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The Game Manager, Week 4: That’s Entertainment

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Sunday was the first game of the rest of the 49ers season. That’s both the good news and the bad news.

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Chargers
Sorry haters, I can’t hear you. Mostly because my ears are still ringing from that last hit I took.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers game against the Chargers on Sunday had something for everybody.

For the C.J. Beathard believers, there was a great performance by the 49ers backup quarterback. An emphatic statement that the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t necessarily mean an end to competitive play — or offensive fireworks.

For those “forget the QB, the defense is the problem” folks, there was the increasingly familiar cavalcade of missed tackles, uncovered receivers, and almost complete lack of a pass rush to help negate Beathard’s performance.

For the elegant tank crowd, who think the season is over and the 49ers only goal should be landing the highest possible draft pick, there was, ultimately, a loss. In fact, the 49ers lost more than a game on Sunday — they lost a fan.

For everyone else, there was one hell of an entertaining football game. That was a surprise to most. The 49ers were double-digit underdogs, starting a lightly-regarded backup QB, two banged-up running backs, and a defensive backfield filled with question marks. But Beathard’s impressive performance kept the 49ers in the game, and might’ve been enough to win it had he received more help from his teammates.

Beathard’s performance was encouraging on several levels. If he can continue to provide the 49ers with a high level of play, the team can be competitive, which promises to make Sundays more enjoyable than many of us anticipated. It would also allow the other players on offense (at least the ones healthy enough to play) to continue their development in Garoppolo’s absence, and could mean Shanahan’s second year magic just might be real. For that to happen, however, he will need to stay upright. Beathard is basically the NFL’s version of a crash test dummy. The only quarterback I’ve seen take more punishment is Johnny Knoxville.

Time and place

It was a weird scene in Carson on Sunday — a 49ers road game that featured them wearing their home red jerseys and playing in front of mostly 49er fans. You could almost forget the game wasn’t at Levi’s Stadium — if you could ignore there weren’t empty seats everywhere and nobody was in danger of dying from heat stroke.

The game ended up resembling a 2017 49ers contest in the first half of the season — particularly the Week 3 Thursday night game vs. the Rams and the Week 6 game at Washington. In all three games, the 49ers came back late, trailed by two points in the closing minutes, and had the ball with a chance to drive for a game-winning field goal. In each, the final drive came up short. The only difference? In 2018, no phantom offensive pass inference calls played a part. So... progress?

Hot take strikes back

Hot take: C.J. Beathard played even better than Jimmy G did this year. Next year, we might have a QB controversy. At the very least, we could trade him for a draft pick.

Cold give: Easy, tiger. Beathard was impressive, no question. He even inspired an on-point tweet from Grant Cohn, which I didn’t think was possible:

But let’s remember a few things: 1) It was one game. Let’s see him repeat that a couple times before we start talking about him as a potential starter — with the 49ers or anywhere else. 2) He was a facing a bad defense, missing its best pass rusher, in a friendly environment. 3) He suffered the same failures people were criticizing Jimmy G for this year — bad TD/INT ratio, failure in the red zone, critical late interception, losing. 4) He is in his second year in Shanahan’s offense, and therefore a little more comfortable than Garoppolo. That advantage will dissipate soon, Garoppolo’s superior physical skills will not.

Hot take: Robert Saleh must go!

Cold give: Look, the defense hasn’t played well, that’s for sure. But I’m not really into knee-jerk reactions, and it’s still early in the season.

Hot take: Wait, I’m not letting this one go. The 49ers defenders consistently miss tackles, blow coverages, and can’t pressure the quarterback. You can’t write their performance off to injuries and youth forever. Or the fact they’ve played good offenses. Eventually, great coaches get great plays out of their players. Even when they don’t have the best talent, they find a way to disrupt what the other team is doing. The 49ers ended Week 2 giving up two huge conversions on 3rd and 15+, then they started Week 3 in Kansas City doing it again. No adjustment. This week, they blew 14-0 and 17-6 leads in the first half. Solomon Thomas was covering Keenan Allen for crying out loud! Even the run defense — one of the few areas where they were excelling — disintegrated. At some point you have to look at Robert Saleh and wonder if he’s capable of making the necessary changes, regardless of talent.

Cold give: I, uh... Hmmm. I know I’m supposed to argue with you, but everything you’re saying is true.

Hot take: I knew you’d eventually agree with me. You are beaten. It is useless to resist. There is no escape.

Cold give: Whoa. Hold up. All I said was Saleh does seem in a little in over his head.

Hot take: Yes! Embrace your hate. Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can bring order to the galaxy. If you only knew the power of the dark side.

Cold give: Wait, now you’re just quoting ‘Star Wars’.

Hot take: I am your father.

Cold give:

It’s difficult not to slip towards the dark side watching the 49ers defense through the first four weeks. Fans overreact. It’s just what we do. Things go wrong and we want someone fired. I’ve wondered, as I believe many of you have, if Saleh has what it takes. If he got the 49ers defensive coordinator job not because he was ready, but because Gus Bradley turned it down, and Saleh was the only one left at the bar at last call. Is he a linebacker coach who got promoted past his abilities? Yet another example of the Peter Principle — which should probably be re-named the Tomsula Theorem — at work?

One can make a “It’s not the chef, it’s the ingredients” argument, blaming the overall talent level, but there certainly seems to be mounting evidence against Saleh. First and foremost, the tackling issues won’t go away. When a team misses tackles in a game, you blame the players. When a team misses tackles for a long stretch, you start looking at the coaching staff.

It’s also alarming to see Saleh playing a little pin-the-player-on-the-depth chart with his defensive backs, benching Akhello Witherspoon for Jimmie Ward, then Jimmie Ward for Greg Mabin. Even if the latter turns out to be a diamond in the rough, you have to wonder what took Saleh so long to notice. And the fact he’s unwilling to stick with anyone very long is concerning.

And then there’s the pass rush. Or, more accurately, there isn’t the pass rush. With their stable of first round picks at defensive tackle, the 49ers often get a good push up the middle, but are unable to find any way to get a decent rush from the edge. That may be a roster issue, but Eli Harold was similarly unproductive before being traded, and he already has three sacks for the Lions, so there’s more to it than talent. Turn any game on Sunday and before long you’ll see an edge rusher get around a tackle and create pressure. They’re just never wearing red and gold. It’s hard to even picture that, like visualizing a unicorn or leprechaun.

It’s very hard to find a bright spot on defense that goes behind raw talent. You can point to Buckner, or Foster, or Warner for reasons to be optimistic, but that’s about their ability and potential, not their technique, execution or consistency (yet) — areas which good coaching could be credited for contributing.

Okay, that’s twice I’ve agreed with him. That’s a little scary. Let’s take a step back here.

What good is done exactly by calling for Saleh’s head now? He may need to go, but the 49ers aren’t replacing him in the middle of the year. Saleh has the rest of the year to improve the unit and provide confidence heading into 2019. They may make such a transformation that Saleh changes minds and everybody wants him back. And if that doesn’t happen — or if the unit gets worse as the season goes on — there will be more evidence he should get the axe. It’s not fun or cathartic to say “give it time” — not nearly as much as it is to say “fire his ass” — but more often than not, the calm, reasoned, patient approach is the way to go.

Earl Thomas salute of the week

The trophy (shaped like a bird, of course) goes to the 49ers growing injury report, which claimed two more victims Sunday (Joe Staley and Dante Pettis) to go along with the crippling injuries (literally and figuratively) to Jerick McKinnon and Jimmy Garoppolo. There have been many, many others along the way, and frankly I’ve had enough. We get it, football is a war of attrition. Enough, already.

Honorable mention: The referees, who missed two obvious blocks in the back on two huge Los Angeles gains in the second half on Sunday — one a punt return, the other a Melvin Gordon run. It’s enough the 49ers have to defeat the other team and their own injuries each week, the officials don’t need to gang up on them.

For the record

Like most football fans, the first thing I do upon the release of the 49ers schedule each year is quickly tally them all up as a W or L. This year, when I got to the bottom, they were 10-6. But every year my first view is always through rose (and gold)-colored glasses, so the second thing I do is take a deep breath and put on my pessimist hat, then tally them up again. This year, I got 8-8. The third step is to find the midpoint to those results to determine the team’s final record — 9-7 in this year’s case. I know, complicated stuff, right?

I then repeat this process ad nauseam for the rest of the off-season, preseason and regular season. It never gets old!

I could steal a win here or there, but inevitably, I’d give one back somewhere else. So that was it, my official prediction: 9-7. Then Jerick McKinnon got hurt, and I felt the need to remove one win. So when Fooch asked us all for our pre-season projections, mine was 8-8.

One constant throughout the tallies was the first four games. Even in my most optimistic view, the best the 49ers could do was 2-2. But most of the time, I ended up at 1-3. I just didn’t feel like the team, adjusting to so many changes, would start the season firing on all cylinders. I had them struggling a bit out of the gate — 1-3, then 2-4, often falling to 2-5 — before heating up and doing most of their damage in the second half of the season.

So here we are: The 49ers are 1-3, just as I suspected, but in a way I never imagined. They’ve lost many offensive pieces, and their defense hasn’t found any measure of success, yet it’s conceivable they still could have a .500 season. It just doesn’t feel that way. Especially after they out-Chargered the Chargers on Sunday, making enough errors, both forced and un-forced, to cough up a winnable game. But there are reasons to believe. The 49ers have only had one home game, while playing nearly half their road schedule — including two of the more difficult venues they’ll play in. They’ve also been competitive in every game, having a realistic chance to win each in the 4th quarter.

If the 49ers are to turn things around, start winning some games, and salvage this season, this week’s game vs. the 0-4 Cardinals is a must-win. Arizona has played better the last two weeks, almost beating the Bears and Seahawks before red zone malpractice cost them, but it’s a game the 49ers should win — Vegas thinks so. If the 49ers can’t win at home against a winless team giving a rookie QB his second career start, it’s hard to see them finding too many more W’s on the remainder of their schedule.

Poll

Where do you stand on Robert Saleh?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    Dead man walking.
    (65 votes)
  • 50%
    On thin ice.
    (170 votes)
  • 24%
    The jury is still out.
    (81 votes)
  • 6%
    Give him some more talent, then we’ll talk.
    (21 votes)
337 votes total Vote Now