Injuries overshadow late 49ers' rally to beat Cowboys in preseason opener

A new NFL season is upon us, damn it, and for the next four weeks your nights will be filled with three things.

Anthem Watch, Heat Index Watch, and Injury Watch.

Take Santa Clara, home of the ongoing E-Z Bake Stadium promotion. There, the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys did a thing. Most of them survived. Few of them will remember much about it, save third-string quarterback Nick Mullens, who engineered the final drive in San Franciosco’s 24-21 victory.

Sure, some might bubble with glee over the result (let the Mullens-Jimmy Garoppolo controversy begin!), or that there weren’t enough helmet penalties (49er linebacker Elijah Lee topped the list at one), or that Garoppolo didn’t win the Super Bowl Thursday simply by the look on his face, but that’s not what this game was about. It was about a movement subsumed inside a song, the sizzle of fricasseed fan in a section of Levi’s Stadium better classified as a hotplate, and trying to avoid the trainers room. This last one didn’t work well for the 49ers, not at all.

So let’s review, shall we?

Anthem Watch was highlighted by San Francisco wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who raised his right fist while standing to protest both racial injustices still rampant in the U.S. and to a lesser extent the NFL’s persistently feckless response to the original protests. No other 49ers seemed to take any kind of visible role during the song, and the Dallas Cowboys, inspired by hall monitor/owner Jerry Jones, stood in lockstep on the east sideline to show their enduring respect for employment.

In the stands, there were the usual acres of unused hotplates-with-armrests, as the 90-degree weather dry-roasted the east side of the stadium to its usual char, and said seats remained predominantly unused even after sundown. The annual debate over what the 49ers plan to do with it has been settled – nothing – so this will be an ongoing complaint with no solution planned. Hey, if you can’t stand the heat, try your couch.

But the real event was the high number of injuries, seemingly all by 49ers and some to important figures thereof. More to the point, they all came in the first 20 minutes of play, making the entire game a modified disaster.

The 49ers lost linebacker Malcolm Smith to a hamstring on the fourth play of the game, tight end George Kittle injured his shoulder on a deep pass on San Francisco’s only Garoppolonian possession of the night, defensive end Solomon Thomas was laid out 11 minutes into the game with what was described only as a head injury and did not return, backup running back Matt Breida went down a minute later, also with a shoulder injury, and backup tackle Garry Gilliam went out nine seconds into the second quarter, with a head injury.

“It’s what scares you about training camp, it’s what scares you about the preseason,” Shanahan said after the game, explaining the entire August football phenomenon. “You kind of just want the game to end.”

So, even if you allow for precautionary decisions by the 49er medical staff and the two days off that will clarify the nature of the injuries, that part was pretty much a failure — a bad defeat in a game in which wins and losses don’t matter.

True, it could have been worse – The Great G could have gotten hurt in any of the nine plays in which he participated. But he did not, saving both him, head coach Kyle Shanahan and the angst of the entire 49ers fan base and fantasy players across the globe.

But it was bad enough by practice game standards, even if none of the afflicted miss any regular season time, and is the one reason exhibition football scares the hell out of coaches. Not even they can say “Next man up” with a straight face this often.

Fortunately, everyone has long outgrown the exhibition season as a helpful guide to anything except detailing the health of players who either have dreams to chase, fulfill or complete. Shanahan subscribed to that theory enough to attempt a two-point conversion after the 49ers’ second touchdown in hopes of cutting the lead to a field goal with 4:26 left to play, a decision that, happily for the remaining customers, didn’t matter to the final outcome.

But the game’s outcome didn’t matter at all in the larger picture, any more than the fifth consecutive exhibition season victory by the Cleveland Browns, who have won one non-practice game in the last two years. The 49ers got hammered by injuries they are not yet deep enough to absorb, so Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be interesting days at the Auld Compound.

Call it the game outside the game.

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