Sunday was nearly flawless for the 49ers, save for one critical injury that taints their first 2-0 start in seven years.
The team lost veteran left tackle Joe Staley to a fractured left fibula, coach Kyle Shanahan said after winning 41-17 over the Bengals.
“It sucks,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said.
“He’s obviously a huge part of our team and our offensive line,” said right tackle Mike McGlinchey.
“I’m bummed,” Staley said.
The good news for San Francisco is Staley is expected to be back at some point during the regular season. He told NBC Sports Bay Area the initial diagnosis is six to eight weeks while Shanahan noted Staley isn’t considered an injured reserve candidate.
Staley was in good spirits on crutches and with a walking boot in the locker room following San Francisco’s rout of the Bengals. McGlinchey said he was told it’s a hairline fracture and no surgery is needed.
The six-time Pro-Bowler will have more testing once the 49ers return to the Bay Area. In the meantime, the next tackle available is rookie sixth-round pick Justin Skule, a four-year starter at Vanderbilt, who is at least the team’s third choice to play arguably the most important position on the offensive line.
The 49ers in the first preseason game lost their primary “swing” tackle, Shon Coleman, for the season after he fractured his fibula and dislocated his ankle against the Cowboys. He had surgery in early August leading the team to acquire veteran Sam Young off the street. However, Young didn’t do enough to win over the coaching staff during his few weeks of practice and preseason games. He was released during final cuts.
“Any time you lose your left tackle, it’s always significant, especially when the guy who backs him up we lost in the preseason,” Shanahan said. “So, we got Skule, we got (Daniel) Brunskill, they’ll have to step it up.”
The 49ers had done well protecting Garoppolo through two games. He’s been sacked just once, coming on a faulty play call in Tampa Bay, and has taken three quarterback hits.
Staley went down in a heap after it appeared running back Raheem Mostert’s left knee hit Staley in the side of the leg during a dominant stretch in the third quarter when the 49ers were putting the game out of reach. Staley limped off the field toward the Bengals’ sideline, where he waited a couple snaps for a cart to take him to the locker room.
“I’m really happy we got the win. It was a great road win,” Staley said. “I’m going to do everything I can to be part of this team for an end-of-season run.”
Eight weeks would put Staley’s return around mid November when the 49ers have a stretch of three-straight home games against the Seahawks, Cardinals and Packers. The schedule finishes with three road games in five weeks. San Francisco plays at the Ravens, at the Saints, home to Atlanta and the Rams before finishing in Seattle.
“Justin Skule’s been preparing for the last couple weeks and we’re confident in his ability to get the job done,” McGlinchey said. “And we’re going to play hard for Joe these next couple weeks while we’re out.”
Shanahan said there’s no plan to move McGlinchey to left tackle, where he played late in his college career at Notre Dame, to protect Garoppolo’s blind side. McGlinchey is widely believed to be Staley’s long-term replacement when he eventually retires. Though that won’t be happening soon. Staley signed a two-year contract extension through 2021 in June.
The 35-year-old has missed just four games over the past six seasons and played through hip and knee injuries previously, though they weren’t fractured bones. Staley was asked what he plans on doing while he rehabs the injury.
“I have a lot of years and knowledge,” he said. “I’ve always thought that after my football career ends as a player, I’d give coaching a try. Now maybe I’ll have some time to try it.”
Another long trip on deck?
The 49ers spent the week before Sunday’s game practicing in Youngstown, Ohio to save themselves from making two cross-country flights. The hope was to make things easier on players dealing with injuries and to get acclimated to the Eastern time zone. Sunday’s game was a 10 a.m. start time back in the Bay Area, which typically gives the home team a massive advantage over clubs from the West Coast.
“That’s what science does, and today it backed it up well,” Shanahan said. “So I’m sure we’ll stick with that.”
Shanahan’s team has back-to-back games in the Eastern time zone in early December against the Ravens and Saints, which could mean staying somewhere on the East Coast for practice between games for a second time.
Shanahan said he talked that scenario over with general manager John Lynch before Sunday’s blowout. There’s a strong chance the team stays away during that stretch.
“We felt like it helped us before the game happened,” said Shanahan. “Now, we would definitely probably have changed our mind if that score was the opposite. The fact we felt that before the game and the game encouraged that decision. We’ll see if our travel guys can get that done.”
Of course, there are obvious drawbacks. Being around teammates and away from the comforts of home could work against team morale in the wrong situation.
Cornerback Richard Sherman noted throughout the week it was tough being away from his family, which includes two small children.
“Obviously we won this game and had a successful trip, so I’m sure we’ll take that into account,” Sherman said. “But I’m sure they’ll take what our wives have to say, and what his wife has to say. We might be taking a bigger trip with a bigger group of people, because it would be another 10 days without the family in the middle of December.”
Sherman, along with Staley, DeForest Buckner, George Kittle and Garoppolo ,form a leadership council that would assuredly be consulted before making a decision.
▪ Pass rusher Dee Ford left the game at halftime due to quadriceps irritation, Shanahan said, and did not return. Ford was moving without a noticeable limp afterwards and the injury doesn’t appear serious. Shanahan will have an additional update on Monday.
▪ The 49ers had four sacks, but none of them came from Ford or Nick Bosa, who played extensively Sunday despite missing practice last week to rest his lower right leg. Bosa, of course, sustained a high ankle sprain in a training camp practice Aug. 7.