Unbeaten 49ers hope to make most of poorly timed bye week

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Three weeks into the NFL season, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team enjoying itself more than the San Francisco 49ers are.

Sure, there have been bumps and bruises along the way, but these Niners are 3-0, one of the league's most pleasant surprises and have authored significant course corrections in many areas that left them 4-12 and drafting second after the 2018 season.

So, what's the last thing a team playing pretty good football and enjoying its early-season success wants to do in week 4? Stop playing football, of course.

That's the reality the 49ers are facing this week as they have been ticketed -- along with the New York Jets -- for the earliest bye a team in the NFL can get this season.

Suffice to say, it's not something they're looking forward to, though they're doing their best to find the positives in the negative.

"We'd rather not have it," San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. "But it's always good to rest guys up. You can always use this time to get guys healthier, but it is what it is. We know we'll come back. You always have a little time off when you have a Thursday night game. Hopefully, it will allow us to get a couple guys back who haven't been with us this year, and then we know those last eight games are going to be a grind."

It isn't often that you find a coach willing to admit that they'd rather not have a bye. It's customary for them to utter something to the effect of "there's never a bad time for a bye" whenever their week off arrives. But the 49ers have plenty of reason to be disappointed that they can't get right back to work.

Sunday's 24-20 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers vaulted the Niners to 3-0 for the first time since 1998 and has them in the hunt to be 4-0 for the first time since 1990. Through three weeks, San Francisco has taken leaps forward in areas such as takeaways (they have seven, matching the number they had last season), the run game (they rank first in rushing attempts and fourth in yards) and scoring margin (they're fourth at plus-42, best among teams who have not played the Miami Dolphins).

Those are the things a team can build off of, and any chance to slow that momentum is viewed with frustration, even if the bye is wholly out of their control.

"It’s weird," said quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who might want to keep going the most as he returns from a torn ACL. "I’ve never had a bye this early. It-is-what-it-is-type thing. We've got to go back, have a good week of assessing ourselves and get ready for the Monday night game."

Not only do the 49ers have the earliest bye possible, they don't play again until Oct. 7, a home game against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football. In other words, the wait between games is as long as it could possibly be from a scheduling perspective.

The good news? While early byes are unfavorable, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that a hot start through Week 3 is cooled off by the Week 4 bye. Since 2014, 12 teams have had the Week 4 bye (none did in 2017, which shows just how odd it can be), and those teams went a combined 6-6 in their Week 5 returns.

From that group, four of those teams started 3-0 before a Week 4 bye. Three of those teams went on to lose in Week 5, with the lone exception being the 2015 New England Patriots, who won after the bye, finished 12-4 and advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

Perhaps the best comparison for the Niners is the 2014 Seattle Seahawks, one of two West Coast-based teams to have the early bye since 2014 and a squad that also played on Monday Night Football out of the bye. That team started 2-1, went on to win in Week 5, finished 12-4 and lost in Super Bowl XLIX to the Patriots.

Niners cornerback Richard Sherman was on that Seattle team and has grown to believe that the benefits of the bye outweigh the negatives.

"We get to get some guys back," Sherman said. "You would like to have the bye week a little later, but we don't get to control that."

Indeed, the biggest bonus of the early bye is getting some banged up players back in business. Shanahan expects receiver Jalen Hurd (back) and running back Tevin Coleman (ankle) to be return after the bye. And the days off also should allow players such as defensive ends Nick Bosa (ankle) and Dee Ford (knee tendinitis) time to shake off remnants of lingering injuries.

A week without a game also permits players such as left tackle Joe Staley (broken fibula), receiver Trent Taylor (foot) and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (foot sprain) to continue their rehabs without missing a game.

Shanahan can use the time to correct the mistakes that have plagued his team in the first three weeks, starting with the five turnovers they had against Pittsburgh. Unhappy with the ugly 27-9 loss the Niners had at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year after their bye, Shanahan tweaked the schedule this year so the team practices Tuesday, then is given the rest of the week off. They'll return for "bonus" practices next Monday and Tuesday before resuming a normal work week.

In addition, the time off allows the coaches to get a head start on week 6, when the Niners play at the Los Angeles Rams on a short week coming off the Monday night game.

So while the 49ers aren't thrilled with the early bye, especially given the long-distance travel that still awaits this season (games in Washington D.C., Baltimore and New Orleans), they're going to make the most of it.

"You definitely want to keep playing," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "We feel like we’re hot. But at the same time, we have some guys who are banged up that I’m sure can use this week; and hopefully, we get some guys back who haven’t been playing and I think that’s just going to reenergize us."