A little less than two years ago, the 49ers were minutes away from winning their first Super Bowl in 25 years. But after Sunday’s fiasco at Levi’s Stadium, the beleaguered Niners have lost four straight and haven’t won a game at home in over a year.
Injuries have played a major role in the club’s ineffectiveness over the last two seasons. This year, several key players have either been knocked out for the season or for extended periods of time. Losing veteran defensive back Jason Verrett early this season to a torn up knee and top running back Raheem Mostert, who also was shelved for the year after a serious knee injury, were big blows. On Sunday, perennial all-pro tackle Trent Williams did not play because of elbow and ankle problems, and neither did defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw or quarterback Trey Lance, who were both nursing sore knees.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan is not going to make excuses, but he knows how tough it is to win when you’re shorthanded. There were few bright spots on a stormy night for San Francisco, and one of them came on their opening drive. QB Jimmy Garoppolo guided his team downfield in impressive fashion for the game’s first score and that seemed to indicate future success. Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell impressed with a 107-yard game, but he gained most of those yards early with 80 yards in the first quarter. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel had his usual productive day with seven catches including a touchdown, and the Niners led the mediocre Colts by nine points midway through the second quarter.
With a massive storm pelting the field with heavy rain, both teams had difficulty hanging onto the ball, resulting in seven turnovers. The sloppy game also featured numerous penalty flags fluttering to the soggy turf. The Niners had their share of problems in that department, particularly in the shorthanded defensive secondary where they were nailed with five pass interference calls. Those penalties added up to 97 yards and that helped to put Colts’ quarterback Carson Wentz and his offense in a good position.
“You just can’t make this many mistakes and expect to win,” said 49ers’ quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo who tried to sound hopeful afterward.
“It was very frustrating, but we have good coaches and good playmakers. We have to stick together.”
Jimmy G admitted the sloppy conditions didn’t help, but the Colts, who are more unfamiliar with these conditions than the Niners because they play in a dome, didn’t seem to be bothered by the nasty weather nearly as much.
Linebacker Fred Warner, who is one of San Francisco’s clubhouse leaders, says the 2-4 start is frustrating.
“The bottom line is that we’re not playing well enough…every single person, myself included, “ Warner explained.
“We gotta figure this thing out, we don’t have a choice. We got another game next week.”
Shanahan is going to be on the hot seat this week. After the Niners fell behind and kept making mistakes Sunday night, the hardcore faithful started letting the Niners have it. Loud boos wafted over the field from a fan base that hasn’t had a lot of be dissatisfied with in recent years. It was actually astonishing to see how many people showed up in the middle of one of Northern California’s worst storms in in the last quarter of a century. Almost half of the seats at Levi’s Stadium were occupied.
Many fans have made it clear in recent weeks their displeasure with some of the plays that Shanahan has called. After an impressive start that featured a bruising running attack on the opening drive, Shanahan had Garoppolo throwing the ball more often, a curious decision given the fact that the running game was cooking and the wet conditions were making it difficult to hang on to a slick ball.
“We’re pretty down in there right now,” Shanahan admitted afterward.
“Losing four in games in a row is tough. I told the guys they have to be tough-minded and stick together. We have high character guys. We have good enough players and we’ll have to handle what we have to deal with and come back next week against Chicago.”
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has to play a number of different roles for the team and has been with this club through the highs and lows, admitted it’s been rough sledding for the 49ers’ running game.
“It’s been tough for our guys to get some momentum,” the Harvard product explained.
“You can’t forget we have two rookie running backs. It’s tough to make long drives and consistently score. We stressed that this week. … Not having Raheem (Mostert) definitely hurts as he’s the king of explosive runs, but we have young guys who I think will figure out how to make that happen.”
One thing the Niners will have to do next week at Chicago is make sure they hang onto the football. San Francisco turned the ball over four times Sunday, and three of those led to Colt touchdowns. A play in the second quarter typified how the 49ers let this game slip through their fingers. After muffing a 79-yard punt, Brandon Aiyuk then inadvertently kicked the ball backward into the end zone for a touchback. It was one of those kinds of plays you see on the NFL Films version of “Football Follies,” but it was anything but amusing to 49er fans.
With the losses mounting and the chances for a winning season slipping away, Shanahan now faces more scrutiny and criticism from fans and the media in days ahead. Losing at home is bad enough, but blowing a lead to a mediocre team makes the situation even more painful.
Shanahan cannot be blamed for the numerous injuries that have hit the 49ers the last few years, but they badly need a jump start this Sunday at Chicago against the Bears. Chicago is coming off a humiliating 38-3 loss at Tampa. The Bears turned over the ball four times in that game, and no doubt they’ll be itching to make up for that embarrassing showing. But so will the Niners, who are in a tailspin. With that in mind, there was some speculation that Shanahan might make a change at quarterback for Sunday’s game, but on Monday he announced that Garappolo will remain the starter against the Bears.
Back in the 1960s, a mediocre 49ers team was consistently booed off the Kezar Stadium field after disheartening losses. Quarterback John Brodie was singled out for the team’s failures, although those losses were not entirely his fault. But angry and often drunk fans didn’t care, as they threw garbage and occasionally liquor bottles at Brodie as he and his team walked off the field.
Because of the team’s struggles, Niners’ fans kept calling for a replacement at quarterback so young George Mira and Heisman winner Steve Spurrier occasionally spelled Brodie. But the frustration continued and the results were anything but satisfying.
In the end, the quarterback and the head coach are always the guys under the microscope, and both Garoppolo and Shanahan understand this.
But the fans also have to understand that the problems this team has encountered this season are multifaceted. Injuries, inconsistency and turnovers cannot all be blamed on those two guys. However, if their season continues to unravel, Shanahan and Jimmy G are going to continue to get an earful.
After starting this season with such high expectations, very few could see this kind of implosion. Shanahan knows that the fortunes of pro football swing both ways, and right now he has to find a way to quickly reverse the negative trend. That will be anything but easy.
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.