SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After another day of devastating injury news on Monday, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had no choice but to address it with his team.
To an outsider, the latest losses — tight end George Kittle and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — look like a death knell for the 49ers’ season. Which is why Shanahan didn’t want anyone to run from it Tuesday morning.
“You don’t ignore it like it’s not happening,” Shanahan said. “You just keep it real with guys. It makes things more of a challenge. We have experience losing guys in the past; our team knows how to deal with it. Kind of what we’re going through now is a little unprecedented just, I think, for us and probably for anybody.”
In a season in which the NFL as a whole has been ravaged by injury, the 49ers have become the unfortunate poster child. For the first half of the season, the Niners were held together by a manageable schedule, a whole lot of coaching creativity plus some bubble gum and duct tape.
It was enough to get them to the midway point at 4-4 and remain in the NFC playoff picture. All along, they held out hope that at some point, things would get much better on the injury front. After all, they couldn’t get much worse, right? Right?
Wrong. After Garoppolo and Kittle left Sunday’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks with ankle and foot injuries, respectively, whatever it was that was holding the 49ers together finally came undone. Garoppolo’s high ankle sprain is expected to cost him at least six weeks and it could be longer if surgery is needed. Kittle has a foot fracture, which means he will miss eight weeks. There’s a real chance neither plays again in 2020.
Those injuries could well be season-ending for the 49ers, too. When Garoppolo and Kittle land on injured reserve, they will become the 18th and 19th Niners to get that designation since training camp opened. When that happens, the 49ers will have more than $80 million worth of talent on their injured reserve list, the highest in the league by a lot and about 44% of their $198.2 million cap allowance.
“When you lose guys that you depend on and guys you want out there, there is a little depressing feeling to it for everybody right when you hear it,” Shanahan said. “But then you’ve got to go play. The way our guys are made, you get excited for the challenge. We’ve had guys come in and step up and do well. I could go through our entire roster on who is not playing and that could be depressing. But then I could go through and mention a lot of people who are playing who give you a good chance to win.”
The list of names who have or will miss extended time is basically a who’s who of 49ers: Garoppolo, Kittle, defensive ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman, center Ben Garland, receiver Deebo Samuel and running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. That doesn’t even include starting center Weston Richburg and top backup defensive lineman Ronald Blair III, both of whom remain on the physically unable to perform list.
The 49ers have declined to use injuries as an excuse, but they have used 70 players in eight games. For context, only 65 players appeared in a 49ers regular-season game in 2019.
With injuries still accumulating, it’s increasingly difficult to see how the defending NFC champions can continue to stay in the playoff mix. The 49ers are entering a stretch in which six of their final eight games are against opponents that currently have a winning record, a schedule that is the third hardest in the NFL.
In the past, the 49ers have received impressive contributions from backups, but it will take a Herculean effort from multiple backups for them to earn a playoff spot.
“There’s really no reason not to be confident,” quarterback Nick Mullens said. “We believe in our teammates and we’ve just got to keep going. I think that’s the biggest thing. The NFL is tough. You’re going to be dealt a different hand of cards every year. You’ve got to take it, run with it and just keep going. That’s the locker room’s mindset.”
Next up for the 49ers is “Thursday Night Football” against the Green Bay Packers (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox). Most teams don’t like playing on Thursday nights because it doesn’t allow much time to recover from a Sunday game. For the Niners, it might actually be a good thing.
“It’s time to move on, and we know we’ve got a huge challenge with Green Bay,” Shanahan said. “I think our guys are fired up to get out there and play against the odds.”