Kyle Shanahan set the bar high in his first three seasons as 49ers coach.
Even during the 49ers’ six- and four-win seasons of 2017 and 2018, there was a palpable feeling that the team was heading in the right direction.
He instilled a sense of confidence among the players with his teachings, his vision. The organization was piecing it together, identifying the players on the roster who represented the solution while weeding out those who were part of the problem.
The bar was low for the 49ers until last season when it all came together.
But since the beginning of the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, things have unraveled rather quickly.
The Miami Dolphins came to Levi’s Stadium and demolished the 49ers, 43-17, on Sunday. The only bright side for the team was that there were not 70,000 fans in attendance to shower them with the boos they so richly deserved.
Those first two seasons under Shanahan provided the 49ers with plenty of practice for reacting to demoralizing losses. But this one feels so much different because those days were supposed to be long gone.
This is a Super Bowl-or-bust season.
Through five games, the 49ers are looking a whole lot closer to bust than Super Bowl.
“I want us to react and play better,” Shanahan said. “I want us to react and coach better.”
Some of this is understandable. Most of it is not.
The 49ers have been decimated by injuries. It’s a fact. What else is a fact is that opponents are not going to feel sorry for them when they line up to play.
Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have to step up their performances and devise game plans that account for the strengths and weaknesses of the team. They simply did not do that on Sunday.
It was as if Miami coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey had better grasps of the 49ers’ personnel than the 49ers.
Gailey and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wasted no time in signaling their intentions. They went up top on the first play of the game and torched cornerback Brian Allen, making his first and, likely, last appearance in a 49ers uniform.
The Dolphins kept going after Allen, and the 49ers just stood there and allowed it to happen.
Shanahan said cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon told the 49ers’ coaching staff before the game he felt his hamstring wasn't good enough for him to suit up for the game but he could play only in an emergency situation.
And when the 49ers fell behind 21-7 in large part due to Allen and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, Witherspoon informed the coaches he was suddenly OK to play.
There is also the question of Jimmy Garoppolo’s physical condition after missing two games due to a high ankle sprain. He looked immobile, uncomfortable and threw balls that looked as if they were pumped with helium.
Garoppolo will get healthier. He will get better. (At least, you would think.)
The biggest concern on the team -- an area in which there should be no excuses at all -- is on the offensive line.
The Dolphins turned up the pressure and the 49ers proved incapable of making them pay for their aggressiveness. The 49ers did not have a pass play of more than 20 yards on Sunday.
Garoppolo and C.J. Beathard were sacked a combined five times for minus-43 yards. The 49ers were beaten physically; they were beaten mentally.
Left tackle Trent Williams let Miami defensive tackle Zach Sieler sprint past him for an uncontested first-quarter sack of Garoppolo. Williams immediately turned to left guard Laken Tomlinson with body language that suggested he felt Tomlinson blew the assignment.
This was the day the 49ers’ offense should have been capable of picking up the slack for a short-handed defense.
But with this kind of offensive performance, it is difficult to believe the 49ers would have won this game even if their defense had been playing at its 2019 level.
“I definitely expect those guys to do better,” Shanahan said of the offensive line on Sunday.
“(But) as an offense as a whole, not just the O-line, from the receivers to the quarterback to tight ends to running backs to every single coach. I'm just very disappointed today.”
And for good reason.
This was the day that reality delivered the 49ers a devastating blow.