SANTA CLARA — Through three games, the 49ers have shown an ability to lose games in a variety of ways.
They could lose in a laugher like Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers, they could lose by a few points in a gritty game in the Seattle rain, and on Thursday, they showed they could lose in a high-scoring shootout — under the lights of primetime — to the only team they could beat last season.
The 41-39 defeat was unlike any contest the Niners have played under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan.
For one thing, the offense could stay on the field: It improved upon a league-worst figure by converting on 11 of 21 tries on third- and fourth-down. The 49ers also forced some turnovers: two of them, to be exact.
And they scored. Oh, did they score. Thirty-nine points would’ve been a season-high the last two seasons under Jim Tomsula or Chip Kelly, respectively. It’s the most the Niners have scored since the opening of Levi’s Stadium and the most they’ve put on the board since Week 8 of 2013.
If it weren’t for a phantom offensive pass interference call on wide receiver Trent Taylor on the 49ers’ last drive, they might’ve won the game.
“This has only been our third game together and for us to be down 15 points and still stay in there, still fight, and you still make the plays for us to win — that is one of the things that we can take from this game,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “You see the potential, you see where we can go. We just have to learn how to win, learn how to play a full game and we will be where we want to be.”
A cynic will point out that the Rams went 0-2 to the 2-14 Niners last season. But Los Angeles’ favorite NFL team (maybe?) is completely different under wunderkind head coach Sean McVay than it was under Jeff Fisher.
Trent Taylor was happy to make the team after training camp.
The fifth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech is undersized, standing 5 feet, 8 inches. But he’s got sure hands and is shifty after catching the ball.
He caught three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown.
Taylor isn’t the primary option in the passing game. That remains Pierre Garçon, who was there whenever Hoyer needed him. The veteran hauled in seven of 10 targets for 142 yards.
But if Garçon is the No. 1, the 49ers could do worse with Taylor as a slot receiver who can return punts.
His score with a little more than five minutes remaining ensured the Niners stayed within striking distance after the Rams’ Sammy Watkins scored his second touchdown of the game. And if Taylor had been able to break open on the two-point conversion attempt just before the two-minute warning, Shanahan could be in the win column as a head coach.
There’s one undeniable All-Pro player on the 49ers’ roster. He goes by the name of Carlos Hyde, aka El Guapo.
For the third-straight game, the opponent knew the Niners offense was going through their running back and they couldn’t do much to stop it.
Despite missing a series due to a hip ailment, Hyde ran for 84 yards on 25 carries. He also got into the end zone twice.
When he ran the ball on four consecutive plays from the goal line, eventually plunging across the goal line, Hyde showed the kind of determination that has been notably missing from this team for the last two seasons. In the second half, he fell in the backfield after getting another red-zone touch and it looked like he’d be dropped for a loss. Instead, Hyde got up and fought his way inches from putting another six on the board.
“That is just the fight in me,” he said after the game. “I refuse to go down. I just keep fighting, that is how I play.”
Those are the kind of plays that help a rebuilding team more than anything else. Like when he ran through rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon in training camp, it shows the young guys there’s a right and wrong way to play the game.
This team could do much worse than having a dynamic playcaller in Shanahan leading the offense that features a punishing runner.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense is simple and designed to bend but not break. Against Jared Goff, it was left in pieces.
The former Cal Bear completed 22 of his 28 attempts for 292 yards and three touchdowns.
Two Rams receivers — Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods — broke the 100-yard plateau. Meanwhile, Todd Gurley ruined every person who faced him in fantasy this week by getting into the end zone three times (twice rushing, once by catch) and racking up 149 total yards.
It was a subideal showing, to put it lightly. Especially after last week. This leads to two takeaways: 1. Seattle’s offense could tank that team’s chances of competing for a Super Bowl; 2. Even the most “violent” — to borrow Saleh’s favorite phrases — defenses can’t overcome injuries.
The 49ers were already playing without their best player in the secondary (Eric Reid), and their most exciting linebacker (Reuben Foster).
It didn’t get better from there.
After the game, Tank Carradine walked out of the locker room in a boot due to an ankle injury. And, Jaquiski Tartt, who has shown a great deal of promise from the safety position, left the game with a concussion — as did linebacker Brock Coyle.
After Week 1, general manager John Lynch acknowledged the 49ers don’t have the margin for error to make mistakes.
“I think it’s fair to say that our roster’s just not where it needs to be that we can overcome those things,” he said.
Well, there’s nothing they can do about injuries. But they sure do make it tough to come away with a win.