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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.”