Barber: 49ers beat Cowboys 24-21 but lost injury battle

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SANTA CLARA — The 49ers failed on Thursday night. It was their first preseason game of 2018, against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium, and they performed miserably.

Because there really is only one major objective during the preseason: to stay healthy. Yeah, you’d like to see your quarterback develop a connection with his new receivers, and it’s great when an undrafted rookie or two steps up to challenge for a roster spot. But those goals are secondary to staying upright. And the 49ers weren’t able to do it in their 24-21 victory versus Dallas.

One by one they fell on the Levi’s field.

Veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith tweaked a hamstring on the 49ers’ first defensive appearance of the season and did not return to the game. Tight end George Kittle laid out for an overthrown deep ball on the first offensive drive and did something to his right shoulder. The next time the Cowboys got the ball, SF defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was undercut by a teammate, crashed into the pile and left the field with a head injury. The next time the 49ers got the ball, they were forced to punt and running back Matt Breida hurt his shoulder while blocking for punter Jeff Locke.

Four 49ers had been decommissioned by the end of the first quarter, their short-term future to be determined by X-rays or MRIs or concussion tests.

One big question before this game was whether anyone would be taking a knee during the national anthem. The 49ers — specifically former quarterback and current political casualty Colin Kaepernick — started the NFL’s silent protests two years ago, and Cowboys players had been ordered to stand at attention by riled-up team owner Jerry Jones.

Lots of 49ers wound up on knees, but it wasn’t to protest police violence against unarmed black men. It was to respect fallen comrades. When Thomas lay on the ground, his defensive teammates each took a knee and looked on with concern, just as high school players do. As Breida lay prone, the San Francisco special teamers did the same.

That wasn’t the end of it, either. Garry Gilliam, a backup offensive tackle, suffered a head injury of his own early in the second quarter. Other players got banged up, but not badly enough to appear on the injury report. For example, I saw linebacker Eli Harold take a helmet to the side of his right knee on a second-quarter punt. He limped to the sidelines and spent the rest of the half loosening up the limb.

It was a mess. It was, in fact, the worst possible way to begin a football campaign that 49ers fans have been anticipating for months. And it raised a good question: Why the hell are they playing NFL preseason games?

I mean, I know why. Because football is a complex game that requires discipline and detailed choreography. The more players work together, the better it all operates. Every other team sport has a preseason; of course the NFL must, too.

But weigh the benefits against the costs. The benefits to four preseason games are more cohesive offensive and defensive units in Week 1 of the regular season. That isn’t negligible in a league where every game counts. The cost? We saw it Thursday. Human bodies getting broken.

It’s entirely possible that none of those 49ers injuries will end up being “serious” – meaning, in the context of football, that none of the players will miss a significant amount of action. If so, the Niners will consider themselves fortunate.

Breida could have been like wide receiver Jordy Nelson (now with the Raiders), who tore his ACL while with Green Bay and missed the entire 2015 season. Kittle could have suffered the fate of quarterback Sam Bradford, who tore his ACL in August of 2014 and lost a year with the Rams. Smith could have been like Bay Area native Desmond Bishop, the linebacker who tore his hamstring while playing for Green Bay in the 2012 preseason and didn’t suit up again until 2013.

At least Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers’ franchise quarterback and glamour boy, wasn’t harmed Thursday night. Other NFL QBs, like Trent Green and Tony Romo, have seen their careers altered by injuries suffered in preseason games.

I asked Kyle Shanahan after the game if the injuries of Preseason Week 1 might affect his calculations in Preseason Week 2, and he acknowledged his dilemma.

“Not really,” Shanahan said. “You only have a certain amount of guys, and you don’t want anyone to have to play the whole game. Anytime a guy goes out, the next guy’s got to play more. We not trying to have anyone play a whole game, but there are four quarters in a game. And God, I hope we never go to overtime in the preseason, either.”

There’s the rub. If the NFL demands four preseason contests, someone has to be out there hitting.

I sympathize with Shanahan’s bind. And I fully acknowledge that games aren’t the only settings in which guys can get hurt in August. Football players injure themselves at practice, too, and elsewhere. Darren McFadden, after leaving Oakland for Dallas, broke his elbow in June of 2016 when he slipped on wet concrete.

But let’s be honest. The risk of injury increases along with intensity. A game is more dangerous than an 11-on-11 drill, which is more dangerous than hitting a blocking sled.

So I ask again. Why does the NFL schedule preseason games?

I’m not preaching benevolence here. I’m not advocating for the safety of players based on their fundamental humanity, because I’ve followed the NFL for a long time and I’m not that naïve. This is purely a bottom-line argument. Football players have monetary value to their teams. Some of them have incredible value. And their health is being subjected to the grinding mill of the preseason.

The NFL is like a destruction derby on the county fair circuit, and the drivers are practicing for the derby by crashing their cars into one another on their days off.

I’m not sure what the correct balance is, but four games of meaningless violence seems way out of balance. Two games would make a lot more sense, and I’m not sure I would play my best players — my Garoppolos and my DeForest Buckners — in either of them.

Let the players show up a little sloppy to Week 1 of the regular season. I’d rather have them rusty for a couple games than sidelined for 16.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at (707) 521-5263 or

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