SANTA CLARA, Calif. — At some point during the San Francisco 49ers‘ season finale, general manager John Lynch peered a few suites down and was instantly reminded of why his team’s season was about to end before the postseason began.
There, in another suite watching the game, sat many of the players who were supposed to be helping the 49ers return to the postseason to defend their NFC championship. Instead, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, left tackle Trent Williams, receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and cornerback Richard Sherman, among others, were out injured watching the Niners’ season come to a premature conclusion. Other key players such as ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, safety Jaquiski Tartt and running back Raheem Mostert weren’t even there.
“We got hit by it, not only in the quantity of people that got hurt, but the quality,” Lynch said. “It looked like an All-Pro team. We need those guys on the field, not in the suite watching the game.”
Which is why the 49ers’ No. 1 resolution for 2021 is to somehow find a way to stay healthy. Of the many things the 49ers dealt with in 2020, none had a more direct impact on their 6-10 finish than injuries.
The 49ers had 32 players spend time on injured reserve and eight of the 10 players carrying the highest salary cap figures in 2020 spent some time on IR. Seven of the team’s most important players — Garoppolo, Bosa, Ford, Kittle, Sherman, Samuel and Mostert — combined to appear in 37 of a possible 112 games.
The sheer amount of injuries, especially repetitive ones like high ankle sprains, left the Niners wondering what happened. It’s a question they plan to spend much of their offseason trying to answer.
“Why was ours inordinately high?” Lynch said. “We’re going to look for those same answers. We’re going to look at everything.”
One possible explanation floated by Lynch is that the Niners were coming off a season in which they played all the way through the Super Bowl and then weren’t able to train together or re-convene until training camp. Kittle, though, who missed eight games with foot and knee injuries, doesn’t believe the extra month played was much of a factor, pointing out the Kansas City Chiefs did the same thing and haven’t had nearly the same amount of injuries while surging to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
“That’s not an excuse at all,” Kittle said. “They figured out how to stay healthy, and they’re playing really good football. … I think a lot of the injuries that we had this year, from ACLs to high ankle sprains to broken bones, I don’t really know what you can do to train to prevent those types of things, to an extent. It’s football. Things happen. We got hit with a snowball and it went into an avalanche.”
Because of COVID-19 protocols limiting players in camp — 80 instead of the usual 90 — and because of preexisting injuries, the Niners started camp with just 71 players, which Lynch believes could have had a trickle-down effect. Players were thrown into a revised and shortened training camp and asked to do more than they would in a normal camp while trying to get acclimated again after spending the offseason away from the team.
“That’s why the whole league got hurt,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We had more than the whole league, so it can’t just be that. … That’s why we don’t have a good answer, but that’s why I promise you, we do everything we can to make it better in every area.”
After the 2018 season, another year in which they dealt with many ailments, the Niners overhauled their strength and athletic training staff. Lynch said Monday the Niners are “resolute in our belief” in that group, but acknowledged they’re asking everyone to take a long look at what they can do better.
Among those things needing to be examined: What did players do in the offseason when they were away from the team? What did players focus on from a conditioning or strength standpoint? What type of work load did players have during practices? What were they doing during the training camp acclimation period? And while Lynch said the Niners offer many “vehicles” to help players keep their bodies in shape via various “gurus,” it’s worth wondering if some of those additional resources could be streamlined.
The 49ers also have the difficult task of figuring out just how much the COVID-19 situation affected what they were trying to do and how much of that can be wiped away by a return to a more “normal” setup.
One other thing for the 49ers to ask: Should they make durability more of a priority in player evaluations? While you can’t avoid players with injury histories and sometimes, as with cornerback Jason Verrett, betting on a player with past issues can play off in a big way, it doesn’t always work out. Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander came with lengthy injury histories and lucrative contracts and are prime examples.
Those are the kind of deals that made the trade of DeForest Buckner, who has been the picture of durability during his career, more difficult to swallow.
“It’s very tough to win in this league if you’re missing a lot of your players,” Shanahan said. “For us having $81 million of our salary cap not play this year, and I think that’s the most in NFL history, that is a big deal. That’s why it doesn’t mean that you never take a risk again. I think that’d be an overcorrection. You have to take some risks to get to the top in this league, but we also understand that you cannot succeed if that number I just gave you with guys continues.”
And if that isn’t enough for the Niners to enjoy better health in 2021, perhaps maybe some divine intervention will.
“Kyle asked me early in the year if I stopped going to church or something,” Lynch said, laughing. “I’ll be at daily mass, I can promise you. Outside, of course.”