I guess everyone saw the 49ers’ 20-12 win over the Cardinals coming, right?
At kickoff, we had the floundering, 5-9 Niners, losers of the last three in a row, and defeated in six of the previous seven. They were on a month-long camping trip to Arizona. They had so many injuries the team bus is an ambulance. They were dis-invited to the playoffs last week. They were basically playing for exercise.
Opposing them were the 8-6 Cardinals, previously known as the NFL’s Next Big Thing, but now considered more middle of the pack. Still, they were definitely in the playoff hunt, had an electric talent in QB Kyler Murray and motivation was expected to be sky-high because this was a clear, must-win game. Also, they’d already beaten SF, 24-20, in the first game of the season.
And the flounderers won.
Not only that, despite the closeness of the score, the Bay Area side clearly looked like the better team. It was definitely a wait-a-minute-here moment, where you have to question your pre-conceived perceptions. Because a lot of what happened came out of nowhere. For instance:
C.J. Beathard, a third-string quarterback who was so lightly regarded that Kyle Shanahan previously resisted putting him in the last two games, despite the fact that Nick Mullens was basically lighting himself on fire, started and threw three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Of course, he did.
Jeff Wilson, an undrafted and unheralded running back who went to college at North Texas (that’s a school, not a location) ran the ball 22 times. With the 49ers in 2019, he ran for a total of 105 yards in the entire regular season. In this game, he rushed for 183.
“It felt like every run was a gash,” Beathard said after the game.
Wilson also caught a touchdown pass. Tell me you had him on your fantasy team.
Ahkello Witherspoon, the maddeningly inconsistent cornerback voted most likely to be described as in Shanahan’s “doghouse,” made a game-saving interception in the end zone. And all over the Bay Area the Faithful turned to someone next to them and said, “You know if he can continue to play at this level . . . ”
It was just stuff you didn’t expect. Next, you’ll say that relentlessly efficient Robbie Gould missed three kicks. (He did. And one was an extra point.)
But let’s focus on the positive. How did this happen?
First, we have no idea. Teams rise up unexpectedly and win games like this. It happens every year. But there are always some factors that make it more likely.
First, the defense has come to take pride in itself as the strength of the team. For linebacker Fred Warner to make his first Pro Bowl, validates the effort. Warner also should send a thank you card to analyst Tony Romo. Back in October Romo called him the best middle linebacker in the game. Others took notice.
Also, the Robert Saleh show continues to earn raves. Saleh is TV’s hot sideline shot for every game, with the obligatory mention that he’s a prime candidate for a head coaching job. When his defense makes a play, and he’s seen leaping in the air on the sideline, the intensity increases and his stock goes up.
Commentator Matt Maiocco called Saturday’s game “a three-hour job interview,” which was well put.
It is also true that, although it seems eons ago, this is a team that was in the Super Bowl less than a year ago. A core of the roster played in critical games during the season and in the playoffs. That’s an experience that sticks with you. Granted, the team hasn’t won, but it still has players, and coaches, who know how to.
And, let’s just say it, the George Kittle effect is real. He appeared in his post-game interview in a garish “The Joker” T-shirt and took questions like a veteran improv performer. You can’t help but smile.
“Just having Kittle at practice is different,” Shanahan said. “It feels different.”
Limited to 28 snaps, he made the most of them. On his first play from scrimmage, he took out a defender’s legs with a low block that face-planted him. He also caught four passes for 92 yards, flashing that runaway cement truck running style. Again, you can’t help but smile.
As for Beathard, Shanahan has to start him against Seattle, right? At one time I was thinking of making the case that if Jimmy Garoppolo were healthy a final start might be worthwhile. If he played well it might silence some of his critics and if he didn’t . . . well, maybe we should take a second look.
But you can’t stop a story like this. You’ve got Beathard coming in, almost a year to the day since his brother Clay died in a stabbing incident outside a bar, and playing pretty darn well. He only threw 22 passes and for fewer than 200 yards, but no interceptions. He even took off on a couple of runs.
“I can’t imagine what C.J. and his family have been through,” Kittle said. “But I knew if he got a chance, he’d play inspired.”
C.J. deserves one more start.
Meanwhile, on the other sideline, we might want to dial down the hype-machine on Arizona QB Murray. We are once again hearing about how mobile quarterbacks are the hot new thing. And yes, Murray got away from the pass rush more than once to gain a first down.
But the 49ers appeared to be game-planning what other teams started doing with Colin Kaepernick. They tried to keep Murray from getting to the sideline. They funneled him back into the middle where the thumpers are. Murray had just over 70 yards, but was relatively contained.
Also, for all the highlight runs, a quarterback has to make smart throws at the right time. Murray’s interception in the last five minutes, trailing by just eight, was inexcusable.
First, he was in the red zone, at the 49ers’ 14. Also, it was second down, so if nothing was open throwing the ball away was definitely Plan B. And third, he launched the throw off his back foot toward a receiver who was closely covered by Witherspoon. The weather balloon of a pass never had a chance. Witherspoon gathered it in and the game essentially was over. That was as poor a throw as you are likely to see a professional make.
Just a reminder, 49er fans, sometimes even the hot, young quarterbacks have some growing to do. For those of you who want to replace Jimmy G. with some flashy QB who runs a 4.3 40. Be careful what you wish for.