The 49ers have had a historically great start. So why does it feel like a mirage?

The 49ers have had a historically great start. So why does it feel like a mirage?

Five weeks into the season, the 49ers are one of the best teams in NFL history.

Sounds strange, right? The Niners have looked pretty good. They’ve taken apart a pair of pedestrian sides – the Steelers and Buccaneers – and blitzed the Bengals, who have lost all five of their games this season. Then, on Monday night football, they delivered a 31-3 beatdown of the overhyped Browns, a game that will be remembered more for its pre- and post-game festivities than anything the Niners did on the field itself.

Despite being 4-0, with a trio of dominant wins, the Niners don’t look, aesthetically speaking, like one of the best sides in history. They’ve been good, but they haven’t looked like a wow-no-one-can-stop-these-guys kind of team. The numbers say otherwise, however. Football Outsider’s DVOA metric, which measures a team’s down-to-down efficiency (as well other factors), rates the 49ers as the best team in the league. In fact, by DVOA the Niners’ four-game start is the sixth-best going back to the 1990 season, the starting point for their grading.

Here’s a look at the five teams ahead of the 49ers and their season outcome:

– 1st – 2007 Patriots – 16-0 in the regular season. Lost in the Super Bowl.
– 2nd – 1991 Washington Professional Football Team – 14-2 in the regular season. Won the Super Bowl.
– 3rd – 2013 Broncos – 13-3 in the regular season. Lost the Super Bowl.
– 4th – 1999 Rams – 13-3 in the regular season. Won the Super Bowl.
– 5th – 1996 Packers – 13-3 in the regular season. Won the Super Bowl.

That isn’t just lofty company: those are the five most dominant and historically important teams of the past three decades. If we all agree to throw in the 2013 Seahawks for good measure, you can trace the evolution of the sport through each of them.

All of those teams felt great. They were marshaled by Hall of Fame quarterbacks or visionary coaches – sometimes both – and swamped in so much generational talent that it was almost unseemly. They eviscerated opponents. They dominated on one side of the ball and were just good enough on the other to catapult from a very good side into a historically relevant one. These weren’t cases of fast starts; they were just that much better than everyone in front of them and we all knew it. All of the teams made the Super Bowl and three of them won the whole thing.

The 2019 Niners stack up numerically. They are the only team this season to rank in the top five in efficiency on both sides of the ball, by a long way. History says they should win at least 13 games and play in the Super Bowl. And yet it still doesn’t feel right, the Niners as a championship front runner. Peak below the surface and you see worrying signs.

Firstly: the schedule. None of their opponents have ranked above league-average overall (by DVOA). So far, they’ve faced the 16th, 20th, 26th, and 31st best teams in the league. Not only that, they’ve faced the 18th, 25th, 28th and 29th ranked offenses. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Sterner tests will come. San Francisco’s division, the NFC West, may be the best division in football, with two other legitimate championship threats – the Seahawks and Rams. The Niners have to face both those teams twice before the season is done.

Attrition is already taking its toll. San Francisco will have to do without three of their most significant players for a minimum of four weeks. Starting tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey and do-everything-man Kyle Juszczyk are out with injuries. All three are among the best at their respective positions as run-blockers, fueling the 49ers’ ground game, the most efficient in the league through five weeks.

Juszczyk is the most important of the three. He can block and run and catch passes like no other fullback in the game. Part utility man, part playmaker, he is the most versatile weapon in football, the only fullback who ranks in the top-50 of yards per attempt as a rusher and receiver. The Niners don’t carry another fullback on their roster and didn’t add anyone this week following a series of tryouts.

Everything the Niners do on offense flows from their run game, with simple play-action passes opening up off of that. Unless Jimmy Garoppolo – who has been so-so this season – can take the next step and become the kind of quarterback who can shred opposing defenses, the trio of injuries to the Niners offense will sink their production.

The team’s top-ranked defense has issues, too. They are third in sack-rate, indicating they have one of the best pass-rushing units in the league. But they only pressure opponents on 25% of snaps, the sixth-worst mark in the league. Given the team’s level of investment along the defensive line, they should be closer to the top-five. Three first-round picks start along the defensive line: DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Nick Bosa, the early favorite for this year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year crown. And the team added Dee Ford to the mix, acquiring the veteran rusher in a trade this offseason, before inking him to a five-year $87.5m contract.

Bosa has been the most productive pass-rusher in the league. Anywhere. At any age. He is a rookie. Rookies are supposed to show flashes. First-round picks should take over a game or two, a peek at a long, sustained career to come. Bosa is dominating down in and down right away. He was unblockable against the Browns, finishing with nine total pressures, two sacks, three quarterback hits, four quarterback hurries, three run stuffs and a forced fumble. The nerds over at Pro Football Focus graded it as the best rookie performance since they’ve been grading such things.

The way you win in the playoffs is with consistent, sustained pressure, not a sack here or there. Bosa has played his part. The team needs the other three men on the line to step up to his level if they’re to continue at this league-breaking pace.

Those other great teams either had a transcendent quarterback or could sustain pressure on opposing quarterbacks with the entirety of their front four. So far, the Niners have proved neither. If their start feels like a bit of a mirage compared to those of the formidable teams of the past, it’s because it most likely is.

More information: The Guardian.