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7:49PM

Niners lose ball and game to the only team that hadn’t won

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The clues were as obvious as the footballs bouncing on the grass — and picked up by the opposition. And, in one case, run back for a touchdown.

If you lose the ball, which the 49ers did, then you lose the game. Which the 49ers also did.

Do turnovers make bad teams? Or do bad teams make turnovers? This is not so much a conundrum as a gentle way of saying that, right now, the San Francisco 49ers are a mess. They were beaten by the only team in the NFL that until Sunday had beaten no one else.

But if you give away the ball five times, twice on interceptions and thrice on fumbles, you’re going to lose to anyone and everyone, so it’s no surprise that the Niners were stopped, 28-18, by the Arizona Cardinals and that both Arizona the Niners are 1-4.

The surprise is that until the end, San Francisco was in the game, in a manner of speaking. And another surprise will be if the 49ers can win one of their next two games, Monday night at Green Bay and then a week from Sunday back here at Levi’s Stadium against the overwhelming Los Angeles Rams.

“We doubled their time of possession,” said 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan — 40 minutes, 12 seconds to a virtual 20 minutes. “Our defense played its tail off. You look at a lot of things, it’s hard to find out how we lose this game. Then it’s very easy: turnovers.”

Especially one of them, a 23-yard fumble return by Cardinals linebacker Josh Byrnes, who picked up the ball after Niners quarterback C.J. Beathard was sacked and lost it on his own 33. The ball bounced, Byrnes grabbed it, and, yikes, with 4:41 to play Arizona grabbed a 21-12 lead — and the game.

Asked how many of the turnovers could be blamed on Beathard, the second-year quarterback who is filling in for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo, Shanahan did his best not to throw Beathard under the bus. He merely tossed him under one of those motorized scooters.

“I mean he’s the quarterback,” said the coach. “It’s his responsibility to protect the ball. But 10 other guys should make it easier on him. Usually fumbles are hard to pin on the quarterback.”

The Niners lost several starters, including halfback Matt Breida, a strong blocker as well as a fine runner. But pro football is a game of injuries, and the slogan is “Next man up.” Every player in the locker room is capable, or he wouldn’t be there.

“You can’t win ballgames turning the ball over five times,” Beathard confirmed. “I feel like we played well in all the other aspects except turnovers. Just got to take better care of the ball.”

Beathard didn’t quite know what happened when he was sacked by Byrnes, and the ball was returned for a score.

“I was trying to get the ball to (wide receiver) Trent Taylor,” said Beathard, “and he was getting held. I decided to wait a little bit. The guy hit the ball out of my hands and that was it. Just got to get the ball out quicker.”

Maybe Beathard is what we see. Surely the Niners would have thought more of him or they wouldn’t have signed Garoppolo, who was seen as a savior. Bur the savior is done until next year after knee surgery, so for better or worse it’s Beathard’s baby.

And Shanahan’s worry. After an 0-9 start last year as a rookie coach, Shanahan, and the Niners, finished with five straight wins. Yes, Garoppolo was in charge. Now he’s not.

“Last year it was frustrating to start that way,” said Shanahan, answering a question. “And we don’t like to lose. We put a lot of work into this. Every Sunday we come out confident, and we expect to win. We’ve come up short a number of times.

“I told our team we’d love to be 5-0 right now, and we’re not. We know why we lose each game. We fought hard, but when you have five turnovers it’s borderline impossible.”

The word borderline is not applicable. It’s simply impossible. As the Niners proved.

 

5:11PM

S.F. Examiner: Dwight Clark changed the course of 49ers history

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

The talk was all about the failures and the disappointments — the halftime lead blown against Detroit back in ’57, the fumble by Preston Riley against the Cowboys on that fateful Saturday in ’72. For almost four decades, the San Francisco 49ers were defined only by negative history.

Until January 10, 1982.  Until “The Catch.” Dwight Clark grasped a football seemingly beyond his reach and changed not only the scoreboard — the 49ers taking the lead in the NFC Championship, 28-27 — but the culture of San Francisco pro football.

Read the full story here.

©2018 The San Francisco Examiner 

8:31AM

Niners, Raiders get necessities, not attention or quarterbacks

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Let’s see, the Raiders took Kolton Miller and the 49ers Mike McGlinchey. Or was it the other way around?

For sure it wasn’t Baker Mayfield, the instigator, or Josh Rosen, Miller’s verbalizing teammate from UCLA, and that’s the disadvantage of having at least a decent team.

You don’t get glamour guys or the attention when you’re competent. What you get are necessities, players who block, who open holes for runners, set up pockets for passers and, even though they are usually the most perceptive and smartest players on any football team, rarely get mentioned until they miss an assignment.

The Niners and Raiders have their quarterbacks. Or so we think, Oakland having Derek Carr and San Francisco, after that seemingly brilliant deal during the 2017 season, Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Cleveland Browns, with one victory in their last 32 games, didn’t.

That lack of success and signal caller enabled them to have the No. 1 pick, and on day one of the draft that’s big stuff.

TV loves a train wreck. The stories were whether Sam Darnold of USC, a quarterback of course, or Josh Allen of Wyoming, a quarterback, or Rosen, a quarterback, would be the first player selected.

It turned out to be Mayfield of Oklahoma, a quarterback. Yes, Saquon Barkley of Penn State, a running back — and is he terrific — went second, but as we were reminded by the guys on ESPN and NFL TV, this was all about quarterbacks. Even the last pick of the first round, Lamar Jackson of Louisville, was a quarterback.

It’s understood that in the NFL — in football at any level — you must have a quarterback. He handles the ball on every offensive play, run or pass. And you also must have a defense, otherwise you’ll be receiving kickoffs from start to finish.

That said, the late Al Davis, who led the Raiders to championships and then in his declining years with draft selections such as JaMarcus Russell, a quarterback who just happened to look like an offensive lineman (the man could eat), led them to mediocrity, always believed the most important part of a team was the offensive line. You do remember Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto, Bob Brown and Dave Dalby, right? All but Dalby are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Whether McGlinchey, a 6-foot-8, 315-pound tackle from Notre Dame taken with the ninth pick, or Miller, a 6-9, 309-pound tackle from UCLA taken with the 15th pick, turns out like those guys, we’ll learn over time.

Whatever, they fill a need for each team. And if drafting offensive linemen is not as entertaining as drafting QBs or running backs, that’s the way it has to be.

When you get your quarterback, you’d better keep him healthy and happy. When he was with ESPN, once and current Raiders coach Jon Gruden ran a “quarterback camp,” which was as much a TV show as a football test. He understands a quarterback needs coordination, arm strength, quickness — and an offensive line.

He passed that understanding to Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, not that McKenzie didn’t already feel the same way.

“What Kolton can do,” said McKenzie of his No. 1 pick, “when you talk about pass protection and staying in front of the guy, that’s what he does. He’s got the length. He’s got the great feet. And when you talk about the second level, pulling, this guy has a lot of talent.”

Surely so does McGlinchey, who was taken by San Francisco but was admired by McKenzie and Oakland. “We would have upgraded with either one,” said McKenzie.

O-linemen are somewhat obscure. Except to the coaches, players and front office.

Niners GM John Lynch said McGlinchey “has a special presence to him. He’s real. He’s authentic. And he’s a badass. We like that.”

Similar comments before the round would have made for great theater.

Rosen said a few things when he finally was chosen with the 10th pick — that Oakland had traded to Arizona — and they were explosive. And captivating.

“There were nine mistakes ahead of me,” said Rosen about the players taken earlier than he was. “I thought I should have been picked 1-2-3.”

The draft is all about opinions — and this year was about quarterbacks.

9:41AM

The 49ers know who they are

By Art Spander

LOS ANGELES — The public address announcer kept promoting the home team — well, the team that came home — telling the less-than-capacity crowd at the Coliseum how wonderful it was that the Rams, the Los Angeles Rams, were NFC West Champions. All the while, the Rams were getting whipped by the 49ers.

Which meant nothing on this final day of 2017, perhaps to the Rams, who played their backups, saving them from harm before the playoffs. But it meant a great deal to the Niners, who as the season came to an end looked very much like the football team the fans hoped it would be when Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch were hired.

San Francisco’s 34-13 win Sunday could be dismissed as an exhibition game, one played before the start of the regular NFL season and not on the last day of the regular NFL season. The Rams chose not to suit their stars, quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, numerous others. It would not be unfair to say that was L.A.’s junior varsity.

But it was a game on the schedule, a schedule the Niners began with nine straight losses and ended with five straight wins, finishing at 6-10, far better than could be imagined the beginning of November.

The Niners once more are relevant, and in 2015 (Jim Tomsula, 5-11) and 2016 (Chip Kelly, 2-14) that word was hardly spoken.

Open with nine straight defeats — yes, a couple probably should have been W’s, but we do not dwell on should haves — and then come home with five straight wins? Never been done before. Ever.

“Yes, said Shanahan after the game, “we talked about that (Saturday) night. I’m so proud of the guys. One of the key things I wanted to find out this year was who we were. Who the coaches were. Who the players were. I don’t think you find out until there’s a little adversity. We stayed together and got better from it. Showed the character we have.”

Look, the Niners, seemingly so pathetic back in September and October, had the same record as the team that’s across the bay — until it flees across the desert sand — the Raiders. Who’d a thunk that?

And no less significant, the Niners got the quarterback they had to have, the one we presumed they’d grab with that high draft pick they played their way out of, going from No. 2 overall to a good distance down the list. And Shanahan is delighted. 

He doesn’t have to worry about picking up that quarterback. He has one. “We don’t have to go into free agency or the draft looking for an answer to that question,” said Shanahan. “Where we can improve our team we will.”

The Rams and 49ers have been battling since San Francisco joined the NFL from the All-America Conference in 1950. Before the Giants and Dodgers moved west, before the Lakers came from Minneapolis and the Warriors from Philadelphia, the Rams and 49ers were California’s only big time franchises.

They made history at the Coliseum (when it still seated 102,000) and Kezar Stadium, respectively. They had names like Waterfield and Van Brocklin, McElhenny and Albert. One of the most famous sports photographs showed Y.A. Tittle dropping back to pass one night in L.A. with Niners linemen blocking Rams rushers off their feet.

When the Niners finally became champions in the 1980s, the stands at Anaheim Stadium, where the Rams had shifted, were packed with red shirts and cheers for the Niners — which was the situation Sunday at the famed Coliseum.

So much has been said about the empty seats during Niners games at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The stands at the Coliseum on Sunday were maybe only two-thirds full, and the crowd was cheering for the Niners.

The rebuilding has been started. So has the dream.

“A game like this (when the Rams benched their stars) is always a concern for coaches," Shanahan said. "But our players are like sharks. It doesn’t matter what day it is, what game it is. We don’t have to turn it on. We know who we are.”

And so do the Rams.

11:34AM

Niners: 'Wait 'til next year' is a legitimate thought

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — He’s a Harvard guy, so he has to be smart, right? Which Kyle Juszczyk is. As well as tough. The man is a starting fullback in the NFL. No softies allowed there. He can smack you and take a smack. He also can take a stand.

So on this Christmas Eve, with shouts of joy filling the 49ers locker room at Levi’s Stadium, it made sense to question Juszczyk about what went on and why.

Sure, we knew the suddenly resurgent Niners beat the best defensive team in the league, Jacksonville, 44-33. But what about the Jaguars yelling at each other on the sidelines and taking physical shots against San Francisco on the field?

What about the Jags being called for 12 penalties for 99 yards?

“I don’t think they were used to a team moving the ball against them like we did,” said Juszczyk, who probably needs a Harvard degree just to spell his name. 

“Things got very chippy. They’re one of the top teams in the league. And for us to come out there and win the way we did certainly may have frustrated them. But it gives us something on which to build for next season.”

Not that this season is quite finished, even for the Niners. The Jags (10-5) are going to the playoffs. The 49ers, with four straight win and a 5-10 record — remember, they opened the schedule by losing their first nine in a row — will close out next Sunday against the Rams at Los Angeles.

And they probably wish it was all just beginning, not coming to a close, now that they have their quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, undefeated in four games as a starter, now that they have their footing and now that they have their confidence.

“Yes,” said Juszczyk, “I wish we had a few more games, but we’re not going to let that take away from what we’re doing now.”

What they’ve been doing, with Garoppolo using his own agility and athletic skill (those throws across his body), with the offense utilizing the complex offense of first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan, with the defense coming up with key stops and interceptions, is teasing us with reminders of The Dynasty. Of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh and Ronnie Lott.

Don’t get too excited yet, although halfback Carlos Hyde certainly did, his hopes running away as he and Matt Breida ran away through a Jaguar defense set to stop Garoppolo’s passing.

“Minus our record, we’re a really good football team,” Hyde said. “Next year, we’re going to win the Super Bowl.”

Garoppolo, who’s been on a winning Super Bowl team, the Patriots, as Tom Brady’s backup, was a bit more realistic. “I’ll talk to him about that,” he said about Hyde’s unrestrained enthusiasm. “Yeah, I don’t know. We’re dealing with the Rams next week, and we’ll look at everything else after that.”

What the less-than-capacity gathering at Levi’s was looking at on Sunday was a game that brought loud cheers and, for Garoppolo, chants of “MVP, MVP,” even though that reaction started after San Francisco’s K’Waun Williams intercepted a pass in the third quarter, setting up a Garoppolo-to-George Kittle TD pass.

But Garoppolo is the catalyst, as a winning quarterback always is. An offense needs balance. “Carlos said before me, him and Matt went out there today, 'This is going to be on our backs,'” said Juszczyk. 

Meaning they had to run the ball to keep the Jaguars’ excellent pass rush from burying Garoppolo. They did. Hyde carried 21 times for 52 yards and a touchdown. Breida ran 11 times for 74 yards (including a 30-yarder) and a touchdown, and Juszczyk, the blocker, had five receptions for 44 yards.

Garoppolo has the intangibles. When he’s there, the team seems to have more life.  

Years ago, when John Elway retired as Denver’s quarterback, I asked Norv Turner, who would come and go as an NFL head coach, what the Broncos would be like without Elway. “I can’t predict,” said Turner, “but a great quarterback will win two games your team probably would have lost without him.”

With Garoppolo as starter, the Niners haven’t lost any games. Yes, you’re allowed to say, “Wait 'til next year.”