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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.

 

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.

5:00AM

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.

9:23AM

SportsXchange: Shanahan exits Falcons after deflating defeat

By Art Spander
SportsXchange

HOUSTON -- It was nearly a perfect ending for Kyle Shanahan. The offense that he developed as coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons couldn't be stopped, and the defense was no less impressive.

Shanahan's final game with the Falcons, Super Bowl LI on Sunday night before he stepped away to become the presumptive head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was everything the Falcons and their fans -- and the Niners -- could have wanted. 

Read the full story here.

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