You’d have to say the 49ers’ season has been a disappointment.
Super Bowl participants are supposed to roar out of the gate the next year, establish themselves as one of the favorites and then expect to do some damage in the playoffs.
Instead, the Niners lost the opener to Arizona and have been on a frustrating quest to get to .500 for most of the year. It has begun to look like the enduring image of this season will be Nick Bosa, rolling off the field in a golf cart. Done for the year.
And that is why, right here in public, we should salute and praise Sunday’s 23-20 win over the Rams. That was as gritty and impressive an effort as you are likely to see. And, just like when they accurately said the week five loss to Miami was “embarrassing,” the players and staff knew this was a game to put a pin in and remember.
“I’m just very proud to be these guys’ coach,” Kyle Shanahan said.
Granted, the team probably has to win every game from here on in. They still aren’t at .500. The playoffs remain a mathematical possibility and a logical long shot.
But still. For a team that has been fed extra helpings of adversity this year, that was pretty damn impressive.
Of course, the fate of a 5-6 team looks pretty small in the face of a world health crisis. The Coronavirus is spreading across the country, so naturally it is spreading in the NFL too. If any good can come out of it, at least we can say that football teams are reinforcing the point that the virus is real.
Denver played without a quarterback because all of theirs were isolating. The Baltimore Ravens have so many players (12) and staff (8) testing positive that their practice facility was closed and the upcoming game with Pittsburgh was moved to Tuesday. Tuesday?
But as always this year, the 49ers topped them all. The Broncos lost a quarterback. The Niners lost their home.
According to Shanahan, the team was just boarding the plane for Los Angeles when they got the word. Santa Clara Country was putting a three-week ban on “all contact sports.” No games, no practices. The team was essentially kicked out of town.
As word spread, Shanahan described an airport scene where “I have an entire plane coming up to me, wives, girlfriends, kids” all wanted to know what was going to happen. Because as he said, that meant they would not only need a practice field, “we need a stadium to play in.”
(Today it was announced that the 49ers will play two games at Arizona’s State Farm Stadium where the Cardinals play. A practice facility and location of same has to be worked out.)
Which is a roundabout way of saying that was the backdrop for this team flying into Los Angeles. They’d lost three in a row. Their list of players on injured reserve — including stars like Bosa, George Kittle and Jimmy Garoppolo – is the longest in the league.
And now, to throw this in, a possible move out of town and into a “bubble” for the foreseeable future. It would not have been a surprise if the cumulative effect of all the adversity began to affect players’ attitudes.
Instead, they came out and made it exactly the kind of game Shanahan said he was hoping for. It was a shut-down defense, combined with a healthy dose of comin-right-at-you with the running backs and then, when they absolutely had to, a pass.
The game made two points:
First, good players make a difference. Duh.
Raheem Mostert, Richard Sherman and especially, Deebo Samuel all made splash plays that reminded you of what you liked about this team. Defensively, the Robert Saleh head coaching job interview is just about complete. Put this game at the top of the resume, Robert.
Shanahan once said he’d wear Jimmie Ward’s jersey if the NFL would let him, and he was an inspiration. Guys like him and Sherman — an underrated tackler — set a tone.
Also, just saying, there were hints that a couple of the players not only tested positive but had some symptoms. It might have been more serious than we thought. The team was lucky to get them back for the game.
Second, this is Shanahan’s offense. He insists on running the ball. And even when he’s throwing, a lot of times the passes are just long handoffs.
That’s why I think we should change how we think of the 49ers quarterback. We’ve been lamenting the fact that Garoppolo or Mullens isn’t Patrick Mahomes. They aren’t, and they aren’t likely to become him.
A better comparison would be Alex Smith. Under-appreciated throws a tight spiral and works the short and intermediate areas. (He also doesn’t throw interceptions, which the 49ers QBs need to work on.) But Smith is also considered a good guy, down to earth and popular with his teammates.
It’s been a long road for Smith. He’s been booed, doubted, and badly injured. But he’s come through it and is now one of the NFL’s feel-good stories in Washington. People are rooting for him.
I could see that happening with the Niners’ QBs, who are also good guys. It’s all about hanging in there and then making some throws when you absolutely have to. You can win everyone over again.
Because grit, as demonstrated Sunday, has its rewards.