Injured 49ers May Have Dug a Hole They Can't Climb out Of

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 5, 2020

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) fumbles the ball as he runs from Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc, bottom, which was recovered by defensive tackle Malik Jackson (97), during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers look like they're well on their way to becoming yet another victim of the dreaded Super Bowl hangover. Sunday's 25-20 loss to what looked like a hapless Philadelphia Eagles squad entering the contest may have sealed the 49ers' fate alongside the rash of injuries their roster has already endured. 

At 2-2, the 49ers are already two games behind the undefeated Seattle Seahawks, who are led by the early favorite to win league MVP, Russell Wilson. Kyle Shanahan's squad is down to its third-string quarterback due to Jimmy Garoppolo's high ankle sprain and Nick Mullens' fall from grace and subsequent benching in favor of C.J. Beathard. 

Considering what the 49ers already experienced, it's not surprising the bottom started to fall out of their season. Currently, 11 players are counted among San Francisco's injured reserve. They're not small losses the squad can easily overcome, either.

Defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas are out for the season. Dee Ford's status remains up in the air due to neck and back maladies. Cornerback Richard Sherman, tight end Jordan Reed and running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman are all nursing injuries. All seven are critical components to the team's approach on both sides of the ball. 

Even their replacements are getting dinged. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah suffered a biceps tear and will be out for the season, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Cornerback Jason Verrett suffered a hand injury against the Eagles, per The Athletic's Matt Barrows. Nickel corner K'Waun Williams tweaked his knee as well, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch

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Those mentioned don't include others ruled out for Sunday's contest without being on injured reserve. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw and cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon weren't cleared to participate.  

No team can take this type of beating and hold up under scrutiny no matter how deep the lineup seemed to be entering the season. 

Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

Last season's Super Bowl appearance came on the strength of a squad capable of coming at opponents in waves, whether through an overwhelming ground-and-pound attack or the game's best defensive front. Shanahan remains the best offensive play-caller in the business, but he can only do so much to hide deficiencies. 

Mullens looked like a deer in headlights against the Eagles after torching the New York Giants for 343 yards a week ago. The head coach/offensive coordinator tried to game-plan around San Francisco's problems by getting his quarterback on the move and creating some space for both him and his targets. Poor throws, miscommunication and mental mistakes sprinkled throughout the offense led to subpar execution. 

"We had plenty of opportunities. And I really just didn't execute," the quarterback told reporters after the contest. "I'm feeling pretty black and white right now. I just didn't execute."

Mullens turned the ball over three times, but it wasn't entirely his fault. Yes, his skill set limited what the offense could do. San Francisco struggled to extend plays and push the ball downfield and outside the numbers. 

Even so, the 49ers didn't play well along their offensive front, and the wide receivers weren't always on the same page with their signal-caller. The front five allowed five sacks and 15 total quarterback hits. It looked far crisper when Beathard took over and decisively dinked and dunked his way down the field with the Eagles trying to milk a lead. 

Even Jerick McKinnon, who played well with 97 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, didn't look all that explosive. He certainly lacked the quickness normally seen from a starting 49ers running back.

It's not all McKinnon's fault by any means. San Francisco's entire running game is struggling at the moment. The backfield has averaged a measly 2.7 yards per carry during the last two contests, as Kyle Madson of USA Today's Niners Wire noted

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

If not for all-world tight end George Kittle, the 49ers wouldn't have had anyone on the field capable of consistently threatening the Eagles defense. Kittle caught 15 passes (on 15 targets, not including a dropped two-point-conversion attempt) for a staggering 183 yards and a touchdown. As good as he is, though, the 49ers can't endure with such a disproportionate approach to the passing game. 

"We definitely didn't play well today, not to take anything away from Philly or anything but just from an execution standpoint ... just didn't like the rhythm of our whole team today," Shanahan told reporters. "We'll have to go back to the drawing board tomorrow."

A new approach designed on the ol' drawing board probably won't help. Instead, improved health is the only thing that can potentially save the 49ers season. 

As of now, San Francisco's coaching staff isn't sure when Garoppolo will return to the lineup. Shanahan said he's "hopeful" his quarterback will be available for practice by Wednesday, but it's certainly not a given. Even if Garoppolo returns, he likely won't be 100 percent with his mobility limited by an ongoing ankle issue. 

Like Garoppolo, the 49ers can start working wide receiver Deebo Samuel into more of a rhythm. He dressed for Sunday's contest and caught three passes for 35 yards. However, the staff clearly had the receiver on a snap count, and he'll be brought along slowly after foot surgery. 

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Others mentioned will eventually return, as well. But San Francisco's upcoming schedule is brutal. Even with a full allotment of players, the 49ers face a daunting path that appears nearly impossible to navigate in the coming months and will likely force all hopes of a postseason return to fade. 

Once Shanahan's squad gets past the Miami Dolphins next week, which is no gimme depending on which version of Brian Flores' team shows up to play, San Francisco must face the Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints before a Week 11 bye. By then, the season could be over because those opponents currently feature a combined 14-4 record. 

The 49ers will find out quickly how good they really are during that five-game stretch.

Based on what everyone has seen through the first quarter of play and the number of injuries San Francisco continues to deal with, the odds are far more likely the team will have a losing record going into the final leg of the 2020 campaign. By then, it'll be far too late, especially with the Rams and Buffalo Bills lurking on the other side of the bye. 

At full strength, San Francisco had what it took to try defending its NFC crown. Right now, the 49ers are nothing but a hollow representation of last season's powerhouse. 

"The mood in the locker room, it sucks. ... Losing sucks," Kittle told reporters. "We have high goals and we want to go back to the Super Bowl. When you go out there and play like that, there's not really any chance."

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.