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“What are the 49ers?”
The rhetorical question was posed by ESPN play-by-play man Joe Tessitore midway through the third quarter of Monday night’s 31-3 San Francisco victory over the Cleveland Browns.
The 49ers were the prospectors of the California Gold Rush, which aptly enjoyed its peak in 1849. Now, they’re an NFL football team that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2013. Less literally, though, Tessitore was echoing the national sentiment regarding a team that started the 2019 season 3-0 but remained under the radar entering its first prime-time game of the year.
In fact, Monday provided America with its first nationally televised look at 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo since the $27.5-million-per-year franchise signal-caller was a member of the New England Patriots three years ago.
What are the 49ers?
They’re the only undefeated team in the NFC, and three of their four wins have come by 14 or more points.
They’re one of the best offensive teams in football, and they’ve scored 24 or more points in all four of their outings.
They’re one of the best defensive teams in football, and they’ve surrendered 20 or fewer points in those same four affairs.
They’re one of just four NFL teams with more than 10 takeaways, even though they’ve played four games and those other takeaway-happy squads have played five.
And they’re the only team in the NFL that ranks in the top four in both total offense and total defense.
Does that mean they’re Super Bowl-bound? It’s still too early to tell, especially since they’ve yet to play a team with a winning record. Their first four opponents are a combined 5-15, and they were fortunate to draw the Pittsburgh Steelers sans Ben Roethlisberger before having a fortnight to prepare for a home matchup with the Browns.
But with the football world watching, the 49ers at least made a statement against a flawed but talented opponent on Monday Night Football: A team that is 4-0 for the first time since it went 14-2 in 1990 is ready to contend in 2019.
It’s not just hard to find something the 49ers do poorly. It’s hard to find something they don’t do well.
They rushed for 275 yards in a wire-to-wire blowout against Cleveland, with both Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman eclipsing 90 yards on the ground, and they’re the only offense in football averaging at least 200 rushing yards per game.
Garoppolo has thrown four interceptions, but he had a turnover-free performance against Cleveland and has taken just four sacks in four games. It appears he’s become more comfortable with each passing week as he returns from a major knee injury. After displaying some rust in Week 1, he’s completed 69 percent of his passes, is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt and entered Monday night with a 96.3 passer rating.
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Defensively, San Francisco ranks second to only New England in passing yards allowed per game and sixth in rushing yards allowed per outing. It’s averaging a league-high 2.8 takeaways per contest, and the D is surrendering just 1.2 touchdowns per game, which ranks second to only the Patriots.
Two weeks ago, the Niners became just the fourth team since the start of 2018 to win despite losing the turnover battle by a margin of three or more. Monday night, they became just the second team this season to surrender fewer than 10 complete passes, which is unbelievable considering they held a heavy lead all night.
In fact, it was only the seventh time this decade a team won by that large a margin while allowing single-digit completions.
And it could have been even more lopsided on Monday night. Cleveland possessed the ball for fewer than 23 minutes and produced just nine first downs. The 49ers outgained the Browns by more than 250 yards—something that has happened just five times this season, but twice by San Francisco.
It likely would have been worse for the Browns had the 49ers not lost Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk to what head coach Kyle Shanahan called a “possible knee sprain” in the second half, and it certainly would have been worse for Cleveland if San Francisco didn’t miss three field goals.
But according to Shanahan, Juszczyk’s injury was benign enough that he would have stayed in the game “if it was close.” And the good news in regard to those kicking miscues is those issues might have more to do with snapping/holding mechanics than potential yips for veteran kicker Robbie Gould.
That’s fixable, and it’s usually a good sign when that’s your biggest concern in the middle of October.
Tony Avelar/Associated Press
This isn’t a fluke. The 49ers have been rebuilding for several years, and this is what a lot of folks expected from them before Garoppolo’s torn ACL took the air out of their 2018 campaign. On paper and otherwise, they’re better now than they were then.
Beyond Garoppolo on offense, Coleman’s Week 5 emergence and Raheem Mostert’s continued effectiveness almost gives the 49ers an embarrassment of riches in the backfield, where Breida has made it clear his breakout 2018 season wasn’t an aberration.
The third-year back ranked fourth among qualified players with a 5.3 yards-per-attempt average last season, but a 114-yard night featuring a jaw-dropping 83-yard touchdown moves his 2019 average to 6.5—the highest mark in pro football.
And they’ve hardly missed a beat the last two games without left tackle Joe Staley, who has a fractured fibula but could be back in a matter of weeks.
Shanahan has the weapons (I haven’t even mentioned star tight end George Kittle), and we know he has the mind. He ran one of the highest-powered offenses in NFL history while working as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator in 2016. That Atlanta offense hasn’t been the same since he departed, and now he’s finding his groove with this group.
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Nick Bosa was unblockable Monday night and has emerged as a Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner. He’s benefiting from the presence of veteran pass-rusher Dee Ford, who was a Pro Bowler last year in Kansas City.
A healthy Richard Sherman is in 2016 form. Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner are tackle machines. DeForest Buckner and Jaquiski Tartt continue to perform at a high level. Hell, even first-round busts Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas are playing well.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The defensive line alone contains five former first-round picks, and Ford and Alexander were splashy additions in March.
What are the 49ers?
They’re a football team with few glaring weak spots. And in just a few days, they’ll have another big opportunity to remind us of that fact when they face the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams in Southern California.
A win there would land San Francisco in Super Bowl conversations outside of the Bay Area, but this team deserves your attention regardless.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.