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3 Takeaways from 49ers’ 2021 schedule

© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers’ 2021 schedule is here, and with it are all the gut reactions and immediate predictions for how this season, which features 17 games for the first time, will play out. Barring a cataclysmic injury situation like the one which took place last year, San Francisco would be hard pressed to fare worse than last season.

As a reference, here’s the schedule:

It’s… easy?

Sometimes it pays to be bad. Because the 49ers finished last in the NFC West last year, they benefited in the form of three games against fellow last-placers. Instead of the gauntlet they faced, having to see New Orleans and Green Bay again (they’ll see Green Bay, but only because of the rotation of the league’s schedule), they’ll get some not so dominant opponents.

In Week 2, on the road, they’ll get the Philadelphia Eagles, who went 4-11 last year… though one of those wins was, embarrassingly, against the 49ers. Then there’s the Atlanta Falcons at home on December 19, coming off a 4-12 season, but having added Kyle Pitts in the draft. Though, that’s also eerily close to 2019, when they were stunned by the Falcons at home on December 15.

And then there’s Cincinnati away on December 12, who the 49ers play as a result of the new 17-game season. Without Joe Burrow, the Bengals floundered, finishing 4-11-1. Despite many believing they’d look to protect Burrow, they added his former LSU teammate, JaMarr Chase with the fifth overall pick.

But it’s not just the bottom-dwellers that the 49ers were rewarded with by proxy of being terrible. They lucked into some especially poor divisions as a result of the NFL’s yearly schedule rotation, with the likes of the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions all on the schedule.

According to SharpFootballAnalysis, the 49ers have the easiest strength of schedule by a significant margin, based on win total projections from oddsmakers. There is some disagreement there, though, as BetMGM has them with the 13th-easiest schedule.

There is, however, a consensus that the 49ers’ schedule is on the easier side, and that passes the eye test. The NFC West is always difficult, but outside of that, the only potentially premier opponents are Green Bay, Indianapolis and maybe Tennessee and Minnesota. Atlanta and Chicago are wild cards, but this is clearly, on paper, at least, not gearing up to be the gauntlet they faced in either of the last two seasons.

Bye week, early again

This is the most significant downside of this schedule. The 49ers have the earliest possible bye week. Yes, the NFL moved it two weeks later than the Week 4 byes that it previously had, but given the extra week of the season, that only tangibly amounts to a one week change.

As a matter of personal preference, I don’t think byes should begin until Week 8. They could still end Week 14, which the NFL clearly wants so as to have a full docket of playoff-consequential games down the stretch. There are three weeks (8, 11, 12) with just two teams on byes. You could move two teams each from Week 7 to those weeks, and split up the four remaining Week 6 teams however fits best, and you’d never have more than six teams on a bye during any given week.

That would keep the byes in a window where they’re more useful to teams and all in a roughly similar timeframe, rather than some teams having them a third of the way through the year, and some having them with four weeks to go.

Anyway, moving on from that mini-rant, the Week 6 bye is clearly a concern, especially in a longer season. The 49ers have experience in dealing with that back in 2019, when they had the brutal Week 4 bye, so you can make the argument that the timing worked out. But if you asked any NFL team, they’d prefer a mid- or late-season bye week to an early one, without question.

Then there’s also the matter of Week 16, when they have to travel to Tennessee for a Thursday night game after playing Atlanta at home. There’s also another similar short week and trip, though not as brutal, in Week 11, when they have to go to Jacksonville for a Sunday afternoon game after playing the Rams at home on Monday Night Football.

That sort of quickfire, cross-country travel with no bye week in between might be rough, and could mean the difference between winning and losing a war of attrition. You could, however, see that Thursday game as a mini-bye with two weeks to go, with a layup of a game to follow against Houston, before finishing the season at Los Angeles.

Prime time games reflect belief that 49ers should be back among league’s elite

Last season was an anomaly, by every stretch. That whole, not totally over pandemic caused a shortened preseason with no rookie camp and no OTAs. Training camp was severely limited, and for the 49ers, that’s sort of where the season was lost. It was like Sisyphus trying to push a rock up a hill, but instead of recovering, the 49ers just kept slipping, with each additional injury acting like another rock on top of the pile.

Per FootballOutsiders, San Francisco lost the most games of any team by a significant margin, with 166.6, and only a few were the result of COVID-19 protocols:

You may notice that the team with the least amount of injuries was Tampa Bay. It turns out being a very well-built team and staying healthy is a pretty crucial component of sustained success throughout the season. Kansas City, in case you’re wondering, ranked 11th (and ninth, without COVID-19-related absences).

Even if the 49ers have a rough injury situation this year, it won’t be as bad as last year. That was unprecedented, even with a shortened offseason. They will be healthier this year. How much healthier remains to be seen, but they’ve added depth at crucial areas; on both lines, in the backfield, and obviously, at the quarterback position.

There are definite concerns about corner, wide receiver and tight end, but those are truly the only positions of concern. Given the cap constraints every team faced this offseason, that’s a pretty monumental accomplishment.

The fact that San Francisco has five prime time games, which is the maximum allowed from the outset, reflects the belief within the NFL that they will be contenders again. And with a schedule that is pretty favorable, aside from a tricky early bye week, there is every reason to buy 49ers stock, regardless of who the starting quarterback is.

Bonus notes:

    • The 49ers get the Bears in Week 8, on a rare Sunday night Halloween game. There will be plenty of discussion at that point about Justin Fields vs. Trey Lance, even if neither are… well, at least one of them’s going to be starting (smart money is on Fields before Lance).
    • They open the year in Detroit. The last time they did that, it went pretty well…

  • They open (at Detroit) and close the season (at Los Angeles) on the road. That seems kinda lame. It feels like you should have one or the other, like how the (San Francisco) Giants always open on the road and finish at home.

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