The 49ers are still going to make the playoffs. At least I think they will.
But that doesn’t mean they’re a good team.
For all the fuss and muss about 53-man rosters and organizational depth, this is a league where success is defined by two people: the quarterback and the head coach.
Shanahan can coach well. He doesn’t manage the clock well and he can certainly be headstrong as an offensive coordinator, but he schemes receivers open in a way no one else in the league can, and despite so many losses throughout his career, his team always has buy-in.
He’s certainly not the biggest problem for this team.
The same cannot be said for the quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo.
I saved all the emails, tweets, and even the voicemail that came my way over the last three weeks. Dozens — perhaps hundreds — of readers and headline glancers claimed that Garoppolo had, in fact, changed as November turned to December.
Let Sunday’s game stand as Exhibit A:
No, he did not change.
He might have fooled so many of you, but he didn’t fool a team he plays twice a year, every year.
Sunday’s game was every bit as chaotic as you would expect a Seahawks game to be. The chaos was augmented by the fact that Seattle was also desperate for a win.
Despite that, the Niners had far more talent on the field than Seattle. George Kittle was a menace, going for 181 yards. Brandon Aiyuk was a couple of drops away from joining him. The left side of the Niners’ offensive line was dominant, and Azeez Al-Shaair was immense behind the Niners’ impressive defensive line.
The Niners are a flawed team, no doubt — just look at their secondary — but they should have dominated Seattle and sent them into a hole that Pete Carroll might not have been able to get out of for years to come. The Niners should have buried their arch-rivals.
But it doesn’t really matter that the 49ers — even with their special teams mistakes and secondary issues — were the better team than Seattle.
The Seahawks had the better quarterback Sunday. He made the big plays in the second half and Garoppolo couldn’t move the ball (San Francisco didn’t come close to crossing midfield) until the final drive of the game.
Now, I’ll give credit where it’s due — Garoppolo was solid in the final three-plus minutes of the game. Against a prevent defense, No. 10 tore up the Seahawks, completing his first seven throws of the drive for 105 yards (thanks, penalties) to take San Francisco from their own 2 to Seattle’s 3-yard line.
That was legitimately good stuff.
But where was that the rest of the game?
Garoppolo had a chance to tie the game because of a great final drive, but the first 56 minutes of the contest were defined by him dinking, dunking, and throwing egregious interceptions to Seahawks defenders that kept Seattle in the game.
Again, this should have been a blowout win for the Niners on the road.
One interception? The Niners can survive that. Everyone is entitled to a brain fart.
But two? Not a chance. Not unless the rest of the team plays a perfect game, and trust me, the Niners did anything but that Sunday.
It’s that, or Garoppolo makes some big-time throws — the kind that the best quarterbacks in the NFL make — to create points.
Frankly, either is an unrealistic expectation going into a contest.
Which means that so long as Garoppolo is the quarterback, the Niners’ margin for error is slim to none.
What can you really win when that’s the case?
Garoppolo is supposed to be a system quarterback — someone who works and can execute the coach’s offensive scheme at a high level. But 42 regular-season games into his Niners career, it seems as if the opposite is true. Garoppolo is anything but a generational talent, but needs the offense to be built for him. And that will make him merely average at his position.
On Sunday, Shanahan abandoned the Garoppolo-in-shotgun offense he used over the last three weeks. He asked Garoppolo to back under center, save for the final drive of the game.
And against one of the worst defenses in the NFL, Garoppolo struggled. His two interceptions were the kind that rookie quarterbacks make. His throws— even the ones he did complete — were anything but accurate. His completions, even his first-quarter touchdown to Kittle, were routine — there are 30 quarterbacks in the league who can make them. In fact, if not for some excellent open-field plays by Kittle and Aiyuk, his stat line would have told that story.
Now, Shanahan deserves blame for going back to a system that did not work earlier this season (or last) — Garoppolo works best in the shotgun because he doesn’t see the field well, so turning his back to the defense is, well, a problem.
But it doesn’t matter if the quarterback is asked to start the play with his back to the defense, the interception he threw directly to Bobby Wagner in the first quarter, and his baffling decision to throw to a double-covered George Kittle over the middle in the third are indefensible throws.
I’m not advocating for the Niners’ rookie quarterback, Trey Lance, to take over as the starting quarterback — though a few snaps as a runner wouldn’t hurt him — but why is the veteran the rookie is supposed to be learning from still making rookie mistakes?
It’s not good enough. It hasn’t been for a long time.
Sunday was a game the 49ers controlled. When they lost control, they asked Garoppolo to win it. Hell, the Seahawks dared him to win it.
And his offense wasn’t able to muster a point in the second half. They only gained 42 yards on 14 plays before the final drive. Seattle scored more points when San Francisco was on offense than the Niners did after halftime.
Now, even with Sunday’s loss. San Francisco is sitting pretty in the race to the middle that is this 2021 NFL season. They likely only need two wins in their last five games to make the playoffs, thanks to two key tiebreakers over the Eagles and Vikings.
So yes, I think the Niners will be a playoff team. They’ll win two more games, right? They better. They still have a home game remaining against the lowly Texans.
But even if they do, what will it matter? This team’s not doing anything in the postseason.
Seattle gave the rest of the NFL the blueprint for beating the Niners — even if Deebo Samuel is playing: sell out to stop the run and dare Garoppolo to beat you.
For a true, top quarterback, such a game plan would result in a guaranteed loss — they’d be carved up left and right.
With Garoppolo, it’s a win for the opponent.
Shanahan was able to hide Jimmy G the last few weeks, but not anymore. Seattle took their aggression to a never-before-seen level Sunday. The perks of needing to put it all on the line.
If the 49ers’ final five opponents were smart, they’d follow Seattle’s suit.
Luckily for the Niners, most of their final five opponents are not, so we’ll get one more game before the Lance era begins in 2022.
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Author: Dieter Kurtenbach