Each week, NBC Sports Bay Area 49ers insider Matt Maiocco will preview the upcoming matchup and key storylines heading into Sunday's game. For more takeaways and features from Maiocco, visit NBCSports.com.
Although we're just five games into the season, it should be clear this season stands on its own.
The 49ers have already lost the same number of games than during the entire 2019 regular season.
This is a different season.
This is a different team.
And the 49ers must find a different formula for success.
The 49ers have to reinvent themselves. And, more than likely, it must start Sunday night with an entire nation watching.
This game against the Los Angeles Rams is not be a must-win. But, let's face it, this is a big one for a team that began this season with its sights set on capping the season with a victory on the first Sunday of February.
We all know the 49ers have struggled with injuries this season. It stands to reason that playing the bulk of the season without Nick Bosa and missing such integral players as Richard Sherman and Dee Ford will have an impact on the win-loss column.
The 49ers are missing some important players. But they are also missing something else that is not as easily identified.
Tight end George Kittle is one of the best players in the NFL, but he knows he can get better on and off the field for his team. The on-field part will take care of itself. There is no concern there. He is still one of the top players in the league.
But the other part - the part that comes with his status on the team - takes a lot more work.
Following the team's humbling loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 5, Kittle dialed up Joe Staley, who is in his first year of retirement after a remarkable 13-year career.
Staley saw it all during his time with the 49ers. He experienced good times, but only after serving as the conscience of the team and helping hold things together during some exhausting rough stretches.
He shared with Kittle his belief that it is up to the emerging leaders in the locker room to hold everyone to the highest standard.
Sherman has not played since Week 1. Staley has moved on to another phase of life. DeForest Buckner is now with the Indianapolis Colts.
The 49ers are trying to find their way with a new generation of leaders.
"I'm not saying we're lacking in that at all," Kittle said. "I'm just saying we are trying to find our footing as a team, as captains, too. When you lose Joe Staley, and Sherm hasn't been here really -- when you lose two guys who you look up to, it is hard."
It is not as easy as mimicking what Staley would do. It has to be authentic, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
The only way Kittle and others can have an impact as leaders is if their actions come naturally.
"I think George is a hell of a captain and he does it a great way," Shanahan said. "Staley was a hell of a captain who did it a great way. So I appreciate George trying to do everything he can to get better. But I just want George to be himself. Don't try to be Staley. Be yourself."
There is a sense the 49ers will not be able to get themselves going with a 2019-like string of victories until they figure out their true identity off the field.
It is less about words than actions.
Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo, Trent Williams, Raheem Mostert, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner and Jimmie Ward should be the 49ers' top players.
Those are the individuals who must step up and speak with their on-field production.
Those are the individuals who must lead the team out of its funk with tone-setting plays that create a contagious environment of smart, tough, quality football.
And until that happens, all the words are simply meaningless.