• Bret Rumbeck

Protecting Number Ten and Not Playing Like Number Two: Examining Justin Skules First Start as a 49er

“…We Need to Make Sure That We Commit to Building Something…”

The San Francisco 49ers of two or three years ago would not have walked out of Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a victory. Those were desolate, dystopian times, friends.

Those who trekked to Levi’s Stadium in 2015 or 2016 would not see a magical two-minute comeback drive, a game-changing interception, or one part of the team pick up the slack for a struggling unit.

In exchange for our time and money, we were sold the promise of a team that won with class. Instead, we received a jumbled mess of a football organization.

Those teams were a sloven, glass-jawed boxer; one or two body shots and the team would land on the canvas. And the NFL would point and laugh at the once-great scarlet and gold champion now quivering in the corner, bleeding out slowly.

I was hesitant to buy into the clever marketing slogans rolled out by the 49ers after general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan signed six-year contracts. The organization treated fans like brainless sheep, and I’d had enough of that Kool-Aid to become immune.

Something felt different on Sunday, even watching the 49ers grind out a victory 670 miles to the northeast.

Three years ago, the 49ers would not have come close in a game without veteran tackle Joe Staley.

Yet this team started an unknown sixth-round rookie, and despite his struggles, the 49ers won.

The 49ers only rushed five times to the left and gained 17 yards. Shanahan blatantly attacked the right side of the offensive line 26 times for 131 yards, and the Steelers had nobody to stop it.

Skule had moments where he looked like a pro, and others where it looked like he was out of his element. He committed three ill-timed penalties, and yet, the 49ers found a way to continue to put points on the board.

“A lot of stuff to fix, for sure, can’t have those penalties, those were costly penalties at pretty bad times,” said Skule after the game. “I had a couple good things, but I am going to learn [it all] from the tape and move on.”

The 49ers’ offense decided to give the ball to the Steelers five times on Sunday, one short of how many turnovers the team had against Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship game.

Yet, we saw the 49ers pick up the slack for the errors and mental lapses from the offense and hold the Steelers to six points from those turnovers. Further, the 49ers’ defense forced four 3-and-outs, caused two fumbles and picked off quarterback Mason Rudolph early in the third quarter.

For whatever reason, even after the 49ers’ fifth turnover, I felt like the team could walk into the cool of the locker room with a victory.

With 1:20 left in the game, the 49ers finished a seven-play drive with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threading a touchdown dart to wide receiver Dante Pettis.

Our champion fighter, the shadow of himself who’d been mocked and beaten for the last few years, finally found a way to pick himself up from the dirt. He has remembered his swagger and what it takes to win games.

New coaches and general managers always march into the first press conference full of bluster, bringing promises and new feelings of hope.

Two years ago, Jed York, Kyle Shanahan, and John Lynch emerged from a dark corner of the 49ers’ press room. The cameras clicked, and the stage creaked as the three men sat down.

It was a scene the Faithful had witnessed and become familiar with. A bad season, a new coach.

“There’s a lot of work in front of us. There’s certainly not a lot of time to celebrate on just making a hire,” said York.

A bit later, York noted a conversation he had with Shanahan about his plans with the 49ers.

“I think in talking to Kyle, he was very direct with what he wants to do with the team and how he wants to build this thing and get it right. He knows that he’s going to have the leeway to do that and he’s going to have the time to do that, and we need to make sure that we commit to building something that we’re going to all be proud of when it’s all said and done.”

It’s far too early in the season, but maybe this team is built in Shanahan’s vision. Maybe, just maybe, we’re witness to something we can finally be proud of on Sunday afternoon.

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