With Cleveland Browns on deck, 49ers are glad to be 5-0 but far from satisfied
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers have the best five-game start in franchise history.
Following a 42-10 thrashing of the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers enter Sunday’s game with a plus-99 point differential, having scored 167 points while allowing 68.
That’s better than the plus-83 (147 to 64) in a 5-0 start in 2019, when the 49ers finished 13-3, won the NFC Championship, and then fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.
Or plus-33 (127 to 94) when starting 5-0 in 1990, a season that ended in a 15-13 loss to the New York Giants and ended a three-peat dream.
Or plus-40 (132-92) in 1984, which culminated in a 38-16 thrashing of the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium.
However, it is not as good as starting the season 5-0 with a 116-point differential (170 to 54) and an average margin of victory of 23.2 points in 1952.
For what it’s worth, that 49ers team, which featured four future Hall of Famers in running backs Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, quarterback Y.A. Tittle, and two-way lineman Leo Nomellini, finished third in the National Conference at 7-5 and missed the playoffs.
This is a classic example of a team that peaked too soon.
It’s something the 2023 San Francisco 49ers would avoid if they believed in the concept. That they don’t.
“That’s one of those things where you’ve got too much time on your hands so you’ve got to kind of start making things up a little bit,” Fred Warner, the team’s linebacker, said.
While the 49ers struggled to begin the 2022 season, the Philadelphia Eagles set the NFC standard, starting 8-0 and finishing as the top seed.
“Philly started off pretty hot last year and ended up in the Super Bowl,” said left tackle Trent Williams. “It didn’t work out for ’em but I didn’t hear anyone saying they were peaking too early.”
Everything appears to be falling into place for the 49ers. They arrive in Cleveland just as the Browns’ two most important players, quarterback Deshaun Watson (shoulder) and defensive end Myles Garrett (foot), are both injured.
Watson, who hasn’t thrown a pass since deciding in warmups on Oct. 3 that he couldn’t play in the Ravens’ 28-3 loss, has a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder and is expected to miss the game. The smart money is on Garrett giving it a shot.
Except for the absence of wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in a Week 3 victory over the New York Giants, the 49ers have remained healthy in terms of key players. After having to dig themselves out of a 3-4 hole last season and a 3-5 hole in 2021, good health has helped fuel a fast start.
Both seasons ended with losses in the NFC Championship Game, which was played on the road because the 49ers struggled to gain traction, preventing them from finishing with the best record in the conference.
As a result, getting off to a fast start was an offseason goal. The mission was completed. The next goal is to keep it going, though the concept of being too good too soon appears to be alien in the locker room.
“In the NFL, things can change quickly,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “However, I don’t believe you intend to peak at a specific time.” All you have to do is keep going.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan is impressed with his team’s focus and willingness to view the season as 17 separate challenges rather than riding an emotional wave.
The routine remains the same. Play the game, make any necessary adjustments, and then move on to the next one. That post-Dallas process began on Wednesday because Shanahan gave players Monday off and Tuesday is a mandatory off day for regular-season players.
“Once we were finished, I forgot about Dallas,” Shanahan explained. “Our guys were ready for Cleveland.”
Aside from the final score, Warner stated that the Dallas film demonstrated that the 49ers are far from finished. Warner was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after becoming the first 49er with a sack, forced fumble, and interception in a single game since NaVorro Bowman 10 years ago, but he is still smarting from giving up 20 yards on a pass play on which he lost outside leverage.
“I honestly don’t think we’ve hit our peak,” Warner stated. “I believe we must continue to grind, keep our heads down, and remain humble.” If you saw how we graded this tape this morning, you’d know we’re taking it seriously. ‘We’re happy because we beat them by 32 points,’ it’s not. We’re looking for ways to improve.”
Attrition is something to keep an eye on with the 49ers, a team that prides itself on physicality and has many star players who have played a lot of football.
Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle, and Trent Williams have combined for 44 seasons and 551 games for the 49ers. Tashaun Gipson, Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Warner, and Bosa all have 40 seasons and 529 games of experience on defense.
McCaffrey, the focal point of the 49ers’ offense, is on pace for 404 touches rushing and receiving in 17 games, his career high being 403 in 16 games in 2019 — the year he became only the third running back in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving.
Shanahan must maintain the delicate balance of playing to win every week while keeping veterans as fresh as possible for the postseason.
Meanwhile, the 49ers aren’t about to apologize for their early success.
Shanahan is credited with a weekly emphasis on Xs, Os, and critiques for both individuals and position groups, according to offensive line coach Chris Foerster.
“We’re just out there playing every week,” he said. “Everybody has things they can work on.”
“Don’t worry about the horse being blind,” former Raiders coach John Madden used to tell his team. Simply load the wagon.”
The 49ers’ ability to stay as focused and healthy as they are now will be tested over the next 12 games — an eternity in an NFL season. And the first five victories are in the past.
“I don’t think anybody’s looking back,” Foerster said. “Over the last year or so, there’s been a lot of good ball going on.” But it can all come to a halt if you don’t take care of business.”