YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- As the San Francisco 49ers walked across Fifth Avenue to the Youngstown State soccer field Wednesday afternoon for their first practice of the week, coach Kyle Shanahan had his head on a swivel.
Having coached in some capacity in the NFL since 2004, Shanahan knows that you can't be too careful when it comes to protecting team secrets and game plans.
On a week like this -- as the Niners prepare for Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the second road contest in a row to open the season -- taking extra precaution is necessary. That's especially true considering that the soccer field at Youngstown State sits out in the open at the intersection of Fifth and Madison Avenues, with no high-reaching grandstands to block outside views. Curious onlookers could even see Shanahan's team from the Sunoco gas station that sits next to the field.
While this particular part of northeast Ohio has deep ties to the Niners franchise because it's the hometown of the York and DeBartolo families, it's still technically enemy territory.
“I’ve done it long enough to realize that you should have some paranoia," Shanahan said. "Not everyone's like that, but some people are. You can never be too safe.
"There's lots of rumors that I've heard over the years. If you're not cheating, you're not trying, so you've got to be careful with that, especially in their home state."
At every potential viewing post, security guards or local police officers stood in wait. During Thursday's practice, five police cars lined Fifth Avenue and no less than 10 officers and security personnel surrounded the field to prevent prying eyes. Even passing cars weren't immune to getting a longer look, as the passengers yelling "Go Niners!" from their Ford Escape and Chevy Malibu found out Thursday.
With a chance to win road games in back-to-back weeks to start a season for the first time since 1989, Shanahan and the Niners took no chances with security this week. In fact, it was Niners' recent struggles on the road, especially when going from the West Coast to the Eastern time zone, that brought them here in the first place.
San Francisco was 0-8 on the road in 2018. While much of that can be attributed to the Niners not being very good, they were still 4-4 at home. In the two seasons since Shanahan took over, the 49ers were just 3-13 away from Levi's Stadium prior to beating the Buccaneers in Tampa this past Sunday.
So when the schedule revealed two East Coast trips to open the season, the Niners began looking at ways to turn those two trips into one longer journey. Their search for a stopover between the games brought them back to Youngstown, where they trained between games in 2011 and 2012.
"Just going through it for two years I just realized how much it takes a toll on your team traveling from coast to coast," Shanahan said. "I’ve been in the NFL for a while and I was mainly on the East Coast for most of my career, so I didn't think it was as big of a deal traveling from coast to coast when I was there. But I've noticed over two years that it's a difference here."
For the 49ers, the effect of that difference has been noticeable. Before the win in Tampa, the Niners had lost 11 consecutive games in the Eastern time zone dating to 2014. Given the recent surge in information available on the importance of sleep, nutrition and recovery, the task of traveling from coast to coast and winning has become an increasingly tall order.
For the Niners, staying in the Eastern time zone cut down on flight time after the win in Tampa, thus decreasing the potential for postgame swelling, allowing them to keep a consistent sleep schedule and continue the adaptation to increased heat and humidity.
Most important, the Youngstown trip allowed the Niners to stay in a routine. Like most athletes, football players are creatures of habit, and being able to stay as close to that as possible is imperative.
For quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, that means attempting to be in bed by 9:30 p.m. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk shoots for 10 p.m. and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas abides by a 10:30 bed time. Keeping those target times can be hard when there's a three-hour time difference. A time that might be reasonable on the West Coast would mean staying up later in the east.
"The biggest thing is trying to find that routine," Juszczyk said. "And I feel like something that a lot of people don't realize is it's tempting to sit in your hotel room and just kind of do nothing. Sleep all day. And your body starts to, you know, get lazy, so you've got to stay active, find different things to do around the hotel, and hang out with your teammates, all that kind of stuff."
Juszczyk, who aims for nine hours of sleep, often will hit the hotel pool to exercise or knock out a simple workout in his hotel room. Staying in smaller towns with less nightlife can be a good thing, as it prevents temptation. It also can make it hard to turn down additional sleep.
This week, Niners players sought ways to spend time together, finding bonding activities while learning more about the York family's hometown. On Tuesday night, the team attended a dinner provided by the York family with all the Italian dishes Garoppolo wanted, then visited local ice cream joint Handel's for dessert (Garoppolo went for cookies-and-cream in a waffle cone). These activities kept players active to help them get to sleep earlier (the potential food comas also helped) while increasing team chemistry.
"The more that you're together as a team, the more you're building relationships and where you get to know your teammates," tight end George Kittle said. "You can never really know your teammates enough. And so those relationships that you build definitely help you out on the field."
That help is important for the Niners as they aim for a breakout season. With a brutal end-of-season schedule, a 2-0 start with consecutive victories on the road would represent a step in the right direction.
It could also set the stage for another weeklong layover later this season, as the Niners play at Baltimore and New Orleans in Weeks 13 and 14. An extended stay there could depend on whether the 49ers are still in the postseason mix. A win in Cincinnati to cap a successful trip would go a long way in making that happen.
"I think it's really big for us to get out to a hot start," Juszczyk said. "You know, we're a young team and, like I said, we have to establish that confidence and knowing that we're a better team, than the team that we're facing. So I think coming out to a hot start would go a long way in proving that to ourselves."