Every team embraces a "next-man-up" mentality at one point or another. In the case of the 49ers, this has been the approach essentially since the season began.
Perhaps there's been no bigger example of that than what San Francisco had to deal with on Thursday Night Football. With injuries and COVID-19 concerns resulting in the absence of six more marquee names, the Niners' already-depleted lineup was sent home with their worst loss of the season in a 34-17 rout against the Packers.
"We knew it was going to be a challenge. We knew at the start of the week, it was gonna be a challenge and then losing those three guys yesterday was obviously a bigger challenge," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "But, I still thought we could have a game and still thought we could play better than we did tonight. Being down like that and not being at our best and going against a good team, usually, that's usually what happens. But I know we coulda done better."
As Shanahan touched on, Thursday's loss was the culmination of a long short week for San Francisco. Hours after the team facility shut down on Wednesday due to receiver Kendrick Bourne testing positive for COVID-19, fellow wideouts Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, along with left tackle Trent Williams. The latter three were added after they were deemed to be close contacts to Bourne. It's also worth noting that Samuel was already ruled out for the game because of injury.
These voids, on top of losing Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle for extended time after both were injured in Week 8, forced Shanahan to embrace a challenge any offensive guru would have trouble with: generating offense with a lineup featuring Nick Mullens, Ross Dwelley, Jerick McKinnon and River Cracraft.
By the end of the night, it was clear that the losses took their toll as the offense struggled to build momentum and the defense, which lost two more starting-caliber players in cornerback K'Waun Williams and safety Jaquiski Tartt, had no answer for a lethal Packers attack led as usual by Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and the returning Aaron Jones.
A 21-3 halftime deficit essentially decided this one early but, on a night where touches came in bunches, third-year receiver Richie James provided a bright spot for a team that will need his energy moving forward. James, whose game day status was in question due to an ankle injury, showed off his speed and tenacity en route to a career-high nine catches (13 targets) for 184 yards and a touchdown.
"We didn't plan on using him that much because he was coming off the injury, but I was just thankful to have him," Shanahan said. "He knew a lot of pressure was on him 'cause he saw what the game plan was and he knew he was gonna have those opps, but I was just glad that he was able to get out there and make it through the game and do a really good job when we came to him."
It's daunting to think about the fact that none of the Niners skills players who logged a snap when these teams last met in last season's NFC Championship Game played on Thursday night, but there's still reason for optimism in San Francisco.
For a team that's battled injuries all year and became the latest to be affected by the ongoing pandemic, the 49ers sit at 4-5 with a chance to turn things around, starting with their Nov. 15 date with the Saints. A win against that caliber of opponent would go a long way in erasing the sting of Week 9's defeat, especially if a few of the missing players are back in the fold.
"I knew at some time we would have to deal with it. I was hoping it wouldn't be on a short week with the injuries we had prior, so that just made it a bigger challenge, but that's challenges other people are going through and that's challenges people are going to have going forward," Shanahan said. "It's not getting better right now, so that's why everyone has to be on it with every single protocol there is and I feel we've been doing it the best we can. But we'll look into everything and see how we can continue to get better 'cause there's still a number of games left in this year and I know our team and the whole NFL plans on finishing those and I also plan on us playing better too, so that all goes in hand."