Life after Garoppolo: C.J. Beathard-led 49ers come up just short in loss to Chargers
CARSON, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had just endured one of the tougher weeks of his tenure, watching his team drop two road games in the span of seven days and his second one-score loss of his team’s 1-3 season.
Shanahan’s job this year became a lot more similar to his role in 2017, his first as head coach, when starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo went down in Week 3 with a torn ACL. The 49ers had to turn back to the quarterback, C.J. Beathard, who could only lead the team to one victory in his five starts as a rookie who was thrown into the fire last year.
But Beathard was in no way the first person to blame following the 49ers’ 29-27 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers at the StubHub Center on Sunday.
“He gave us a chance to win,” Shanahan said.
Beathard threw for a career-high 298 yards and two TDs on 23-of-37 passing, and that doesn’t account for dropped passes. The 49ers looked to take the lead midway through the third quarter, trailing 23-17 but driving to the Chargers’ 8-yard line. Beathard’s 1st-and-goal pass hit 49ers TE Garrett Celek in the hands, was picked by the Chargers’ Trevor Williams and was nearly run back for a score. The Chargers eventually kicked a field goal in what was at least a six-point swing, if not a bigger one.
It was that kind of afternoon for the 49ers, who have not seen much of Lady Luck these days. In addition to losing Garoppolo last week for the season, they suffered a few more big injuries on offense Sunday — LT Joe Staley (knee) and WR Dante Pettis (knee) both left the game, and Shanahan had no update on their statuses. RT Mike McGlinchey (knee) also left the game briefly before returning, but it did leave the 49ers without both starting tackles for a series.
The player who took the biggest beating, perhaps, was Beathard. The Chargers were only credited with three QB hits on Beathard, but he also ran with the ball seven times in the game (for 19 yards) and seemed to take maximum punishment on almost every one of them.
The scariest hit came early in the fourth quarter when Beathard scrambled on 3rd-and-5 and in reaching for the first-down marker took a pop from Chargers DB Casey Hayward. The referees marked Beathard short of the line to gain, but the bigger concern was his health. It turned out that Beathard had just had the wind knocked out of him — and his teammates fully expected their new leader to be fine.
“We’ve come to expect that he’s going to pop right back up,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “After that big hit when he was out for a minute, the first thing I thought was that he got the wind knocked out of him. That was the case. We all know how tough it is.”
Beathard said he was tested for a concussion just to be sure but that he was not hit in the head, but rather the sternum. 49ers TE George Kittle, who has played with Beathard since their days in college together at Iowa, remains in awe of his teammate’s unlikely but undeniable sturdiness.
“He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around,” Kittle said. “He played the game angry.”
Added McGlinchey, “He’s a tough son of a bitch, man. Getting licked and just keeps fighting. We’ve known that about him, and now everyone else knows it. You love playing with a guy like that. He doesn’t stop fighting.”
Shanahan said after the game he’d like Beathard to slide on the play on which he got injured. But Beathard didn’t sound like a man who was about to start changing his style, especially on key plays.
“Not really a debate, especially in a situation like that on third down when you’re inches away from converting,” he said. “You know it could change the game if we get that first [down].
“If I could do it again, I would do the same thing.”
Does Kittle worry about his quarterback exposing himself to so many big hits?
“No, he’s a badass,” Kittle said. “He’s good. C.J. has more grit than anyone I know.”
The 49ers have no choice but to rally around Beathard now, with Nick Mullens (zero NFL snaps) as the new backup and Shanahan hinting that the team might need to sign another one to the roster. Part of that certainly has to do with Beathard’s borderline reckless competitiveness, which is a razor’s edge Shanahan must carefully ride with 12 regular-season games left and six straight until the Week 11 bye.
How does Beathard — who doesn’t exactly look the part of the typecast quarterback — manage to hold up? Kittle seemed confounded by what Beathard can endure.
“He’s got a severe dad bod,” Kittle said. ”[But] he can run longer than anybody I’ve ever known, which is kind of crazy, and he can take any hit.
“It’s pretty cool. Don’t know how he does it.”
Beathard came back on the 49ers’ final two series with chances to rally the team after the Chargers took the lead with just under eight minutes remaining. On the first series, Beathard missed Kittle — who had 125 yards receiving and an 82-yard TD against the Chargers — on a deep route.
On the final possession of the game, the 49ers were in a “scat” protection and just flat out missed picking up a blitzing Derwin James. The Chargers’ standout rookie safety deflected Beathard’s pass, and it ended up in the hands of DL Isaac Rochell. That allowed the Chargers to run out the clock.
Missed tackles on defense, dropped passes and injuries can all be blamed for the close road loss. But Beathard was battling until the end behind a makeshift offensive line and with two “X” receivers out for one point, too. RB Matt Breida also missed two series with an unknown ailment. The 49ers were at a point, injury-wise, that some teams experience in Week 14 — not Week 4. But Juszczyk said the 49ers have more self-confidence this season as a team than they did when the 2017 squad opened the season 1-10 before Garoppolo rode in on a white horse.
“I feel like last year, we weren’t sure exactly who we were,” he said. “There were a lot of changes every week. We have an idea of who we are. We have the talent. It’s just a matter of piecing it together every Sunday.”
There likely will be no savior this time around, no shocking trade gift dropped in their laps, a la Garoppolo. Beathard gives them a chance to be competitive, as Sunday showed. For his part, Beathard said he felt more comfortable playing Sunday than he did in a rookie season with four TD passes and six INTs.
But it also displayed the flip side: the exposure to hits. If the 49ers must turn to Mullens (or someone else?) down the line, it could truly be a lost season. For now, though, the 49ers are saying to a man that they’re rallying behind Beathard — and Sunday’s game effort showed them why they’re not crazy to believe they can.
“The guy has got extreme arm talent. He can put the ball anywhere,” Juszczyk said. “As long as we protect for him and [the receivers] get open, he’s going to make plays.”