Are the 49ers Injuries Just Bad Luck?

You can’t really argue against the fact that injuries will have an impact on how a team performs each season, but what you can do is look at what is leading to those injuries and ask if the person in charge bears any responsibility for them.
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The 2020 season was supposed to be the “Revenge Tour” for the San Francisco 49ers. But as the team gets set to come off of its bye week, it’s safe to say that this season has done very little to atone for their failure to finish off 2019 with a win in the Super Bowl.

With only six weeks left to go, the 49ers are looking at the very real possibility of finishing with a record below .500 for the fifth time in the last six years. There are a number of reasons that this season has not gone as expected in San Francisco, with injuries being the one most often raised.

Through Kyle Shanahan’s tenure with the 49ers, the trend of losing has for the most part continued. Yes, 2019 was a terrific season that nearly culminated in winning the Lombardi trophy, but the product overall has been below average.

A big reason for the 49ers having a record of only 27-31 so far under Shanahan is the amount of injuries the team has faced. During Shanahan’s tenure, the 49ers have been besieged by injuries every year, ranking no better than tenth worst in any season so far based on the adjusted games lost metrics put together by the folks over at Football Outsiders.

You can’t really argue against the fact that injuries will have an impact on how a team performs each season, but what you can do is look at what is leading to those injuries and ask if the person in charge bears any responsibility for them.

Since Shanahan’s arrival in 2017, the 49ers practices have not involved live tackling in team drills. This could be one of the reasons that the team has faced so many injuries year after year. Put quite simply, the players bodies aren’t ready for the pounding that they will receive once the games start.

Let’s compare Shanahan’s practices to those that were run when Jim Harbaugh was with the 49ers. Those practices included live tackling in some portion of the team period on a daily basis. Harbaugh was a firm believer that these live periods were essential to getting the body prepared for the rigors of the season. 

Here is what Harbaugh had to say on the topic when he appeared on the Pardon My Take podcast in 2017, “I think of it like building a callus,” he said. “The human body, what a tremendous organism. It actually craves contact. It likes contact, craves it, opposed to a car. It doesn’t have the ability to repair itself or callus over but the human body does. Much like conditioning can be improved so can that callus of toughness and grit. It’s like a blister, it’s soft, it’s got fluid in it, it’s going to break, but the great thing about it when it does break it’ll callous over even harder and stronger.” 

Now ask yourself, do you ever remember a Harbaugh season that was ruined by injury?

Even the late great, Bill Walsh who is well known for using light practices throughout the course of the season to preserve the health of his players had full speed live tackling drills during his training camps. I can still remember the sights and sounds of watching the greats of the 49ers dynasty years colliding into one another during their team goal line sessions during camp in Rocklin.

If Bill Walsh thought it was a good idea, maybe Kyle Shanahan should, too.

Another area to look at is how and when did these injuries occur. Let’s use Deebo Samuel as an example. Samuel is perhaps the most important part of the 49ers offense. It’s as though he unlocks all of Shanahan’s creativity. Samuel played a key role in the 49ers biggest wins of the season, upset wins over the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots. It was against the Patriots however that Samuel would be lost to injury for the second time this season. With the 49ers up by 30 in the fourth quarter, Kyle Shanahan called a sweep to Samuel. As Samuel was pushed out of bounds, he pulled up with a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for three games. During that time the 49ers would see their record fall to 4-6.

A very similar situation would play out just one week later in Seattle. With the 49ers down by 30 to the Seahawks early in the fourth quarter, Shanahan would call for a shot to George Kittle down the left sideline. Kittle would go up and make the grab, only to suffer a foot injury on the play that will likely keep him out for the rest of the season.

Two injuries to two of the best players on your offense in back to back weeks with the game over for all intents and purposes. In both situation you need to wonder why such key players would be put in those situations.

It goes beyond what is happening on the field. Shanahan has a lot of say on the movement of players into and out of the organization. We’ve seen them lose a cornerback for almost the entire year due to an Achilles tendon injury, who was signed after injuring his Achilles with another team. The team has been without one of its premier pass rushers for all but 46 plays the first week due to a back injury, and guess what, he had a history of back injuries prior to the 49ers trading for him. Coming into the season the 49ers knew their starting center from last season was unlikely to play in 2020 so what did they do to prepare? Nothing. They decided to just ride it out with the backup. Oh, and that center had a history with injuries prior to being brought over in free agency. See a pattern here?

Just some food for thought the next time you are about to say, “You can’t blame the coach for injuries.”