Sunday will be remembered as the day Brock Purdy returned to earth and the 49ers were suddenly exposed as vulnerable, as opposed to a buttoned-up powerhouse headed toward a seemingly inevitable sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Or maybe a 19-17 road loss to the Cleveland Browns will be forgotten as easily as a Week 6 loss a year ago.
Last year the 49ers went to Atlanta and got manhandled 28-14. They gave up 168 yards rushing and were pushed around physically by a team quarterbacked by Marcus Mariota.
So before despairing, keep in mind an NFL season has a lot of twists and turns. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles, 20-14 losers to the New York Jets as both NFL unbeatens were knocked off on the same day.
The 49ers appeared to accept the defeat in the proper spirit, declining to place blame on some questionable officiating or a missed 41-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds by Jake Moody.
Had Moody split the uprights, the 49ers would have been 6-0 but still come home with a laundry list of corrections and concerns after putting a game in the win column they really didn’t deserve.
They got outplayed, they knew it and the scoreboard accurately reflected which was the better team.
The 49ers are still 5-1, and of significantly more importance than their first loss are forthcoming medical updates on Christian McCaffrey (oblique), Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and Trent Williams (ankle). Samuel left first, McCaffrey followed and although Williams finished the game, he left the stadium in a walking boot on his right foot.
“I don’t think we deserved to win today,” defensive end Nick Bosa said.
“We didn’t earn it,” said linebacker Fred Warner.
It’s not like the Browns (3-2) did anything to surprise the 49ers. They were going to play stifling defense, run the ball and hope for the best. Mission accomplished to the tune of the defense surrendering 215 yards to a team averaging 402.6, and the offense rushing for 160 yards against a team giving up 96.2.
“When you’re getting in third-and-longs, second-and-longs, the playbook shrinks down about 80 percent,” Williams said. “You’ve only got so many calls you can call and when you’re behind the chains you play into that defense’s wheelhouse.”
Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski called it “dragging them down in the mud with us” and the 49ers, who pride themselves on physical toughness on both sides of the ball, were beaten to the punch in both areas.
If McCaffrey, Samuel and Williams are still part of the picture in the near future, a single loss in mid-October won’t come anywhere near defining their season or prevent the 49ers from another deep run into the postseason.
To focus on the placekicker or the penalties is to miss the overall picture of a one-week snapshot over a 17-game span.
“My message to them was regardless of whether we hit that (field goal) or not, there’s a lot of stuff in this game that we’ve got to improve on,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We made way too many mistakes, just losing a couple of guys in the game, we had to switch a couple of guys around and we weren’t quite ready for that. Which starts with me, with too many mistakes.”
The amazing thing is the 49ers almost got out of Cleveland with a win. Because after an opening 84-yard touchdown drive, Purdy and Co. were rendered helpless by a Browns defense that lived up to its considerable hype.
P.J. Walker, a practice squad player elevated to starter, was the best quarterback on the field even with two interceptions — including one by Deommodore Lenoir to set up the 49ers’ second touchdown on an 8-yard run by Jordan Mason.
this sound is now a core memory pic.twitter.com/MC01eRA56L
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 15, 2023
A good sign for the 49ers is that their approach after losing in the regular season for the first time in 16 games is their willingness to accept responsibility for the end result.
Believe me, there are teams — I can think of one in particular I covered for 25 years in Oakland — that would have latched onto questionable calls against Tashaun Gipson and Charvarius Ward as if they were lifeboats on the Titanic as excuses in defeat.
Those flags made possible a 29-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins with 1:40 to play to make it 19-17, points that stood up when Moody missed his chance to miss a game-winner.
“We know what our expectations are and our standards are, so to come out and lose any game is going to sting,” Purdy said. “We were on that streak and all that kind of stuff, but we don’t try and focus on the outcome. It’s more about being our best, every drive, every play, every series, and it just falls into place.
“We failed our own expectations today in terms of playing our best.”
And while the 49ers had the interceptions by Lenoir and Warner, there was room for improvement on defense, as well.
“They’re the reason we were in it at the end, but I also think we can do better than that, giving up more over 300 yards (334) and not finishing there at the end,” Shanahan said. “But they’re the side of the ball that gave us a chance today.”
The 49ers ended up going three-and-out six times in addition to the turnovers and finished with 12 penalties for 105 yards. Not all of them were debatable.
“It’s not Niner football,” tight end George Kittle said. ” We’ve been playing pretty clean. When you have a ton of three-and-outs and penalties. It’s hard to win a football game.”
We’ll know a lot more about what the loss means soon enough. If the 49ers handle their business the way they have up to this point, the loss means next to nothing.