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The Game Manager, Week 6: Beat harder

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This week’s column is guaranteed to be 100 percent defense-free. I repeat: this is a defense-free zone. Robert Saleh’s name won’t even come up. (Except for that time.)

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
C.J. Beathard blows past Clay Matthews, shouting “Do they make uniforms like that for men?”
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

As 2018 starts to feel more and more like 2017, there are a lot of ways you could feel about the San Francisco 49ers.

I think everybody was on the same page early -- hope for Jimmy Garoppolo and the team to make a leap this year, possibly mixed with some worries about several holes on the roster, and how the defense might perform as a whole. But after the exciting, though ultimately doomed, 49ers performance in Green Bay on Monday night, there are several directions a fan can go:

  • Distraught over all the injuries, and the fact C.J. Beathard’s encouraging, sometimes thrilling, performances have gone for naught. Disappointment that in all three of his starts, the 49ers could’ve won had they simply not turned the ball over -- or even did it just one less time. But mainly, sick of all the losing.
  • Happy that despite the injuries, the 49ers still put up a fight every week -- particularly on the road, and against the better teams on their schedule. Say what you will about the record, the games are mostly entertaining.

As for me? I can understand either of the first two groups, and I feel the same things they do, but you can go ahead and miss me with all the tank talk. There’s just one goal in football.

Yes, I want the 49ers to have a high pick. Yes, I want Nick Bosa, or some other game-changing defensive stud. And yes, I know wins this year could keep them from a higher pick and much needed player(s). But I just don’t have it in me to root for a 49ers loss. Maybe I’m too competitive, maybe I’m too weak, or maybe I’m too stupid. I just can’t do it.

I understand any wins the 49ers get at this point are largely meaningless. But so are sports in the grand scheme of things. But it’s still real to me, dammit!

And when the 49ers are playing the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field on Monday night in front of a national television audience, I have no choice but to root for a win. Of course, as we know now, it didn’t happen. About that...

C.J.: A-OK

I’ve been struggling to figure out who C.J. Beathard reminds me of. He takes so much physical abuse, I first thought of Johnny Knoxville. Thinking along those same lines, I even considered Mr. Bill. But I think I’ve finally cracked the case — Beathard is football’s answer to John McClain. McClain’s not the guy you’d choose to send into the building to fight the terrorists — just like Beathard’s not the guy you’d choose to send into Lambeau to fight Aaron Rodgers — but once he’s there, you realize he’s the guy you need. Like McClain, Beathard doesn’t impress you with his skills, it’s his toughness and dogged determination. And since Beathard’s dad was a country singer, he probably says “Yippee-kay yay” all the time. I bet he even walks around in a dirty undershirt.

We’ve seen Beathard play three games this year, and two of them -- Monday night and two weeks earlier at the Chargers -- were remarkably proficient, scoring 27+ points in each. Even in his start at home against Arizona, Beathard was effective, moving the ball and keeping it from the Cardinals, but suffered enough mistakes -- his own and otherwise -- to sink the performance.

It’s not like Beathard is a star -- and even a starter -- and he won’t be at least until he stops turning the ball over at least once in the 4th quarter of every close game. And we can’t ignore his overthrow of George Kittle on a key 3rd down at the edge of the red zone with 13:13 left. A good throw there gets the 49ers a first down, and a shot at seven points instead of the three they settled for.

On the 49ers penultimate drive, Beathard froze on 2nd down, holding the ball when he had both Marquise Goodwin and Kittle open, scrambling for no gain. On 3rd down, he again couldn’t pull the trigger to an open Juszczyk and took a sack. That gave the ball to Rodgers for what would be the game-tying TD. You know, the one where Rodgers pulled a rabbit out of his... Wait, where?

Finally, on the last drive, Beathard had a chance to be the hero with one more throw. Goodwin had a step on that last pass of the night, but Beathard left the ball short and too far to the inside of the field. He faced pressure and it wasn’t an easy throw, but had he led Goodwin over his outside shoulder, he might’ve had the game winner.

Still, it’s hard to be upset at a few mistakes from a backup quarterback. High-scoring games on the road is something most teams only dream of getting out a backup. To do it under the bright lights of Monday night, in that environment, is something very few backups have in them. In fact, it’s hard to find a true backup in the league I’d take over Beathard right now. Not even this stud.

When you think of Beathard within that context — the Jimmy G insurance policy — he becomes pretty dang attractive. In fact, he’s starting to look a lot like this guy with a goatee. I can just see him after this game, sitting in his locker, muttering to himself, “Come out to Lambeau, play on Monday night, have a few laughs.”

Who’s got it better worse than us?

Survey says: The Oakland Raiders. Sure, they’re also 1-5, but I think I can make a pretty persuasive case:

30-30 Hindsight

When losses pile up, whether the team has adequate talent or not, at some point fans will criticize the coach. That hasn’t happened a lot with Kyle Shanahan. I think most fans find him smart, dedicated and likable. At the very least, we believe in his ability to run a top notch offense. We’ve already seen some proof — with both Garoppolo and Beathard.

He deserves credit — not just for the offensive wizardry he displays week in and week out. Not just for making Beathard look at times like a 1st round pick adjusting to the league rather than a guy people scoffed at the Niners wasting a 3rd round pick on. And not just for keeping this team a cohesive unit which plays its guts out each week no matter what adversity it faces, no matter how many injuries it suffers, and no matter how many heartbreaking losses it must overcome. But also for his swag!

I’ve been tracking Shanahan’s game and clock management moves all season for a larger piece down the road, and have seen a mix of good and not so good. I haven’t seen many people debate them, however. But because the 49ers lost a heartbreaker this week, fans need someone to blame. Or at least someone to blame for blaming someone. And because it was clearly a game the 49ers could’ve won, at least some questioning of the head coach is to be expected.

I’ve seen two main schools of thought about Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling in the closing minutes:

School A: “I’m sorry, but this loss is on Shanahan. He should’ve run the ball more down the stretch. They were killing the Packers on the ground, then he forgot all about it while the 49ers should’ve been bleeding the clock. Just like how he lost Atlanta the Super Bowl.”

School B: “Are you kidding me? Shanahan is the only reason the 49ers were even in the game in the first place. Sure, they ran well early, but they were getting stuffed late. You’re trying to beat Aaron Rodgers and you want him to go into a shell and play conservative?”

Which of these schools is right? Neither. And both, in a way. Both should study game theory, because they might be stuck in the bottom two rungs of cognitive hierarchy. It doesn’t have to be black and white — shades of grey are allowed, encouraged even. Shanahan could’ve been right to be aggressive, and the loss could certainly not be his fault, but one well-timed running call may have drastically increased the 49ers odds of victory.

That’s a little more like it.

I get Shanahan knows his offense and his players much better than I ever will, not to mention what the defense is showing them, so I have no desire to criticize his playcalling. But from a purely strategic -- rather than X’s and O’s -- approach, Shanahan had a chance on the 49ers final drive, tied 30-30, to ensure that either his team won or the game went to overtime. Remember, the Packers had no timeouts. That is not to say the 49ers should’ve been conservative, run the clock out, and played for a tie. That would’ve been absolutely unacceptable once they got the ball just short of midfield with 1:49 left and all three timeouts.

No, they had to attempt to win the game in regulation. But once they gained seven yards on 1st down and stayed in bounds, they left themselves a unique opportunity when they ran their next play with 1:16 left. With just a single running play on 2nd and 3, the 49ers could’ve run 40 seconds off the clock. Even if they didn’t get a first down, they could’ve run their 3rd down play with about :30 left. If they had made the 1st down -- either on the run or a subsequent pass -- they would’ve been at least at the edge of field range, with at least :25 left and two timeouts remaining.

That’s plenty of time to move 5-10 yards for a game-winning field goal, but also a small enough amount of time to limit Green Bay if things don’t go their way. Yes, Rogers is a wizard, so even giving him 20 seconds isn’t a guarantee of overtime, but with no timeouts and 50 yards to go, I think even the 49ers might stop him. That doesn’t mean they would’ve stopped him again in overtime, so it’s no guarantee of a win — just a way to increase the odds.

I know it’s a small thing, but it’s the kind of detail that wins and loses games. Shanahan had a chance to pull off the NFL equivalent of an NBA team holding the ball for the last shot. What he did instead was the NFL equivalent of taking a open midrange jumper with eight seconds left because he wasn’t sure he’d get a better shot, only to see it rim out, the rebound passed to Steph Curry who quickly dribbled up-court and hit a 30-footer at the buzzer. You can write off the loss to the greatness of Curry (or Rodgers), but you also need to realize your own decision-making at least played a part.

Shanahan is the highlight of this team right now. He’s the brightest of the bright spots, the main reason I look forward to turning on the 49ers game each week. With Jimmy G injured, he’s their top offensive star, and I have confidence he’ll be a very good head coach — if he isn’t already. But he needs to learn these strategic intricacies if he’s going to turn more of these estimable efforts into actual wins.

The inconvenient truth

One bonus to the 49ers playing on Monday night: more time to bring to the other games around the league on Sunday. This week, the highlight of that was getting to see Frank Gore do his thing.

It does the heart good to see Gore play so well. Hell, it does the heart good just to see Gore play at all. And to see him churning up important yardage in a tight game between two teams with a winning record on Sunday was exquisite. That he was doing it against the formidable Bears defense to help his team win was icing on the cake.

His runs down to the goal line at the start of overtime were vintage Gore, and brought back lots of great memories. The Dolphins going away from him to try and get the winning TD brought back a not-so-great memory. But that’s a subject for never.

Sigh.

Next up

This week, the 49ers face... Oh god. The Rams? Really?

Well, I guess I should make a prediction.

Poll

When his career is over, how do you think most fans will look back on C.J. Beathard?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    A good backup
    (149 votes)
  • 5%
    A bad starter
    (16 votes)
  • 2%
    A bad backup
    (6 votes)
  • 15%
    A good starter
    (43 votes)
  • 23%
    215 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal
    (66 votes)
280 votes total Vote Now