff deserves blame, as well. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh seemingly made little effort to adjust to what the Cardinals were doing. He didn't get consistent safety help. No spy was put on Murray.
The 49ers just kept doing the same thing over and over despite the fact that it wasn't working. And as a result, they got beat.
This isn't necessarily meant to be a pressing of the proverbial panic button. The returns of Samuel and Aiyuk will help the passing game. The defense remains one of the most talented in the NFL. One would think that Shanahan and Saleh will learn from any missteps they took in this loss, and it's not exactly stunning to see a team play a sloppy game after an offseason that included zero preseason outings.
However, the 49ers also don't have a lot of margin for error. Not in 2020. The NFC West could be the toughest division in the NFL this season. The 49ers are already a game back of the Cardinals and arch-rival Seattle Seahawks, who pasted the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1.
San Francisco's status as the defending NFC champion also paints a target on its back.
Fortunately, Week 2 presents a reprieve as the 49ers are on the road against a New York Jets team that might be the worst in the league, followed by another tilt in MetLife Stadium the following week against the New York Giants.
That stretch should offer the Niners a chance to allay the concerns that became evident in Week 1. To get healthier and more efficient on offense. To tighten things up on defense.
Losing the first game of the season is no reason to panic.
Given how they lost it, though? That's cause for genuine concern, especially for a team looking to make a trip to Tampa in February.