SANTA CLARA — For the first three plays of their game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the 49ers looked really good. It was merely every play that followed that should be cause for concern.
After the defense forced a three-and-out — batting two balls at the line of scrimmage — Trent Taylor muffed the punt and Dallas recovered it in the red zone. Ezekiel Elliott ran it three straight times for the first touchdown of the game and the rout was on.
When the clock eventually (and mercifully) ran out in the fourth, the Niners had lost — 40-10, their worst defeat in the four-year history of Levi’s Stadium.
“We got whooped today, that’s all we can say about that,” Taylor said.
The 49ers were outplayed in “all three phases of the game,” according to their head coach Kyle Shanahan. There were no silver linings of, “Well, at least we lost by a small margin.” It was a beatdown in its purest form.
Elliott must love it when he sees he’s headed for Santa Clara. For the second-straight season, the running back gashed the 49ers defense. On Sunday, he finished with 219 yards from scrimmage to go with three total touchdowns.
The visiting offensive line absolutely dominated the Niners. The group — which is still one of the best in the NFL — made Robert Saleh’s defensive unit look small and slow.
It didn’t help that starting middle linebacker Reuben Foster struggled to stay on the field. Foster was injured while tackling Elliott in the third. He returned shortly thereafter to get hurt again after whiffing on a tackle as Dak Prescott walked into the end zone.
Shanahan said the first-round pick was cleared to return to the game, but, by then, there was no point.
“My feelings hurt,” Foster, who has yet to complete a game as a pro, said when asked what was ailing him after the game.
It wasn’t just Foster’s inability to stay on the field that led to the defense getting overpowered — although it didn’t help. The Niners tested out a new look with Eric Reid back at full strength and the other safeties playing well enough to necessitate more reps.
It didn’t go great.
With the 49ers using Reid as a linebacker to keep Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward on the field, the Cowboys called plays to get their huge (and athletic) offensive linemen into the second level, putting extra pressure on the Niners d-backs to make tackles.
On one play, Elliott caught a screen and busted down the sideline untouched for a 72-yard touchdown to put Dallas up by 24 in the third quarter.
You’d call it the dagger if you believed the 49ers showed any life beforehand.
If rookie CJ Beathard is the quarterback of the future, the 49ers could use a lesson in protecting their investments.
Beathard was sacked five times to lose 48 yards in his first career start; he was hit several more times than that.
During the week leading up to the game, Shanahan wasn’t sure if opponents would react to facing a rookie by turning up the heat or falling back into coverage and making Beathard make decisions. The Cowboys chose the former to great success.
Starting right tackle Trent Brown going out with a concussion only made things worse.
But, at the risk of being overly optimistic, Beathard wasn’t terrible.
The University of Iowa product delivered on what the team originally expected out of former starter Brian Hoyer.
When he was given the chance, he took care of the ball. (It’s hard to blame a guy for getting leveled from the blind side shortly after receiving the snap. Just about every QB in the league would’ve fumbled on that play.) He kept plays alive with his legs early, flashing some athleticism, and he connected on throws downfield. He hit Marquise Goodwin for 48 yards in the second half. Of course, the 49ers followed that by gaining minus-13 yards over the next three plays before punting.
Coming into the season, it was clear the 49ers wanted a quarterback who could guide the offense while maintaining an advantageous draft position. Beathard looks like that guy.
Shanahan said after the game that there were no positives he could take away from the game. He was disappointed. Everyone on his sideline could do better.
The first-year coach didn’t think this kind of outcome was any more likely because he started rookies at quarterback and middle linebacker. The game just slipped away from them.
He pointed to several sequences in the first half when the 49ers came up empty. Like when Beathard fumbled inside of the Dallas 10-yard line because left tackle Joe Staley was beaten badly.
“I know it doesn’t look good, but it’s a very fine line between [getting blown out, losing by a small margin and winning],” Shanahan said.
He’ll search for his first victory as a head coach next week at Philadelphia. When that doesn’t happen, at least he’ll have a legitimate shot to reverse his fortune in Week 9 when the 49ers host the Carson Palmer-less Arizona Cardinals. If the 49ers want to avoid going 0-16, they’d be advised not to miss, then.
Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.