CLEVELAND – A lot had to go wrong for the San Francisco 49ers to lose their first game of the season on Sunday.
They lost two of their most important offensive weapons -- Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and Christian McCaffrey (oblique) -- to injury and a third, left tackle Trent Williams, suffered an ankle injury serious enough to require a walking boot for the trip home. They were on the receiving end of two very questionable officiating calls late in the fourth quarter. And their rookie kicker (Jake Moody) missed a last second 41-yard field goal, giving the Cleveland Browns a 19-17 victory and knocking the 49ers from the undefeated ranks.
But mostly what happened is they encountered Jim Schwartz, the architect of a Browns defense that turned the game into a rock fight, forcing San Francisco into second- and third-and-long yardage, harassing Brock Purdy with pressure until he fell to Earth for the first time in his career, making bad decisions and missing open receivers. The 49ers had not scored fewer than 30 points in a game this season, and they had trailed for a total of one minute and 45 seconds in the first five games. But Schwartz has a long track record of success against Kyle Shanahan, when they have met as head coaches and coordinators (Schwartz is now 8-1 over Shanahan teams) and so little about how this game played out, except perhaps the result, surprised anyone.
The 49ers kept using the word "grimy" to describe it, but it is a luxury of a team this talented, with this strong a track record, that their first regular season loss in 16 tries can elicit a philosophical reaction and a very long view.
"It's easy to stand behind that 5-0 record and just expect to be perfect every time," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said after the game. "I think we're all human and we all make mistakes. Making mistakes at some point is good because you learn more from your mistakes than you do successes."
There is plenty to learn from. The Browns offense, without starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, rolled up 334 yards, including 160 yards rushing, and linebacker Fred Warner predicted the 49ers will now see a heavier dose of how the Browns attacked them -- with screens and perimeter runs and some shots down the field. Nick Bosa said the 49ers pride themselves on setting the edge and the Browns were beating them there.
The offense stalled after a nearly flawless first drive, when the 49ers moved easily, running with Samuel and McCaffrey for big chunks of yards and a touchdown. It looked like the rout was on. The difference is that after that drive there were mistakes -- false starts and blown up plays and, most of all, long down and distances. That allowed Schwartz to do what he does best: unleash the Browns pass rush. Purdy was sacked three times, limited to just 125 yards passing and threw his first interception of the season. And then came the injuries, Samuel in the first quarter, McCaffrey in the third. The 49ers had just 23 rushing yards in the second half. Williams, though, took some solace from the fact that when the offense needed plays in the final, furious drive, it made them.
Shanahan had no update on the severity of the injuries to Samuel and McCaffrey, although both were in the locker room after the game. But he said the 49ers have to do a better job of getting everybody ready, because when positions had to be moved around during the game, the mistakes began.
"We made way too many mistakes on offense," Shanahan said. "Just losing a couple guys in the game. We had to switch a couple guys around and we weren't quite ready for that."
Shanahan was asked how hard it is to operate without Samuel and McCaffrey.
"It's more about just getting all the guys ready for it," he said. "You have a game plan that has enough stuff in it so you move some positions around. We just made too many mistakes."
Purdy said that despite the grind of the offense, he kept thinking the 49ers would get into their familiar groove. Because he was the last pick in the 2022 draft, this is the game that many onlookers have expected Purdy to have all along. He had avoided it until now, but even while it was unfolding, Purdy never thought the situation was hopeless.
"We scored on the first drive and for me, it's like let's get into a rhythm, let's move the chains, that was my mentality the whole game," Purdy said. "I feel like I didn't play to the standard."
He didn't, but few teams can sustain a peak like the 49ers were at for the entirety of a long season. Before the game, there were reasonable questions about whether the 49ers would lose a regular season game at all, and this loss does little to dent their standing as one of the NFL's most talented teams. They didn't deserve to win, Bosa said. What it did was provide a wake-up call that even all that talent can't overcome mental errors, that even the best teams will have opponents with good game plans, that even the best teams have to be able to meet adversity and handle it. Better to be reminded of all that in Week 6 than much later.
"I think the NFL season is really long," Bosa said. "You're going to have to deal with injuries. It happens to every team at certain points. We lost some guys and we need to be more ready to adjust when we do lose guys."