Entries in 49ers (145)


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.


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.”


‘Kyle made us believe,’ said Niners’ Celek

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sure, it was inevitable. Nobody loses them all in the NFL — if you discount the 2008 Detroit Lions. Still, that doesn’t mean there weren’t doubts from some of the players. Hey, you try going to work every day when the world is upside down.

And that doesn’t mean when the 49ers won for the first time since Kyle Shanahan became head coach — in their 10th game — they wouldn’t celebrate by dumping a bucket of water over on him, not Gatorade.

“We knew it was coming,” said Garrett Celek, the tight end who was very loose. “That’s the mentality of Kyle. He makes us believe.”

Then after a pause, a bit of self-reflection if not self-congratulations, Celek, who scored a touchdown on a 47-yard pass play in which he looked more like a ballerina than a receiver, compared a glorious recent pass with a disappointing present,at least until Sunday’s 31-21 victory over the New York Giants.

“I’ve been on teams (the 2012 Niners, his rookie season) that went to the Super Bowl,” said Celek. “It’s easy to work out then, easy to go every day. But when you haven’t won, it’s not so easy. But Kyle made us believe. That’s the culture he created.”

Although, as Shanahan conceded, the losses eat away at you. “Most people,” said the coach, “it’s a lot easier to check out, point fingers at people. That’s not what our guys did.”

Yes, just 1-9 (as compared to the awful Giants at 1-8), but success at last. Smiles at last. The way the Niners jogged off the field, players tossing chin straps and gloves to the remainder of a much-too-small Levi’s Stadium crowd (70,133 tickets sold; maybe 45,000 tickets used) it was if they had won a championship.

There was Jimmy Garoppolo, presumably the quarterback-to be, still not having played a down since being acquired from the Patriots, hurling his chin strap to a delighted fan. And there was C.J. Beathard, the quarterback of the last few weeks — and didn’t he play beautifully Sunday? — running to the locker room and the unknown.

The Niners have their bye next weekend. On ESPN, Adam Schefter said when they play their subsequent game, Garoppolo will be the starter. Not so fast, said Shanahan. “C.J.’s done a good job," the coach said. “He’s the same guy he’s been all season. Nothing’s too big for him.

“We haven’t made any decisions yet on our quarterbacks, so how could it be announced? We’re taking it week by week. We’ll continue working with Jimmy during bye week. We’ll have a bonus practice next Monday, then see where it goes from there. We’ll make our evaluation after that, WednesdayThursdayFriday.”

Beathard, a rookie who took over for Brian Hoyer a few games back, threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns and ran 11 yards for another touchdown. If this was his last game as a starter — for the immediate future, at least — it was a memorable one.

The Niners had lost five games in a row by three points or fewer. Then they were thumped. “Adversity,” said Shanahan. “It made us tougher. We got better through adversity.”

Now they have a victory. “Just one win,” said Shanahan. “We worked real hard for it. “

He was standing at the dais in the auditorium employed as a classroom for the players and at other times, such as this, media interview sessions. He was soaked and happy.

A season ago, as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, he had gone to the Super Bowl. But now he was the head man. From now on, Kyle Shanahan would never lack a “W” beside his name.

“What people don’t realize,” said Shanahan, who is the son of former coach Mike Shanahan and grew up within the game, “is how hard it is to win in the NFL. The more you coach, the more you realize, whether it’s a good team or a not so good team ... five in a row by three points or less made us understand you can’t waste one play, can’t waste one day.

“Four hours on Sunday, but it starts on Wednesday.”

This was the first time in any of their six home games this season the Niners had a lead. “The biggest thing,” said Shanahan, "was how we did on third down. We had struggled not being able to play those third downs and stay on the field.”

In this game, this first winning game, they stayed. And stayed. They converted eight of the 12 third-down attempts, 67 percent. So two out of three times, the 49ers had their first down.  And with Beathard connecting with Celek for the 47 yards, with Marquise Goodwin for 83 yards (“fastest man in the league,” Celek insisted) and with Matt Breida running 33 yards, they had what’s more important, touchdowns.

“We had some explosiveness this year,” Shanahan agreed. “We didn’t have explosive touchdowns. Then we got them.”

And, at last, the win.


Dwight Clark wanted to see Niner mates ‘one more time’

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The game was forgettable. As opposed to the halftime ceremony. That is something we must never forget, an emotional tribute — realistically, and how awful it is saying this — a farewell.

The 2018 49ers played awful Sunday. “There’s a very fine line between winning and getting your butts kicked,” said first-year coach Kyle Shanahan. They got their butts kicked.

They were beaten by the Dallas Cowboys, 40-10, at Levi’s Stadium. The team and the rookie head coach are 0-7. And while NFL teams rarely win them all or lose them all — yes, the exception is the 2008 Detroit Lions, 0-16— the possibility of the Niners going without a victory this fall is growing.

Depressing for Niners fans. As, in a way, was the halftime program. Depressing and at the same time uplifting, because it reminded us of better days, for the franchise and for the man being honored and remembered, Dwight Clark.

Clark has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a horrible, cruel ailment that traps a person in his own body, stealing life a day at a time. “A few months ago,” remembered the kind man who operates the press elevator at Levi’s, “I saw Dwight and he was joking, laughing.”

But time moves quickly with ALS. A healthy, robust individual is conquered by an ailment for which there is no cure. Clark made it to midfield Sunday at halftime, but when he spoke there was hesitancy in his words, as if he were fighting to get them out and barely succeeding.

Clark is best known for The Catch, and while surely no explanation need be required, not if you know football, not if you know Northern California, not if you know the 49ers, one will be given.

It was Henry Ford who said, “History is bunk.” What he meant was don’t look back when you should, look ahead. Yet all of sport is wrapped in history, and when the first pro franchise created in San Francisco has gone year after year without the championship and then in a moment of timing and brilliance it is transformed because of one play, The Catch, then the past must be cherished.

Early January 1982, Candlestick Park, the NFC Championship game for 1981, Niners and Cowboys, and once again it seems Dallas will win. But Joe Montana, Super Joe, avoids the leaping pass rush of Ed “Too Tall” Jones and flings ball to heaven knows where. To a desperately leaping Dwight Clark, that’s where. Touchdown, and after a brief defensive stand, Super Bowl, the start of a dynasty.

Montana was part of the ceremony on Sunday. Of course. So were as many teammates of those 1981 49ers as could be located and, through the passion and generosity of former owner Ed DeBartolo Jr., brought to the stadium.

Each wore a red 49er jersey with Clark’s number, 87. History. Memories. Sadness.

“I just want to see my teammates one more time,” Clark said he told DeBartolo. “And the 49ers heard that and flew all these players in so I could see ‘em one more time.”

DeBartolo wiped away a tear. Perhaps others did as well.

Montana reminded us that he and Clark were rookies and roommates in the summer of ’79, a friendship still strong. You watched, you listened, you shook your head in disbelief. Clark is 60, so young.

I’ve known others with ALS, including Bruce Edwards, who for quite a while was the caddy of champion golfer Tom Watson. What causes the disease? Why does it strike so many football players and golfers or caddies? Is it something on the grass? Something in the air?

Clark said DeBartolo flew him to Japan, hoping a researcher would have an answer, have a cure. “Thanks, Eddie,” said Clark. “You’ve been my friend since 1979.”

Then, after a few seconds, he said, “It’s been a tough year.”


49ers and Shanahan: Give them time

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA — There was disappointment. There was no despondency. Somehow, after his first game as an NFL head coach, an event unfortunately of more yawns than thrills, Kyle Shanahan, very much a realist, made you feel there would be better days — and of course that’s the reason the 49ers hired him.

In our fantasies, the new guy walks in and, voila, turns a loser — which the Niners have been the last couple of years — into a winner. But as everyone since the days of Bill Walsh, who started in 1979, should be aware, success is a painful process, requiring patience and at least a dozen upgrades of the roster.

One could study both the progress and the result of San Francisco’s and young Mr. Shanahan’s debut for this season of ’17, boring for the most part and unrewarding specifically, and wonder what had changed from the Jim Tomsula (5-11 in 2015) or Chip Kelly (2-14 in 2016) years.

Not much was different in the stands at Levi’s Stadium, where despite the announced attendance of 70,178 Sunday at least a third of the seats were unfilled — especially in the west stands, where the sun bakes those who do remain. Game-time temperature, in the shade, was 87 degrees.

On the field, the Niners kept falling further and behind, 7-0, 10-0, all the way to 20-0, before kicking a face-saving field goal, ultimately losing 23-3. And yet, both the way the Niners played defense — and never mind Shanahan was an offensive coordinator — and the words Shanahan employed in his post-game interview offered glimpses of hope.

Teams don’t effect coaching changes when they are any good. Walsh lost his opening seven games and went 2-14 that first year. He became an offensive genius, but not until Joe Montana replaced Steve DeBerg as quarterback the middle of Walsh’s second year.

Is it unfair to describe Brian Hoyer as Shanahan’s DeBerg? Hoyer is the best of the worst, or at least in Shanahan’s view the best he has. Hoyer threw 35 passes Sunday; 24 were caught by the Niners, one by the Panthers. But what doomed the Niners on offense was their running game. They gained 51 yards net. Carolina’s rookie Christian McCaffrey, from Stanford, had 47 on his own. Teammate Jonathan Stewart had 65.

So the better team won (two seasons ago the Panthers were in the Super Bowl, right here at Levi’s). Still, Shanahan understood the situation — and he didn't concede to it. He liked the effort. Maybe no touchdowns, but also no quit.

“We go make sure we get better,” he acknowledged. And just the way he said it, without pomp or pretense, a guy who has been a part of football since he was a kid — that’s what happens when your dad is a dad, not to mention a Super Bowl champion — was enduring.

The last real game before this one in which Shanahan was a coach was also a Super Bowl, last February. He was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, who built up a 28-3 third-quarter lead over New England before losing, 34-28, in overtime. Maybe the play-calling had something to do with that, or a lot to do with that. Or maybe the Falcons' defense just collapsed.

Whatever, as assistant and head coach, Shanahan is 0-2 in the last two meaningful games his teams have played. Then again, this all might border on irrelevancy, numbers to fill space and create conversation. Just like asking whether the 49ers, with their penalties (10 for 74 yards) and a Carolina interception on the SF28) beat themselves.

“I don’t think that,” said Shanahan unemotionally. “That’s a good team, and you’ve got to be at your best to play against them. By no means do I think we beat ourselves. I’ve got to give credit to them. They deserve it. We can make it a lot easier.”

Levi’s, in its fourth season (and hosting its fourth head coach) rarely has been full up with spectators. Someone felt compelled to bring up the issue to the new coach, asking, “Do you have anything to say to the fans in terms of the product getting better or hang in there with you, any of that kind of stuff?”

“I didn’t notice attendance or anything,” said Shanahan, “but I thought the fans were great. I don’t think we gave them much to cheer for in the second, so I definitely can’t blame them for that. They haven’t had a lot to cheer about recently, but I promise we’re going to do everything we can, working as hard as we can, to change that — as soon as we possibly can.”   

That, certainly, is why he is the new coach.