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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.