By Bruce Macgowan
Special to The Examiner
The 49ers have been in a downward slide the last four games. If they lose for a fifth straight time when they play at Chicago Sunday, the fans and media will be clamoring for a change at quarterback.
For now, head coach Kyle Shanahan is content to stay with starter Jimmy Garoppolo. Fans might remember that four years ago, in 2017, people wanted to see Garoppolo start in place of an ineffective starter in C.J. Beathard. But Shanahan didn’t want to throw him into a tough situation until he was ready. It was a wise move as Shanahan waited until the Niners 12th game before inserting Jimmy G as the starter. The result was five straight wins.
Now five years later, the same kind of scenario is presenting itself. While Garoppolo is not totally responsible for the Niners’ recent troubles, the spotlight always falls on the quarterback when things are not going well.
But Shanahan says that this is not the time to panic and bring in prized rookie Trey Lance. Throwing a talented, but raw, youngster into the fray can have mixed results and Shanahan doesn’t want to see the club’s quarterback of the future get wracked up. Usually, a rookie, even as highly touted as Lance, will struggle early. John Elway and Troy Aikman took their lumps but went on to have solid careers. But other highly regarded young quarterbacks, such as David Carr and Jim Plunkett, got hammered early in their careers. Plunkett was able to resurrect his career once he got to the Oakland Raiders, but it was after almost a decade from the time the New England Patriots had made him their top draft choice.
Shanahan explained his reasoning for not pushing Lance into the fray too soon.
“You want to put a guy into the best circumstances for him so you have better percentages and chances of working out in a good way for him,” he said.
The 49ers’ coach also said he understands the talk about bringing in Lance because of the team’s recent failures. He pointed out, “That’s not a very smart thing for us to do right now.”
Lance, who suffered a sprained knee against Arizona two weeks ago, was back on the field practicing for the first time on Wednesday. But even if Garoppolo struggles Sunday, Shanahan will probably play it very conservatively so that Lance doesn’t further injure his knee.
Like Garoppolo, Shanahan is also facing some heat after the poor 2-4 start. While injuries can be blamed for much of the Niners’ early season failures, the fact that Shanahan, outside of that sterling 13-3 season of 2019, has a record of 18 wins in 54 games is not lost on the fans or the media. But given his solid relationship with GM John Lynch, as well as his players, it’s highly unlikely that the Niners would replace Shanahan this season.
Meanwhile, San Francisco has other problems that need immediate attention, especially on defense. Last year’s 14th pick overall in the draft, defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, may be shelved for the rest of the season as a troublesome knee problem could lead to surgery. Kinlaw missed the final two games of last season because of issues with his knee and had off-season surgery in what was described as a “routine cleanup.”
Kentavaius Street and Zach Kerr will probably get plenty of time in Kinlaw’s absence, along with Kevin Givens, who is coming off a high ankle sprain.
The injury-ravaged secondary will need to do a better job against Bears’ quarterback Justin Fields this weekend if the Niners hope to win. In six games, the Niners have already been whistled for 11 pass interference infractions, so you know Fields will be looking to test a shaky SF secondary.
As with San Francisco, the Bears are also facing problems. They are still smarting from a humiliating 38-3 loss at Tampa last Sunday, as Tom Brady sliced and diced the Bears’ defense.
The Niners will also get a break because perennial all-pro linebacker Khalil Mack, the leader of the Bears’ defense, is out for Sunday’s game because of a troublesome foot injury. Despite being limited in practice since the third week of the season, Mack still leads the Bears with six sacks and six tackles for losses. Rookie Sam Kamara, who has played in two games this year, will probably spell Mack on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Bears have been hit hard with the COVID virus, as Nagy and five of his players have tested positive. Robert Quinn, one of Chicago’s best defensive players tested positive late last week and is now vaccinated but may miss Sunday’s game. Running back Damien Williams, who was on the COVID list until this past Saturday, filled in for an injured David Montgomery but had only three carries for five yards. Khalil Herbert did most of the work for Chicago, with 18 carries for 100 yards plus five catches for another 33 yards against Tampa. Two other players — starting right tackle Elijah Wilkerson and tight end Jimmy Graham — will miss Sunday’s game. Backup inside linebacker Caleb Johnson, who was on the COVID-reserve list, has been activated.
The Bears, like the 49ers, are hardly at full strength. Having one of the lowest vaccination percentages in the NFL among their players put Chicago behind the eight ball last week against Tampa. The Bucs boasted a 100 percent vaccination rate among players and coaches and took advantage of a depleted Bears team and put the game away early, leading 35-3 at halftime.
Meanwhile, Nagy faces more challenges that just the second guessers, who have not been at all happy with the Bears’ recent failures. He tested positive earlier in the week and has had to work remotely, conducting all media interviews and coaches’ meetings via Zoom conferences. Nagy is now fully vaccinated and may rejoin the Bears after two negative tests in 24 hours but he’s said that if he can’t make it to the Bears’ sideline Sunday, special teams coordinator Chris Tabor would act as head coach.
The Niners are 3½-point favorites to beat the Bears, but there are certainly no guarantees of a win. They were also supposed to beat the underdog Colts last Sunday night, but we all saw what happened in that fiasco in the rain at Levi’s Stadium.
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.