A Play in Three Acts
If the story of the 2017 San Francisco 49ers could be adapted into a Broadway production, it would be exactly that: a play in three acts. From the campaign’s ignominious beginnings back in early September through its exhilarating climax on December 31, players rotated on and off the Niners roster as injuries and ineffectiveness reared their ugly heads at the most inopportune times. Some of the newer additions were plugged in and refused to let go. Others, we would just as soon forget. NFL players are temporary cogs like that. Here, the three acts refer to the three different quarterbacks the 49ers employed en route to a 6-10 record that seemed improbable in the season’s early stanzas.
The curtain-raiser featured Brian Hoyer under center. The 32-year-old journeyman signal-caller had only intermittently been a starter throughout his eight-year-career up to this point, but he had previously worked with Kyle Shanahan and bore an intimate knowledge of the new Niner head coach’s playbook. After two seasons of bouncing back and forth between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, it appeared we would have a steady, veteran hand at the game’s most important position, who could execute Shanahan’s scheme to a “T” and lay the groundwork for a new culture of high-octane football in the Bay Area.
This is where you, dear reader, in your head should hear the hair-raising sound of the ol’ tonearm needle scratching the record. As it turns out, merely knowing a system, and the equally-important skill of executing that system are not always mutually inclusive.
The 49ers dropped their first six games of the season. Hoyer’s passes fluttered to and fro. Some of them sailed effortlessly into the arms of an obliging defensive back. Others were slung blissfully into the grasp of an unsuspecting linebacker. A few floated harmlessly to the ground. Occasionally, an errant throw would doink the noggin of a surprised teammate on the sideline. And yet, every now and again, a Hoyer pass would find its intended target, an actual teammate, wearing the same colors and everything! On exactly four occasions, this rare kind of connection would result in what football scholars refer to as a “touchdown”; for Hoyer, the equivalent of a broken guitar striking a chord more resonant than dissonant.
Despite all that, the 49ers were never hopelessly behind in most of those games. From September 17 through October 15, they lost five in a row by a combined 13 points. The fact that the Niners were even close could be attributable to two things: the reliable right foot of kicker Robbie Gould, who converted a number of stalled drives into points; and a young, but emerging defensive unit under first-year coordinator Robert Saleh that represented a marked improvement over 2016’s Jim O’Neil-led squad.
It was during Week 6, on October 15 at Washington, that Shanahan finally pulled the plug on the Hoyer experiment. Bearing an unsightly 4-for-11, 34-yard statline (with no touchdowns and a solitary first down that was gifted by a ‘Skins penalty), the beleaguered quarterback was summoned to the sideline in the second quarter and told to park his keister on the bench.
After much clamoring from the 49ers Faithful, the C.J. Beathard era had begun! Before we could exhale, the second act was upon us.
Nabbed in the third round of the 2017 draft out of the University of Iowa, Beathard went into training camp as the third-string quarterback, then was elevated to backup when veteran Matt Barkley was cut after the preseason. After relieving Hoyer in the nation’s capital, Beathard threw for 245 yards and a late touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson. He certainly deserved a longer run, partly because he looked relatively competent, and partly because the team decision-makers otherwise risked the wrath of the fanbase. Hell hath no fury like Faithful scorned.
However, from there, Beathard’s performances were -- to put it charitably -- uneven. He was rendered impotent in the face of Dallas’s defense in Week 7, and was unable to generate much in the ensuing games against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers’ offense mustered only 10 points in each of those three contests.
Increasingly obvious to the Niner fanbase but still under the radar around the rest of the NFL landscape, the winds of change were beginning to stir around 4949 Centennial. On November 12, Beathard and the 49ers defeated the equally-inept New York Giants at Levi’s Stadium. The first win of the season! Choruses of “hallelujah” and “oh my God” and “holy [bleep]” radiated amongst the Faithful. Also, there were plaintive cries of “Oh, no, our draft position! But winning feels so, so good!” It was a collective cognitive dissonance at its most confectionery.
While getting that first win in the books was gratifying, it was a transaction that took place, out of the blue, nearly two weeks before that had everyone associated with the Niners organization -- from executives to fans -- abuzz. On October 30, General Manager John Lynch traded a second-round pick in the 2018 draft (one of two that the Niners possessed) to the New England Patriots for Tom Brady’s backup, Jimmy Garoppolo.
Up until then, the Patriots weren’t sure what to do with Garoppolo. Unlike Brady’s other backups over the years, the devilishly-handsome product of Eastern Illinois University was believed to have the talent and composure to one day take over the reins in Foxborough. Yet, the 40-year-old Brady still plays at a high level and has made clear his intentions to keep going. Complicating matters further was that Garoppolo was due to become a free agent at season’s end, and so it became solvent for New England to deal him and get something in return rather than let him walk away for nothing.
After setting foot in Santa Clara, Garoppolo wisely was held from game action so that he could absorb as much of Kyle Shanahan’s complex system as possible (it also helped that Week 11 was a bye). On November 26, with the 49ers trailing the Seattle Seahawks 24-6 entering the game’s final minute, Beathard absorbed a big hit, sustaining a lower-body injury (later diagnosed as a knee contusion, along with a hip strain). He was on the ground for several minutes near the 49ers sideline, being attended to by the medical staff as Garoppolo warmed up nearby. Suddenly pressed into duty, Garoppolo ran three plays, the final one being a touchdown strike to wide receiver Louis Murphy as the final horn sounded. Gould’s point after was true, and despite the 24-13 final deficit, there was a good feeling that, despite the miniscule sample size from Garoppolo in this game, we may have happened upon something special.
With Beathard injured and Garoppolo having had time to learn some of Shanahan’s system, the third act was upon us. The 49ers’ newest quarterback drew the start in Chicago against the Bears, and while statistically he played well (293 yards on 26-37, 82.4 rating) in the 15-14 triumph, the Niners offense still appeared to be stuck in neutral when faced with the opportunity to cross the goalline. A last-second boot by Robbie Gould -- one of five field goals on the day for the former Bear -- gave San Francisco the victory and boosted their record to 2-10.
The victory in Chicago would ignite a five-game streak, as the 49ers would also win contests over the Houston Texans, a pair of AFC South playoff hopefuls in the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the NFC West-winning Los Angeles Rams. Played in front of a packed house at Levi’s Stadium, the triumph over the Jaguars was the most impressive, as the 49ers’ offense carved up the best defense in the entire NFL to the tune of 369 total yards and 37 points. Garoppolo threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for a score on the first drive of the game. The Jaguars’ feared “Sacksonville” defense recorded only one such takedown. In contrast, the 49ers’ defense picked off Jags quarterback Blake Bortles three times, including a pick-six by Dontae Johnson.
The 49ers closed out the 2017 campaign with a flourish, a 34-13 win over the Rams. Having little else to play for, the Rams held out the majority of their regulars. Garoppolo didn’t have his best game: he was picked off twice, including one near the end of the second quarter that L.A. fortunately could do no more with than settle for a field goal. Nonetheless, the 49ers quarterback and their defense did plenty enough to ensure a fifth-straight victory. The salvation of a season once viewed as an all-time clunker was now complete.
Sigmund Freud, if he were alive today, would deign the 2017 49ers as nothing more than a 6-10 team. True football cognoscenti recognize a more relevant truth: this group endured a great deal of adversity and yet managed to win six of the season’s final seven contests. In addition to some serious on-field momentum going into 2018, the 49ers have a ton of salary cap room (nearly $115 million, according to the website overthecap.com) with which to sign free agents and retain current players, plus nine picks in the upcoming NFL draft -- none of which will be needed on a quarterback, a 180-degree reversal in philosophy from September. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch (and I’ll give Jed York credit where it’s due for hiring them), an organization that looked rudderless just one short year ago is now sailing in hopeful waters. The curtain may have dropped on the 2017 season, but it is merely an intermission. We are anxious for an encore performance in 2018.