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The Game Manager, Week 2: Winning ugly

There’s no such thing as a moral defeat. Also: This week, the 49ers face a young, inexperienced QB.

NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers
Matt? That’s a girl’s name
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Hot take: Richard Sherman: The Lions win “feels like a loss”.

Cold give: With all due respect to Mr. Sherman — and I’m feeling a lot of respect for him at the moment — wins and loses know not of feelings. They’re remorseless beasts. You can’t say, “There’s no such thing as a moral victory” without acknowledging that a win’s a win no matter what feels it gives you. And if it gets you to .500 just as Reuben Foster is returning, and maybe Marquise Goodwin with him, well then how does that feel?

If you’re going to write off the 49ers win — the improved running game, the lack of turnovers — to being lucky or playing Detroit, then you have to write off at least some of last week’s struggles to being unlucky or playing Minnesota. So why write it off at all? There’s a saying about pizza and sex which also applies to wins. In short, they’re all good — especially when considering winning close games wasn’t exactly a strength last year.

Having said that, thinking solely in the binary language of the almighty win and loss is intellectually lazy. As followers of a young team, it’s only natural we assess how the rebuild is progressing using more than just the final score — even if that’s ultimately how teams are judged.

The year before the year?

Young teams don’t mature at predictable rate, or at least the rate we expect them to. I’ve found the young teams which are most hyped each season usually end up struggle to live up to that. Often they take the leap forward people expected the next season once the spotlight’s turned off.

One early example this year would be Tampa Bay. Last year they were an up-and-coming team, and popular dark horse pick — buoyed by the Hard Knocks bump. But 2017 was such an ugly disappointment, everybody ignored them this year. Not only were they proven to be frauds, their starting quarterback is suspended and they opened against two of the NFC’s best teams in New Orleans and Philadelphia. So what happens? They bolt out to a 2-0 start behind back-to-back 400-yard, four touchdown performances from backup QB, fashion icon, and living legend, Ryan Fitzpatrick, a.k.a. “FitzSWAGtrick”.

I started to think about this phenomenon and the 2018 Niners as soon as the 2017 season ended. It all looked a little too good. The winning streak, the franchise QB, the wunderkind coach, the cap space to stock the roster with more talent. But a lot could still go wrong. I breathed a sigh of relief when they avoided Hard Knocks, but still I wondered, could they be the overhyped team of 2018? It’s not that I don’t have high hopes for the team, I was just worried they might collapse under the glare of outsized expectations.

We’d all love for this to be the year the 49ers turn it around -- the one where they have a real shot at the playoffs, maybe even a playoff run. I think most of us would understand if this is the year before that year — a building block season. Only the masochists want to believe something is so fundamentally flawed — roster construction, coaching issues, whatever — that this might actually be the year before the year before the year.

Everybody wants to be the guy. Many would take being the guy behind the guy. But nobody wants to be the guy behind the guy behind the guy.

So far, it’s hard to tell exactly where the 49ers are on the road back to relevance. Optimists see them on the right track, pessimists see more bumps than road. They’re 1-1 as most suspected they’d be, but they didn’t get here the way many of us foresaw. I envisioned a more decisive loss to Minnesota (with less of a feeling of a blown opportunity), followed by a more decisive win (with less of a feeling of escaping disaster). Speaking of which...

Dodging bullets (and one nuclear bomb)

I feel that at this stage of the 49ers development, even egregious mistakes, flaws, and shortcomings can be written off to growing pains, but that theory was tested on Sunday.

Missed tackles, penalties, and lack of consistent pressure is one thing against Minnesota. But when that sloppy play continued this week, on top of blown coverages, it’s concerning. If it wasn’t for a handful of overthrown deep balls, Detroit likely wins this game.

On offense, the running game improved dramatically, but the red zone offense still struggled, scoring touchdowns on two of five possessions. Part of that was due to Jimmy Garoppolo taking avoidable sacks, effectively killing two red zone trips. Against better opponents that also might’ve cost them the win.

Garoppolo had the polar opposite game from his Week 1. His bad numbers vs. the Vikings were deceptive, failing to account for his supporting cast dropping the ball — literally and figuratively. This week, Garoppolo’s numbers were great, but there were concerns which don’t show up in his stat line. He seemed to be playing cautiously, holding the ball too long.

But the play we’ll all remember -- and which may or may not result in me having PTSD -- was the interception he appeared to throw just before the two-minute warning, when the Niners were attempting to run out the clock and secure the victory. The penalty which negated it — whether legitimate or not — was totally irrelevant to the play. While that saved the win, it doesn’t excuse the decision. And while the revelation a receiver running the wrong route contributed to the pick helps, Garoppolo still has to see that throw before he makes it.

maybe this is a good place to remind ourselves that was Jimmy G’s ninth NFL start. And just the second game of a long season.

Uncle Sherm to the rescue

In the off-season, I wondered how long it would take me to fully embrace Richard Sherman as a member of the 49er family. Well, if you had Week 2 in the office pool, please come forward and accept your prize.

First and foremost, he’s been the shutdown cornerback we were promised — at least so far.

Secondly, he has taken to his role as team leader and mentor much further than anyone could’ve predicted. After the game, he said all the right things, stayed late to tutor the young’uns, and dispensed tough love. After this game, they needed it. The most disheartening elements of the Lions comeback were the two 3rd and very-long conversions which led to the two late touchdowns, and the fact both corners who were beat made the same mental mistake.

K’Waun Williams respected the short route way too much on 3rd and 17 with 10 minutes left, leading to a long gain which let Detroit back into a game they were about to punt away. Later, Jimmie Ward made the exact same mistake on 3rd and goal from the 15, allowing Detroit to pull within three points.

Getting beat is one thing, not understanding the game situation and your responsibilities is entirely another. Luckily for the 49ers, it seems they have the right man in the locker room to point this out and demand enough respect from the young players to listen.

The ‘h’ stands for “Hope he doesn’t announce the next game”

After the 49ers got a solid announcing crew last week in Fox’s No. 2 team, Kevin Burkhardt and Charles Davis, I hoped they’d follow the 49ers back to San Francisco — but it wasn’t surprising to see they were following the Vikings instead. In their place, we got the less solid team of Thom Brennaman and Chris Spielman. I like Spielman just fine, but I’m not a Brennaman fan — though I find him worse doing baseball. It turns out I’m not the only one.

Thom didn’t disappoint on Sunday, annoying me as usual. First, he went out of his way to criticize the call to run the jet sweep to Pettis. He asked — to no one in particular, so he could answer himself — why Shanahan would “get cute” there instead of sticking with the running game. But isn’t that exactly what Shanahan was doing? Sure, it wasn’t another handoff up the gut to Morris, who had been tearing off good chunks, but it’s still a run — and a good counter to what the Lions had to think was coming.

I’m not saying the call is beyond criticism, but let’s be reasonable. It may not be your cup of tea, but it’s not like he called a flea flicker, or even a play action pass — it was a handoff. Ignoring the results, that has to be considered a pretty conservative play call. Had it gained five yards, I doubt anyone would’ve said the 49ers took a risk by getting exotic.

Later, Thom cried foul on the perfectly legal hit by Elijah Lee on Stafford on the sideline, even after Spielman, Mike Perriera, and video replays disagreed. He was actually more critical of the non-penalty than he was on LeGarrette Blount, for the clearly illegal retaliatory hit on Lee for which he was ejected.

I’m hoping this team is following the Lions and not the 49ers, but I’ve got a baaad feeling about this.

Fooch’s update: I’ve got bad news for Josh.

Six degrees of Kevin Bacon Steve DeBerg

Now that they’ve dispatched Matt Patricia, who looks like a bargain brand Brutus (or is it Bluto?), it’s time to face a coach who more resembles Wimpy: Andy Reid, who runs the well-oiled offensive machine that is the Kansas City Chiefs. Not only is Reid a renowned offensive mind capable of exploiting the weaknesses the 49ers defense has shown thus far, he also employs perhaps the hottest player in the sport in Patrick Mahomes. But for years before Mahomes became Kansas City’s QB, the 49ers and Chiefs have had a very strange and involved relationship with the position.

The Chiefs are like that friend who always wants to date people you’ve previously dated. Over the years, they’ve made a habit of having playoff runs with former 49er backup QBs. First, it was Steve DeBerg, who was the starting quarterback for the 49ers when Joe Montana was drafted in 1979. Montana backed up DeBerg for two seasons, then took over the job in 1981. DeBerg would spend three years in Denver and four in Tampa, where he groomed recent draft picks John Elway, Steve Young, and Vinny Testaverde. In 1988, DeBerg signed with Kansas City, and in 1990 and 1991, he led the “Marty Ball” Chiefs to the playoffs.

In 1993, DeBerg was replaced by Montana again — this time when the Chiefs traded for Montana, who had become the backup to Steve Young. Montana led the Chiefs to the playoffs in 1993 and 1994 before retiring.

Needing a quarterback again, the Chiefs went back to the 49ers well, promoting Steve Bono, Young and Montana’s former backup. Bono went 13-3 in 1995, then fell back to earth in 1996.

Bono was replaced with — you guessed it — yet another 49ers backup, Elvis Grbac. He also helped lead the Chiefs to a 13-3 record in 1997, then faded. With Grbac’s exit, the Chiefs finally stopped picking up 49ers backups — even they could resist Tim Rattay.

But wait! Obsessions don’t die, they just lay dormant. And a dozen years later, the Chiefs got that itch again, acquiring yet another 49er backup, Alex Smith. Again, it led to playoff trips for KC. But after drafting Mahomes and sitting him behind Smith a year, the Chiefs traded Smith to Washington this past off-season. Ironically, this was the second time Smith has been traded to make room for a young heir apparent after career years statistically. The moral of the story for Alex: Don’t play so well and we won’t have to trade you.

Red Scare

No, I’m not talking about the scourge of RPO’s. I’m talking about the high-flying Chiefs offense. The 49ers will face the anti-Alex Smith this Sunday in the rocket-armed Mahomes — if Smith is the picture of consistency and ball control, Mahomes is his gunslinging alter ego. He’s the golden boy of the NFL, a TD machine, and so much has been written about him, there’s not much left to say.

So the Niners defense, fresh off an embarrassing display, has to head east to face a phenom/rock star/messiah. But look on the bright side: They could be facing Ryan Fitzpatrick.


When it comes to the rebuild, 2018 is...

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    The year! WHOO-HOO!
    (63 votes)
  • 67%
    The year before the year. Not too shabby.
    (332 votes)
  • 13%
    The year before the year before the year. Sigh.
    (67 votes)
  • 6%
    There is no year. I am allergic to hope. I only follow football to make myself miserable.
    (33 votes)
495 votes total Vote Now