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The Game Manager, Week 15: Thinking outside the tank

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When did winning get so complicated?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Saint Nick Mullens, or Saint Nick Bosa?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

This I know for sure: Kyle Shanahan doesn’t believe in tanking.

Just imagine how valuable this winning-in-December thing will be once they learn to win in the first three months of the season!

As I mentioned at the top last week, we may understand the benefit of the 49ers losing, but that doesn’t mean our lizard brains will allow us to root for that. Especially if it means rooting for Russell Wilson (gag), and Pete Carroll (gag), and the Seahawks (vomit break).

Let me just pop in this breath mint and then I’ll continue.

Okay, I’m back.

I think of it as a spectrum, black and white at its edges, where some fans reside, rooting with all of their heart that the team either wins or loses. The rest of us are spread across shades of grey in the middle — going through a range of emotions when the 49ers play, doing mental gymnastics to understand their true rooting interests. I don’t think that means we disagree with those at the poles of that spectrum, I think it means that we really agree with both. That’s why I called this group “left brain/right brain” in the poll two weeks ago.

We feel what I called the “old school” desire to simply see your team win (I’ve heard that’s the point). It always feels good when your team plays well — it’s hardwired into our DNA at this point. It’s never bad to see effort and potential and reason for hope in the 49ers.

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

But we also understand the logic behind “team tank” valuing improved draft position over meaningless wins in a lost season. It’s this indecision and conflict that leads me to...

Sockpuppet theater

Because I see both points of view, I battle myself every time the 49ers are close late. I take one point of view and argue the case as convincingly as I can, then I take the other side and make just as persuasive an argument.

Old school: You people who want the 49ers to tank just don’t get it. Sports, I mean. These guys are competitors. They’re out there giving their all. That’s what makes it so compelling. Did you see the scene in the locker room after they won on Sunday? It was the highlight of the year! You want to take that away? For what, a slightly higher draft pick four months from now? We may all be dead by then.

Team tank: Wow, that’s a cheery thought. Happy holidays to you, too. I want to see the 49ers win just as much as you do, I just want the wins to be meaningful. Sure, Sunday was fun, but what if that ends up costing them lots of wins down the road? What if it costs them a wild card spot next year? Will you still be happy about this win? Don’t think so.

Old school: You need to learn to enjoy the moment.

Team tank: You need to learn the benefits of delayed gratification.

Old school: You want delayed gratification? How about waiting five years to beat the Seahawks? Don’t you want these players to know how it feels to beat Seattle? What it’s like to finish? Call it ”baby steps” if you want, but learning how to win close games against quality opponents is part of the maturation process for a young team. That alone makes it worth dropping a couple of draft spots.

Team tank: Actually, it was three spots.

Old school: Big deal.

They’ll still get a good player. The development of the roster is more important than the difference between the picks.

Team tank: Yeah? Will you still say that if Nick Bosa becomes a Hall of Famer? What if he’s drafted by the Cardinals and spends the next decade pounding our QB’s into a fine paste?

Old school: How do you know he won’t be a bust?

Team tank: I don’t. But remember the last time a late season win cost the 49ers the top pick? They ended up with Solomon Thomas instead of Myles Garrett. How’d that work out?

Myles Garrett — 19.5 sacks (12.5 this year), 45 QB hits, 20 TFL, 4 forced fumbles

Solomon Thomas — 3 sacks (1 this year), 17 QB hits, 13 TFL, 0 forced fumbles

Still don’t think the top pick matters?

Old school: Way to cherry pick. How about all the times the top pick didn’t turn out to be the best player? Quick, who are the best two pass rushers in the game today? Better yet, who are the top two Defensive Player of the Year candidates?

Team tank: Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack.

Old school: Right. For once.

Team tank: Hey! Don’t be a—

Old school: Shut up, I’m making a point. Donald and Mack were picked in the 2014 draft — at No. 5 and No. 13 respectively. Guess who went first overall? Jadeveon Clowney, dominant pass rusher and consensus No. 1 pick. Sound familiar? He turned out to be the third best pass rusher in the draft. So who’s to say Josh Allen, or Clelin Ferrell, or some guy nobody’s even talking about ends up being better than Bosa? In that same draft, Sammy Watkins went fourth overall, Mike Evans seventh, and Odell Beckham Jr. 13th — who would you rather have? Same with Mitchell Trubisky and Deshaun Watson/Patrick Mahomes in 2016.

Team tank: Fine. Sure. Every year there are plenty of players who over or under-perform their draft position. But you can’t really be arguing that it’s better to draft later.

Old school: No, I’m just saying it’s not some exact science that makes it worth it to lose on purpose and suck all the joy out of the present in hopes of some beautiful future. We have a beautiful present. Nick Mullens is beautiful!

Team tank: You’re right. I’m just glad he didn’t start earlier. He would’ve beaten Arizona both times. We’d be at least 6-8.

Old school: What, you don’t like to see the team improve? The defense has been great the last two weeks!

Team tank: They’ve been better, sure, but you’ve forgotten what “great” defense looks like.

Old school: You’re not excited about the play of Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris?

Team tank: Excited by untested rookies in the secondary playing well in garbage time? Not after Adrian Colbert and Ahkello Witherspoon last year. How did that work out? If this is another mirage which allows Saleh to keep his job, but doesn’t carry over to next year, it’ll actually be a bad thing.

Old school: Now who’s the cheery one? Come on, we beat Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll! They had to walk off the field looking all sad and wet in the rain. You could almost hear the sad walking away music from the end of those old “The Incredible Hulk” episodes when David Banner would have to leave another town where things didn’t work out, a broken man.

Team tank: You mean “The Lonely Man?”

Old school: Yeah, “The Lonely Man!” Watch this and imagine Carroll or Wilson in Bill Bixby’s place, then tell me it’s not beautiful.

Team tank: Watching that made me depressed. But then I thought about Wilson and Carroll being depressed and it made me happy again. You might be onto something. If someone on the internet can lay “The Lonely Man” on top of the Fox footage of them walking off the field after the game, I’m prepared to concede the point.

Kittle & bits

  • Nick Mullens was 11 of 13 to start the game, but both of his incompletions were heartbreaking. In each case, he overthrew a wide open George Kittle streaking behind coverage. Either could’ve been touchdowns with Kittle’s open field ability, particularly the second one. Both would’ve pushed Kittle past Travis Kelce, setting him on pace to lead the league and set the new single season record in receiving yards for a tight end. Instead, he remains 66 yards behind Kelce, and 173 from the record.
  • Besides those misfires, Mullens was good yet again. That’s now three wins and five solid outings out of six starts. His numbers would be enough to get me excited about any young quarterback -- 64.5 completion percentage, 95.0 rating, 8.6 yards/attempt, 292.3 yards/game*. They’re better than all five of the quarterbacks taken in the 1st round of this year’s draft — the best of whom, Baker Mayfield (63.9 completion percentage, 92.6 rating, 7.5 yards/attempt, 255.4 yards/game), is only 24 days younger. I’m not saying he’s a future star -- I think his success says as much about Kyle Shanahan as him -- but it’s clear he’s a better option as Jimmy G’s backup than C.J. Beathard. The stats back it up as much as their respective records this year (Mullens: 3-3, Beathard 0-5) with virtually the same talent. Entering the Seattle game, the only thing Beathard had over Mullens was toughness, and after the beating the Seahawks gave Mullens on Sunday, I think even that’s a wash. And he’s a Seahawk killer.

*Just so you understand how insane that is:

  • Much has been made about how long it had been since the 49ers beat the Seahawks, with good reason, but I found it more amazing that Richie James Jr. kickoff return for a TD was the first by a 49er since Ted Ginn Jr. on September 11, 2011 — the first game of the Harbaugh era. This raises an important question: Why do the 49ers let anyone whose name doesn’t end in “Jr.” ever return kickoffs? Moreover, I think biggest takeaway was that James finally got the official network TV stamp of approval for his “Superfreak” nickname, when Chris Spielman broke it out on Fox. It even got a laugh out of Thom Brennaman, who’s well known for not having a soul.
  • After two very impressive performances, Jeff Wilson took a major step back on Sunday. He had another fumble, a bad dropped pass, and a taunting penalty which may have cost the 49ers four points. In short, he looked like an undrafted free agent practice squad player. That being said, we’ve seen more good than bad from him, and even highly drafted rookies often have to take their lumps. Speaking of which...
  • As has been established, Solomon Thomas is no Myles Garrett, but that doesn’t mean he’s been ineffective, or is a bust. His numbers are certainly not great, he’s been showing improvement of late, and a wise man once said “stats are like bikinis.”
  • Dante Pettis didn’t start his rookie season looking like a future star, but he’s certainly ending it that way. He didn’t score for the first time in four weeks, but still grabbed five passes for 83 yards. That’s the kind of production which would’ve raised eyebrows early in the season, but the way he’s been playing the last four weeks, it’s barely noteworthy.

(Thirsty) Stats of the week

Glass half-empty: The 49ers defense played their second straight solid game, showing improvement despite an injury-ravaged secondary, yet still managed to not force a turnover for the six straight game. They haven’t had a takeaway since 10/28 vs. Arizona, and are now a shoo-in to not just force the least turnovers of any team in the history of the league, but put the record far out of reach. With just five takeaways and two games to play, they have a real shot at totaling only half (or less!) than the previous record for a full season of 12 set by Washington in 2006 (Baltimore had 11 in the strike-shortened 9-game season in 1982). You just don’t see records shredded like that.

Glass half-full: Brennaman mentioned a pretty crazy stat on Sunday: The 49ers are sixth in the NFL in “big plays” (runs of 10+ yards, passes of 20+ yards). It is an astounding stat given that it comes from a team whose third string QB has started more games than any other, which has gotten the vast majority of their carries from undrafted running backs, and has missed it’s top two wide receivers more than they’ve had them. It’s also a huge tribute to Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme and ability to develop players.

Glass both half-full and half-empty:

Poll

What late-season development has you the most excited?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    The emergence of Nick Mullens
    (121 votes)
  • 33%
    The growth of Dante Pettis
    (155 votes)
  • 12%
    The progress of Solomon Thomas
    (58 votes)
  • 19%
    The improvement of the defense
    (93 votes)
  • 8%
    WINZ!!!
    (40 votes)
467 votes total Vote Now