SANTA CLARA — The 49ers are off to the second-best five-game start in franchise history.
After a 42-10 destruction of the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers head into Cleveland Sunday with a point differential of plus-99, with 167 points scored against 68 given up.
That’s better than the plus-83 (147 to 64) in a 5-0 start in 2019 that saw the 49ers finish 13-3, win the NFC Championship and then lose in Super Bowl LIV to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Or plus-33 (127 to 94) when starting 5-0 in 1990, a season that ended in a 15-13 loss to the New York Giants and erased a dream of three consecutive championships.
Or plus-40 (132 to 92) in 1984, which ended gloriously with a 38-16 blowout of the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium.
But it’s not as good as going 5-0 to start the season with a 116-point differential in 1952 (170 to 54) and an average margin of victory of 23.2 points per game.
For what it’s worth, that 49ers team with four future Hall of Famers in running backs Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny, quarterback Y.A. Tittle and two-way lineman Leo Nomellini went 2-5 over its final seven games to finish third in the National Conference at 7-5 and out of the playoffs.
A classic case of a team that peaked too soon.
It’s something the 2023 49ers would guard against if they believed in the concept. Which they don’t.
“That’s one of those things where you’ve got too much time on your hands so you’ve got to kind of start making things up a little bit,” linebacker Fred Warner said.
While the 49ers struggled to start the 2022 season, the Philadelphia Eagles were the NFC pacesetters, starting 8-0 and ending up with the top seed.
“Philly started pretty hot last year and ended up in the Super Bowl,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “It didn’t work out for ’em but I didn’t hear anyone saying they were peaking too early.”
It seems everything is breaking right for the 49ers. They arrive in Cleveland just as the Browns are dealing with injuries to their two most important players — quarterback Deshaun Watson (shoulder) and defensive end Myles Garrett (foot).
Watson, who hasn’t thrown a pass since determining in warmups on Oct. 3 that he couldn’t play in a 28-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, has a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder and is expected to sit it out. The smart money on Garrett is he’ll give it a go.
Other than missing wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in a Week 3 win over the New York Giants, the 49ers have stayed healthy in terms of cornerstone players. Good health has helped fuel a fast start after having to dig themselves out of a 3-4 hole last season and 3-5 in 2021.
Both seasons ended with losses in the NFC Championship Game, played on the road because it took the 49ers a while to gain traction, making them unable to finish with the best record in the conference.
As a result, starting fast was an offseason goal. Mission accomplished. The next objective is to maintain it, although the concept of being too good too soon appears to be foreign in the locker room.
“The NFL, things can change quick, that’s for sure,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “But I don’t think you plan on peaking at a certain time. You just have to keep going.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan is impressed with his team’s focus and willingness to look at a season as 17 individual challenges unrelated to each other as opposed to riding a wave of emotion.
The routine is unchanged. Play the game, make corrections, move on to the next one. That post-Dallas process began Wednesday since Shanahan gave players Monday off and Tuesday is a mandatory off day for players in a regular week.
“Once we finished, I forgot about Dallas,” Shanahan said. “Our guys were ready for Cleveland.”
The final score aside, Warner said the Dallas film indicated the 49ers are far from a finished product. After becoming the first 49er with a sack, a forced fumble and an interception in a single game since NaVorro Bowman 10 years ago, Warner was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, yet is still smarting from giving up 20 yards on a pass play in which he lost outside leverage.
“I honestly don’t think we’ve hit our peak,” Warner said. “I think we just continue to grind and keep our head down and stay humble. If you saw the way we graded this tape this morning you would see we’re really taking this serious. It’s not, ‘We’re happy because we beat them by 32 points.’ We’re trying to find ways to get better.”
One thing to watch from the 49ers is attrition for a team that prides itself on physicality and has many star players who have played a lot of football.
The 49ers’ offensive core of Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle and Trent Williams has combined for 44 accrued seasons and 551 games. On defense, Tashaun Gipson, Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Warner and Bosa have 40 seasons and 529 games.
McCaffrey, the hub of the 49ers’ offense, is on pace for 404 touches rushing and receiving in 17 games, with the highest total of his career being 403 in 16 games in 2019 — the year he became the third running back in NFL history with 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving.
It’s up to Shanahan to monitor the delicate balance of playing to win every week while at the same time keeping veterans as fresh as possible for the postseason.
In the meantime, the 49ers aren’t about to apologize for playing so well so early.
Offensive line coach Chris Foerster credits Shanahan with a week-to-week emphasis on Xs, Os and critiques for both individuals and position groups.
“We’re just out there playing every week,” Foerster said “Everybody has things they can work on.”
Or as former Raiders coach John Madden used to tell his team, “Don’t worry about the horse being blind. Just load the wagon.”
Whether the 49ers remain as focused and healthy as they are at the moment will play out over the last 12 games — an eternity in an NFL season. And the first five wins are in the rearview mirror.
“I don’t think any don’t think anybody’s looking back,” Foerster said. “There’s been a lot of good ball going on over the last year or so. But it can come to a screeching halt any time you don’t take care of business.”