Call it a hangover or bad luck, but it just doesn’t appear to be the 49ers’ year. Last season, San Francisco was one of the NFL’s most dominant teams and reached Super Bowl LIV, where it was five minutes away from capturing a championship. However, since squandering their late 10-point lead to the Chiefs, the 49ers’ misfortunes have only continued—and Sunday’s 43-17 defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins saw many of their current hardships exposed. Things could be on the precipice of getting worse for Kyle Shanahan’s squad.
The Niners’ loss to Miami highlighted all of their issues, most notably the many injuries they’ve had to navigate since the start of the season. Their standout defense from a year ago—which last season ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA—has lost several key pieces. Their offense has been just as hampered. San Francisco’s Week 2 visit to MetLife Stadium took a devastating toll, and the ripple effects are still being felt.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a sprained ankle that forced him to miss each of the past two games before Sunday, but against Miami, he simply wasn’t good. Garoppolo went 7-for-17 for 77 yards and two interceptions, directing just one scoring drive early in the second quarter (a three-play series during which he didn’t throw the ball once) before getting benched for C.J. Beathard at halftime, which Shanahan said was a precaution because of the quarterback’s ankle. Garoppolo told reporters afterward that he is still feeling the effects of his ankle sprain. “A lot of things didn’t go well for us,” Garoppolo said.
They didn’t in part because Beathard wasn’t much better, going 9-for-18 with 94 yards and one touchdown. Raheem Mostert carried the ball 11 times for 90 yards, but the Niners struggled to feed him after failing to move the ball in the first half. Miami sprinted out to a 30-7 halftime lead, and its offense controlled the clock throughout the contest to keep San Francisco from scoring more than 10 third-quarter points. In the first half, the Niners failed to convert a fourth-down attempt in addition to Garoppolo’s two picks. In the second half, they failed to convert another fourth-down try and, on their final possession of the game, fumbled the ball with just over four minutes left.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 22 of 28 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns and took advantage of the decimated Niners defense. During that Week 2 visit to New York, both defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas suffered season-ending ACL injuries. This gutted a defensive front that was already missing star defensive lineman DeForest Buckner—Pro Football Focus’s third-highest graded interior defensive lineman (90.2) entering Sunday—who was traded to the Colts in exchange for a first-round pick the Niners used to select Javon Kinlaw (who was PFF’s no. 36 interior DL, 69.7). Even Ezekiel Ansah, whom San Francisco signed after Bosa’s and Thomas’s injuries, was out Sunday against the Dolphins because of a biceps injury.
The Niners’ secondary has had to manage injuries, too. Star cornerback Richard Sherman is out nursing a calf injury and is not expected to return until at least Week 6; K’Waun Williams was placed on injured reserve because of a sprained MCL suffered in Week 4 against Philadelphia after already dealing with a hip ailment; Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring) and Emmanuel Moseley (concussion) have also missed time.
Through the first four games, San Francisco has benefited from mostly playing opponents boasting low-ranked offenses: the Cardinals (25th), Jets (28th), Giants (32nd), and Eagles (31st) each ranked at or near the bottom of Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency rankings entering Sunday. The Niners’ 25-20 loss to the Eagles revealed the dent in their armor, and despite the Dolphins not ranking much higher entering the contest (22nd), their offense aggressively exploited San Francisco’s deficiencies and then some. Fitzpatrick completed passes of 32 and 47 yards to receiver Preston Williams, a 70-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki, a 31-yard pass to running back Matt Breida, and a 22-yard touchdown to DeVante Parker. San Francisco sacked Fitzpatrick twice, but he produced a sterling 99.1 QBR.
“We haven’t been playing very good, complementary football, offensively and defensively” Beathard told reporters afterward. “Last year, our defense would step up big and we’d go down and score.”
The problem for the Niners is that their schedule is unfavorable, with matchups against the Rams (twice), the Patriots, the Seahawks, the Packers, and Bills forming their next seven games. That’s seven games against competitive teams with clear playoff aspirations and functioning offenses at this point in the season. The 49ers are currently not trending toward a similar path, and at 2-3, their playoff hopes in a competitive NFC West look shaky.
“I don’t care who you play, whether you’re healthy or hurt, it really doesn’t matter,” Shanahan told reporters. “When you play like that, that’s usually gonna be the result. There’s only one way to fix it. And it’s nothing to talk about, it’s just getting better.”
The next few weeks will determine whether or not the Niners will have any chance of bucking the trend of Super Bowl losers (not named the Patriots) struggling the following year. Bouncing back poses a tremendously difficult task, and if San Francisco does come up short, its season will ultimately be defined by the first quarter of the schedule, when the cracks were obvious before things crashed down. If that’s the case, then it just simply isn’t their year.