San Francisco 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard started his first game in 790 days on Saturday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard started his first game in 790 days on Saturday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

49ers rally behind C.J. Beathard, starting for the first time since brother’s death

Chris Biderman

The Sacramento Bee

C.J. Beathard won’t forget Saturday afternoon no matter what happens next in his playing career.

The 49ers’ third-string quarterback, playing a year to the week of his younger brother’s murder, started his first game in 790 days. It came in the same venue and against the same team as his last start all the way back in October of 2018, a week before Beathard lost the backup job to Nick Mullens.

But as difficult as being demoted to third string can be for a former third-round draft pick, Beathard’s life away from football was far more challenging. He came into Saturday’s tilt against the Arizona Cardinals with a new haircut that had special meaning. Beathard over the last week got his long, reddish-blonde locks cut after growing them out in honor of his brother, Clayton.

“He always liked the long hair so I just kind of kept it going for him, as little as that is,” Beathard said. “It’s been a year now, so I can cut it.”

Said head coach Kyle Shanahan during the week of Beathard’s haircut: “It was almost like he had accepted some stuff and then he’s going to honor his brother in a different way.”

Perhaps beating the Cardinals on Sunday, 20-12, was Beathard’s new way to honor his fallen brother. The win improved the 49ers to 6-9 on the season, and although they were eliminated from postseason contention last week, Saturday’s victory proved important for the team’s psyche, and for Beathard ahead of his looming free agency in the spring.

Beathard found out he would be the 49ers’ starting quarterback this week around the one-year anniversary of his brother’s death. Clayton Beathard, 21, was fatally stabbed outside of a nightclub in Nashville on Dec. 21, 2019, hours before the 49ers had a key late-season game against the Rams.

Honoring Clayton Beathard

After the game Saturday, Beathard wore a customized jacket with the word “King” etched on the right side. King was Clayton’s middle name. On the left, a picture of Clayton in his football uniform. He was a quarterback at Long Island University. The jacket was sent to Beathard by Clayton’s pastor in New York.

“It dropped me to tears when I saw it. It was really cool,” said Beathard, who is deeply religious.

“It’s got a lot of meaning for me. First and foremost, the king is our lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and it has a lot of irony with me just because my brother’s middle name was King.”

Against Arizona, C.J. Beathard threw a career-high three touchdown passes, helping to throw a wrench in the Cardinals’ plans for a postseason berth. A win over San Francisco would have gone a long way toward the Cardinals getting the new No. 7 seed in the NFC West playoffs, but a loss put the Chicago Bears in the driver’s seat.

Beathard found fullback Kyle Juszczyk for a pair of touchdown passes, and also hit running back Jeff Wilson Jr. for a 21-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter for a score. Beathard was steady throughout and didn’t turn the ball over, save for a fumble as his arm was hit late in the first half in a play that looked like an incompletion.

The 49ers won the turnover battle, 2-1, for the first time since beating the Rams on Nov. 29, when they forced four to L.A.’s three. They snapped a steak of eight straight games with multiple turnovers, including six with Mullens as the starting quarterback.

“I think C.J. played awesome,” Shanahan said. “Just his leadership out there, the way the guys gravitated to him. You could feel it during the week of practice. He came in on Wednesday when he first got his reps, just so ready to go. I think you could tell they played for him, too. I was very impressed with C.J. and very happy for him today.”

Kittle returns to lineup

Saturday also marked the return of tight end George Kittle, who played roughly half the offensive snaps, but who was still productive. He had four catches for a game-high 92 yards. He got going on the second possession with a pass that went 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage that Kittle turned into a 24-yard gain.

“I can’t imagine what C.J. and his family have gone through in the last year,” Kittle said. “I knew that when C.J. had the opportunity to play again, he was going to play inspired. And he did that today.”

Nowhere did the effort, perhaps spurred by Beathard, show up more than in the running game. San Francisco rushed for a season-high 227 yards behind a career showing from Wilson, who added a personal-best 183 yards on 22 carries to his touchdown catch.

“Every run I felt like was a gash, we were just getting after them,” Beathard said. “So it didn’t really matter what we called, or what we did. We knew we were going to go out there and execute and it would be a positive play for us.”

The offensive line had one of its best run-blocking performances since the last time the running game was effective enough to control the 33-6 win over the New England Patriots in late October. The 49ers had 197 yards in that game while Wilson paved the way with 112 yards before exiting the game in the third quarter with a high ankle sprain.

Since that game, San Francisco has averaged 3.9 yards per carry, and had games with just 52, 55 and 49 rushing yards consecutively. They averaged 7.6 yards per carry on Saturday.

“That’s our standard,” Kittle said. “That’s what we want to run the ball like every single week. And I know that it’s been frustrating for guys, for our team, that we haven’t been running the ball well.

“We were inspired to play with C.J.”

For Shanahan, the win helped prove what he felt he already knew about his team.

“We’re not proud of our record. We’d love to be better,” said Shanahan. “But that doesn’t tell the story of who these guys are, just what they’ve been through all year and that they give everything they have every game day. … This league is tough, and if you’re a weak-minded person and not made of the right stuff, plenty of guys would have tapped out today and we didn’t have one person (tap out). I love those guys, can’t say enough about them and that’s why we were able to pull off a special win today.”

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