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8:55PM

Niners say they came close, but Bears were better team

   SANTA CLARA, Calif.—They’re better than they were a month ago, which makes the 49ers feel somewhat satisfied. But they’re not better than the Chicago Bears. Oh maybe, as the echoes from the Niners locker room advised, they were close and they could have won, could have beaten the Bears.

  You always hear that refrain when the underdog, the team with the losing record, puts up a fight—and that doesn’t mean the literal one that erupted on the Bears sideline in the fourth quarter—and makes a game of it.

  Which is what the Niners did, but the Bears (11-4 and NFC North champions) made a win of it, 14-9, to nobody’s surprise. 

  Yes, the Niners, as they told us, had chances, including after they recovered a Chicago fumble with 1:52 left, the  second takeaway of the game for a Niners team that hadn’t had a single one in two months, However, they lost the ball on downs.

  It these Bears aren’t monsters of the NFL, much less of the Midway (circa 1940s) or ready to shuffle to a Super Bowl victory as the 1985 team, they’re strong enough, particularly on defense.

  “They’ve got a very good front four, probably the best in the league,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said of the Bears. “Very good inside rushers.”

  A major part of that defense is linebacker Khalil Mack, stupidly traded to Chicago by the Oakland Raiders just before the start of the season. It he isn’t the best in the league, he’s no worse than second. He’s the type of player who makes everyone else on his defense better—and that defense was effective anyway.

 So, the 49ers could only get 279 yards offense, all but 54 passing. Nick Mullens, the Niners quarterback, threw 38 times. He did complete 22 for 241 yards but none for touchdowns—and one for an interception.
‘It was more a function of what we’re going against,” Shanahan said of the imbalanced run-pass ratio. “You would love to just run every play, to reverse that pass rush and everything. But the only thing they do better than stopping the pass is stopping the run . . . It’s tough.

  “You get a gut feeling in what they’re doing .I definitely thought throwing the ball gave us the best chance to win.”

 For a while, after three first-half field goals by Robbie Gould (an ex-Bear) the Niners had a 9-7 lead. But they lost opportunities to get touchdowns.

Early in the third period, Chicago looking very much the playoff team it is, drove 90 yards in 12 plays, over 7 minutes 43 seconds, in effect  half the entire period. In the sequence quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed eight consecutive passes (he reached 10 in a row after the TD).

  That’s what winning teams do, take the ball and stuff it and throw it successfully, in the less than half-filled stands at Levi’s Stadium the chant resounded, “Let’s go Bears.” Presumably they didn’t mean Cal, up the road in Berkeley.

 What Niners cornerback Richard Sherman meant when he threw a one-two punch during a sideline melee with 5:39 to play was, “Don’t try to push us around.”  He was ejected as were two Bears receivers. That didn’t have an effect on the game, except to drag out what because of penalties and reviews seemed endless.

  Trubisky was tackled on the sideline. “It got chippy,” said Sherman, acting as the overseer. “I’m not going to let our guys get pushed around. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. I couldn’t let the whole sideline go against one of my teammates. You have to go in there regardless of the circumstances.”

  He went in and subsequently got thrown out, but as tight end George Kittle pointed out that sort of support builds unity for a 4-11 team which has one game left, next Sunday against the Rams in Los Angeles.

  “We’ve got guys who are aggressive,” said Shanahan. “You make a lot of plays being aggressive. “That’s (Chicago) a real good team. I was happy and proud of how hard of how our guys fought in all three phases.

  “I was hoping we would finish this year with a winning record a home (They were 4-4), so that was disappointing.”

  Defeat invariably is, even against a better team.

8:04PM

After finally beating Seahawks, Shanahan doesn’t have to answer

   SANTA CLARA, Calif.—This was as much a statement as it was game, a statement in which the San Francisco 49ers proved they had resilience as well as talent, a statement which told us the Niners can make plays against the team that had made them look bad.

  A statement that had gone unspoken but in effect was shouted loudly when head coach Kyle Shanahan,  having escaped the routine of how it feels never to win against Seattle-- a streak of 10 games which included three of his predecessors—said “I hated having to answer those questions.”

  And now, after the Niners, 26-23, victory over the Seahawks Sunday in the rain at Levi’s Stadium, the winning points coming with 3:06 left in overtime on Robbie Gould’s fourth field goal of the game, this from 36 yards, he won’t be required to answer.

  Two weeks ago, in Seattle, the Seahawks crushed the 49ers, 43-16.

“I took it personally,” said 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. “They flat out embarrassed us.”

  In a way, they did more than that. They made us question whether this Shanahan thing was going to work. Sure he only was in his second year. Sure he and the Niners had had lost their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, in the third game of the season. But 43-16? Please.

  What you find out in sports, in life, is how people, how teams, individuals respond to adversity. What we found out about the Niners, now 4-10, is they have both the skills and the toughness to show they are a real NFL franchise.

  The way things fell apart in Seattle, they came together in Santa Clara. Richie James Jr. returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, the Niners first “he could go all the way” in years. Buckner got two sacks against the Seahawks elusive quarterback, Russell Wilson. Nick Mullens, once more at quarterback, was efficient—that’s the yardstick of a QB—completing 20 of 29 for 275 yards and a touchdown.

   The Seahawks, 8-6, and still strong for the playoffs, made the mistakes, called for penalties 14 times, many of those negating big runs, for 148 yards.  The 49ers, the underdogs, the team trying to avoid having the worst record in pro football, kept their poise.

  “This was a really clear game,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the onetime Niners assistant and USC head coach, “and we just hurt ourselves so much with this penalty thing that it took our chances away.

 “We ran the football. We converted on third down, held them on third down, (had) time of possession. So many things we were plus in—the turnover ratio. We really, uncharacteristically, had 148 yards in penalties, 10 (penalties) in the second half, which is crazy. I don’t know how that could happen.”

  The Niners don’t care how it happened. They only cared that for the first time since 2013, they were not on the short end when facing Seattle.

  “It means a ton,” said Richard Sherman. He’s the cornerback who came to the Niners this year after seven years with the Seahawks, so he knows both sides now.

   “It means more that the guys showed up the way they did. Honestly it means a lot beating Seattle for me . . . Those guys played their hearts out. We’ve got an incredibly young team, three rookie receivers, a second-year quarterback. They stepped up to the moment.”

  Shanahan was no less emphatic.

  “Not all of us have been here since 2013,” said the coach, “but a lot of us have been here last year. We were all definitely here two weeks ago. It’s a division rival. We also were very sick of the way we lost two weeks ago.”

   Wilson, the Seattle quarterback, did complete 23 of 31 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. “I thought they played really well today,” he said of the 49ers. “We played well. It really came down to some penalties here and there.”

  Penalties Seattle made, maybe because it couldn’t handle Buckner and the Niners defense.

“Getting to double-digit sacks definitely is gratifying,” said Buckner. “I’d like to thank my teammates. It’s not one guy. It’s the whole unit up front rushing as a team. I’m proud of my teammates.”

  He has a right to be.

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.

 

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.”

9:44AM

‘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.