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.