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9:41AM

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.

9:46AM

S.F. Examiner: Rams looked pathetic — making it hard to gauge how good the 49ers actually are

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

So we’ll get to the trivial stuff quickly, meaning you won’t have to wade through the material about the 49ers crushing the Rams and Carlos Hyde rushing for 88 yards just to find out that yes, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid knelt down during the Star Spangled Banner, next to an American flag literally as big as the football field.

Read the full story here.

©2016 The San Francisco Examiner

9:56PM

There's something wrong with Niners, stadium

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — There’s something wrong. With the football team, which is evident. With the new stadium, which is apparent. The 49ers are showing up as a mystery, one that has coach Jim Harbaugh so perplexed he can’t even get angry with media questions.

The fans after halftime aren’t even showing up at all.

A new home, a $1.3 billion beauty of steel and class constructed in honor of champions of the past. The tickets are sold, but the people who hold them must not be sold on the Niners.

This is what happened Sunday. The nation returned to standard time. The 49ers, however, didn’t turn their game clocks ahead or back. They just stood figuratively still before all those empty seats at Levi’s Stadium, and they were upset by the St. Louis Rams, 13-10.

The Rams, 3-5, were not very impressive. The Niners, 4-4, were very unimpressive.

Niner quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sacked eight times — by a team that had six sacks total in its previous seven games.

“We have all the talent in the world,” said Niners left tackle Joe Staley. “We’ve been doing some dumb stuff, and they took advantage of it.”

Like not keeping the Ram defense out of the Niner backfield. Again. Two weeks ago, Kaepernick was sacked six times at Denver. Then, after a bye week to make fixes, he was sacked eight times.

“We prepared for this during the week,” said Kaepernick. Maybe the situation is unfixable.

Maybe Harbaugh is as distressed as he is bewildered. Usually, when he’s asked what went wrong, the competitive, combative man he is takes issue, as if the media doesn’t have a clue so just sit down and be quiet.

Not this game. Harbaugh was restrained, responding with generalities, not specifics, the old, “Not enough good football, we got beat.”

Old, except for Harbaugh, who normally is loathe to concede that his squad was outplayed. This was a new frontier for the Niners’ fourth-year leader. This took some swallowing.

Yes, as poorly as they played, the Niners could have won. They had the ball, third and goal on the Rams one, with nine seconds remaining. A field goal would have sent the game into overtime. Instead, Kaepernick bulled up the middle and fumbled. The Rams recovered.

“I was juggling the ball,” Kaepernick conceded. He also believed he had crossed the goal. A replay review verified he did not.

Could have won. But did not win, because now, at the midpoint of the season, when the Niners usually are becoming their best, priming for the playoffs, San Francisco is a mess. And the next game is against the Saints at the Superdome, where the Niners invariably have problems.

The Niner offensive line seemed confused, not only because rookie Marcus Martin was starting at center for the first time. The pressure on Kaepernick came from everywhere, from William Hayes at left defensive end, from James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker, from Robert Quinn at right defensive end.

“We’ve been talking up those things,” said Rams coach Jeff Fisher about harassing the quarterback, “and I said we’d been getting close. You’ve got to credit the guys up front. These were individual efforts.”

So in a way, as Staley confessed, were the Niner failures. “Penalties,” said Staley in review, “dumb blocks, dumb techniques and dumb schemes.”

By supposedly some very smart football linemen, certainly for the most part by veteran football linemen, who two years ago helped the Niners to the Super Bowl.

Could they have grown too old? Could they have grown complacent? Change is a constant in sports at any level. No team remains at the top all the time. No players remain the best forever.

They tell us O-lines have great staying power. Maybe this one has stayed too long.

“We’ve got to suck it up,” said Harbaugh, avoiding mention of individuals. “Got to play better.”

Of course they do, but how? Does the blocking have to improve? Does Kaepernick have to get rid of the ball quicker — and more accurately? And how much is attributable to the fact that the Niners, who like to set up the pass with the run, could rush for only 80 net yards?

“We had opportunities in both halves,” said Kaepernick, “and we didn’t take advantage.” Not when they score a paltry 10 points. Not when the quarterback is tackled eight times behind the line of scrimmage.

“That’s why I’m here,” said Kaepernick. “I’m here to make plays. I can make people miss. So that’s part of my job.”

They aren’t going to miss when they sweep in from every direction, and they didn’t miss. The Rams knew something about the Niner offensive line. And now everyone knows.

“We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror,” said running back Frank Gore, the spiritual leader of the Niners, “and we’re going to try to get to this postseason. We’ve got to do it and stop playing around.”

Or, when the postseason arrives, they’ll be forced to stop playing. Period.