The 49ers are halfway through their season, and their opportunities to log their first win this season are extremely limited.
They likely won’t go 0-16, but it’s possible. Again, that reality is great if you want to give John Lynch and his team of personnel experts the highest pick possible. But with each lost week — or season-ending injury, or backbreaking turnover — the likelihood rises that a losing culture takes hold.
That’s why it was so important the Niners made a couple noteworthy trades at the deadline. Bringing in Jimmy Garoppolo — a quarterback who the New England Patriots have praised before and after the deal — has had a positive effect on the locker room. The team needed it after players had been walking around like their dog had been kicked following the move to get rid of NaVorro Bowman.
They’ll need to start moving forward at some point. This week might not be it — which is a shame since the Arizona Cardinals are beatable this year, especially if they’re going to be without Carson Palmer. But Kyle Shanahan doesn’t have many options on the offensive line and that will make for ugly offense for the ninth-straight week.
Here’s how the 49ers fared in the first half of the season (first quarter grades included):
The 49ers quarterbacks own the worst collective passer rating this side of Cleveland. The deflating duo of Brian Hoyer (now gone) and CJ Beathard (soon to be a backup again) have combined for six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
If Hoyer was average against the Seahawks in Week 2 or the Cardinals in Week 4, the Niners would be in the win column. The defense was solid for most of the first half last Sunday against the Eagles, then Beathard threw a backbreaking pick-six to shovel the dirt into the 49ers’ grave.
The good news for the Faithful: Neither of these guys will factor into the long-term plans beyond Beathard being a backup. But these grades are based on what they’ve done so far, not what’s going to happen in the future.
And what we’ve seen so far from the guys under center has been ugly.
First quarter grade: D+
Running backs: B-
It’s been mostly downhill for Carlos Hyde since he ripped up the Seattle defense for 124 rushing yards on 15 carries. But a couple missed blocks and an untimely penalty made Kyle Shanahan give Matt Breida an extended look — leading many to wonder if Hyde had fallen out of the good graces of his coaching staff.
It turns out those fears were misplaced as Hyde has returned to his normal role. It’s still been to mixed results. He’s no longer on pace for his best season on the ground — mostly due to poor performances in away games that aren’t in the state of Washington. (He’s averaging 33.3 yards in four road games since Week 2.) But he deserves some credit for growing as a pass-catcher. Hyde set a new career high with 31 catches. His rapport with Beathard could be improved — but that would come if the rookie quarterback could slow down and find some accuracy.
This grade will likely get worse as the season goes on because the 49ers offensive line started the season as a bad unit, and isn’t getting better. But Hyde and Breida are both playmakers and shouldn’t be blamed for the entire offense’s failings, as Shanahan reminded on Wednesday.
“I can tell if we block a play, that really we should get negative four yards on and the back ends up getting negative two, that’s a very good run to me and I notice that stuff,” Shanahan explained.
2017: The year we all adjust what we deem “very good.”
First quarter grade: A-
It’s hard to gauge how this unit is doing. The offensive line is failing to protect the quarterback, who is failing to get the ball to his playmakers.
In his first eight games as a member of the 49ers, Pierre Garcon earned a top-10 grade for his position according to Pro Football Focus.
He’s done now for the season after suffering a broken bone in his neck last week. So, it’ll be up to Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson and Kendrick Bourne to pick up the slack.
That’s a tough ask for a bunch of guys who don’t have experience being focal points of the offense for a reason.
If this unit could simply cut down on drops in the second half of the season, it would be an improvement and would help them deliver on the modest expectations placed on them. That’ll be easier to accomplish with a steady quarterback.
First quarter grade: C-
Offensive line: D+
Joe Staley has shown his age this year, but he’s still an above-average offensive tackle in the NFL. Trent Brown is right there with him. If they’re healthy, the 49ers could play Garoppolo without worrying that they’ll ruin their new investment. Brown isn’t on the injury report for today’s game after being cleared from the league’s concussion protocol; Staley is out.
Injuries happen, but it has to be frustrating for the front office that Joshua Garnett — a first-round pick in 2016 — was forced to miss the season with a knee injury. The guard position has been a patchwork ever since and it hasn’t been pretty on either side of the center.
Hoyer got knocked for how he reacted whenever he got hit, which was often. His coaches insist Beathard has elite toughness, which is a sign that he’s needed it as his turnstile o-line tees him up to take big hits. It hasn’t been pretty, and with Staley set to miss at least a couple weeks, it won’t be getting better soon.
That’s why Shanahan said he’s in no rush to get Garoppolo on the field, admitting Friday that Staley’s absence is a factor in when the quarterback will play.
First quarter grade: C
Defensive line: B+
This unit has also seen its fair share of attrition with Tank Carradine going down for the season. But the replacements have been solid.
DeForest Buckner is a bonafide star and Solomon Thomas has shown flashes of potential greatness — which is what you can reasonably hope for out of a rookie. (Of course, Thomas is out for today with a knee injury.)
I wanted to give them an A-, but can’t shake the Cowboys game, when Ezekiel Elliott ran wild. But they’re the main reason the 49ers have been competitive at all this season. So there’s that.
First quarter grade: B+
Ahkello Witherspoon is the new
No. 1 cornerback and that’s just fine. He’s improved every week and earned his first interception as a pro against the Eagles (but he did give up a touchdown on the next drive). His coaches say he’s putting in the work to be a great pro, and we’ll see how he does against Larry Fitzgerald today.
Jaquiski Tartt is the other silver lining in this group. He’s the 11th-best safety in the league, according to PFF, and has solidified his spot in the defense. Eric Reid will return to his natural position this week with Jimmie Ward done for the season. So, I expect safety will continue to be a position of strength for Robert Saleh’s defense.
As long as Witherspoon can continue his ascent, and Dontae Johnson can prove he deserves playing time (he allowed just three catches on eight targets in Philadelphia), this group could be a strength going forward. The coaches are certainly hoping that trading Rashard Robinson equates addition by subtraction.
First quarter grade: C+
No more excuses for this group. Bowman is gone, and Reuben Foster can’t stay healthy. Ray-Ray Armstrong deserves credit for being able to make plays, but after that, there’s little to like here.
Brock Coyle is a step slow in coverage. But you can’t blame him for not shining in an every-down role he was never supposed to play.
Until Foster and Malcolm Smith prove they can stay on the field, this is going to be a vulnerability in the defense. The Cowboys attacked the linebackers with their huge (and quick) offensive line repeatedly and there was no answer.
It doesn’t look good for anyone when Reid is your best backer.
First quarter grade: Inc.
Special teams: A
Bradley Pinion is getting his reps and is making good use of them. And the fans go wild.
First quarter grade: A
Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at email@example.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.