Not many people are talking about the Niners anymore, which is pretty different from it was three months ago. For Kyle Shanahan, the losing hasn’t been easy, be the San Francisco coach is a realist regarding where his team was then and where it is now.
The group taking the field in September, despite what you might have heard, still had a lot of real estate to cover on the course Shanahan and GM John Lynch charted in February 2017. The group on the field now, believe it or not, has actually come a long way in getting to 4-10, which is precisely what the 49ers’ record was at this time last year.
How do you reconcile it all? How could a team ticketed by some as a Super Bowl dark horse in September see progress in playing out the string? By recognizing that the expectations surrounding the Niners in August were more than little out of whack.
“Without a doubt,” Shanahan said, driving home from the facility late Wednesday. “That’s something you’re very well-aware of as a coach. You’re always worried about it, because with expectations, you know where people go. And if you don’t live up to those expectations, it can deflate people. It can get negative very fast. But that’s just the league. That’s how it always is.
“I knew we weren’t just going to line up and beat people, just because we showed up. Our expectations were realistic—we wanted a chance to be in every game.”
Things have changed since, of course. That’s what a quarterback injury will do.
And yet, the Niners really do see a real chance to come out of this season better for the experience. San Francisco was 1-1 when Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL against the Chiefs on Sept. 23. That wound up being the first of six consecutive losses, and nine in 10 games. Some of those were close (against the Packers and Giants), and others weren’t (against the Rams).
The constant was how the Niners kept swinging, and eventually they started landing blows. Last week they effectively ended the Broncos’ playoff hopes with a 20-14 win. This week they snapped a 10-game losing streak to a Seahawks team that came in riding four straight wins. And now they’ll have a chance to play playoff-seed spoiler, with the Bears and Rams on tap to finish the season.
“In the NFL, when you lose a bunch of games in a row, or you have a bad record, or you’re eliminated from the playoffs, it’s a tough thing for anybody, because of the negativity that goes with it,” Shanahan said. “All the coverage, every day, 24 hours a day, that’s stuff that, even if you try to ignore it, all you family hears, your wife, your girlfriend, your kids, you brothers, whatever it is. It’s really hard.
“So whenever you can find wins when you’re out of it—and not just find wins, but play good football, and especially if you’re beating a good team—it says a lot about the character of the guys.”
And, two years in, about the state of the program.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you a handful of players to watch over Week 16, plus a college pass-rusher and quarterback to keep your eye during the week of bowl games, and I’ll answer a whole bunch of your questions on the soon-to-be-spinning coaching carousel.
But we’re starting with a couple teams that came into this year with huge expectations, and had those dashed through devastating quarterback injuries. The Niners’ nightmare scenario unfolded quickly, hitting the team like a tornado in Week 3. The situation in Carolina was more like a hurricane, slower moving and lingering, but doing damage all the same. We’ll go there first.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn’t totally sure where things go from here with Cam Newton and his ailing throwing shoulder. But he does know how the quarterback and team reached this critical mass.
For over a month now, Carolina has been managing two pieces of fallout.
• Newton’s shoulder was getting sore in the fourth quarter of games.
• It would be Fridays before he was right throwing it again in practice.
This week, the issue came to a head. For the first time, during the Panthers’ hope-killing Monday night home loss to the Saints, Newton complained of soreness in the third quarter. And since the game was played on Monday, even if he was able to stay on the same recovery schedule, he’d have been lucky to be throwing the ball as he wanted to by Saturday.
So it was time. On Tuesday, Rivera and GM Marty Hurney went to owner David Tepper with their plan to shut Newton down. Tepper agreed with the plan, and so Rivera and Hurney went to Newton on Wednesday to explain to the star quarterback what they thought was best.
“He understood, I can tell you that much,” Rivera said from his office late Wednesday. “The thing that was hard for him, he feels like he let us down. If you know him, he puts so much on himself, he wants to win, he wants to be successful and he really struggled with it. Here’s a guy that competes and does everything he can to help you win.”
As Rivera explained it to Newton, “There’d be no way he’d be ready to play on Sunday. It wouldn’t be fair to him. It wouldn’t be fair to the team.”
The shame of it is that before Newton’s shoulder soreness resurfaced (he dealt with this some last year too, coming off surgery), new offensive coordinator Norv Turner and QBs coach Scott Turner had kicked into motion his evolution as a quarterback. By building a hybrid of the old Turner system and a spread attack, the Panthers had the league on its heels for a time in September and October.
In eight of the Panthers’ first 11 games, Newton’s passer rating topped 100, and at that point he was the league’s seventh-rated passer, completing 69.6 percent of this throws for 22 touchdown passes against just seven picks. But even then, he was well into the woods on his shoulder problem, and the last three games (two TDs, six INTs) everything has come undone.
The tough part for Newton? His progress was real. The Turners strove to give Newton ownership of the offense, and he’d responded going deeper into his progressions more consistently, being judicious with the ball, using the whole field, and applying what he was doing to combat what the defense was throwing at him, rather than simply running plays.
“Absolutely, that’s something that really bothers him,” Rivera said. “He was doing what we asked of him, and he was growing the way you’d expect your franchise quarterback to. He’s done that.”
The good news? Hard as it is now for a team that’s gone from 6-2 to 6-8 in a blink of an eye, the progress Newton made didn’t fade with the strength in his shoulder. As soon as he’s back to full strength, he should be able to apply the same ideas again, which at least on paper could put Carolina in 2019 right back where it midway through this year.
“He made such growth, and the guys around him are going to be a year older,” Rivera said. “DJ Moore is going be a year older, Curtis Samuel is going to be a year older, Christian McCaffrey, Ian Thomas, and we’re going to get a healthy Greg Olsen back on the field. There are so many good possibilities as far as our team’s growth, coupled around the quarterback’s continued growth—I think it bodes really well for us.”
Shanahan’s cool with being just as blunt as Rivera. Losing Garoppolo hurt, a lot.
“Jimmy played at such a high level [at the end of 2017],” he said. “It was obvious for everyone to see. That excites everyone. And it gives you a lot of momentum—not just how he finished, but the way he was playing. It wasn’t just numbers. That excites players, and it gives you momentum. And when you lose that so early in the year, with how long the year is, it’s depressing, it takes a toll on people.”
And the Garoppolo blow came just three weeks after big-ticket free agent running back Jerick McKinnon blew out his ACL on cutdown weekend.
So what did the experience show? It simply revealed the truth—Shanahan and Lynch inherited a teardown project two years ago, and a five-game win streak to end Year 1 didn’t put to bed all the problems that needed fixing.
“When your quarterback plays at a very high level, which Jimmy did last year, it can hide a few things,” Shanahan said. “And when that ends, you have to fight through some stuff, and it brings some stuff up. I think that’s what we’ve done throughout the year. It’s obviously made it harder. What was cool is it got a lot harder, and we had our ups and downs, but guys didn’t shy away from it.
“And even though it hasn’t been fun a lot of times, I think this is a necessary process that I do believe, when we do win here, these will be some of the reasons that led us to learning how to do it.”
The flip side is just what Shanahan referenced—all the adversity had a way of showing him and Lynch and the rest of the staff just what they had on the roster.
Left tackle Joe Staley, for one, set an example for others to follow, maintaining his own high standard throughout, no matter the circumstances—something the coaches know it was important for their younger players to see. And cornerback Richard Sherman, who’s really never been a non-contender like this, kept battling to get healthier, and served as a guiding force for the team’s young defenders.
It doesn’t go down that way everywhere. Shanahan concedes it’s tough for players coming to work on those Mondays and Tuesdays after close losses, especially as the playoffs slip further and further out of reach. He’s also seen, first-hand, how that adversity can crack teams, which is why he’s so encouraged that it didn’t happen to his group.
“I feel like that stuff is so crucial in making you the best you can be,” he said. “I always look at my own career, and I’ve been through a lot of situations that, in them, you’re like, ‘gosh, this is a bad situation, wish I never got into it.’ And then, looking back at it all, that stuff was crucial into helping me be as good a coach as I could be, and it helps you understand the next situation that much better.
“We’ve got a real good group of guys. That’s something I know for sure from these two years—we’ve got some strong people [for whom] football’s important. And we need to get better, and we’re going to get better. You learn from going through this who your guys are, who the guys are who are real, the guys who can help, and who the guys are that you might have to move on from.”
And the ones who’ll stick around past this year got something to look forward to the last few weeks, as Garoppolo’s becoming increasingly present as he’s gotten off crutches. The quarterback still has a ways to go, of course, but the light at the end of the tunnel is now visible, if off in the distance—for both him and the team.
Maybe they can play spoiler this weekend and next, like they did the last two weeks. Maybe not. (A win over the Bears on Sunday would all but ruin Chicago’s first-round bye hopes, depending on the Rams-Cardinals result. If L.A. loses at Arizona this week, the Niners could knock the Rams out of a first-round bye with a win in Week 17.) What we know is they still have a lot to look forward to. And maybe now a little better idea of how to handle it.
Now, let’s get you ready for Week 16 …
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Players in the NFL spotlight in Week 16.
Chargers DE Joey Bosa: With the amount of zone-read the Ravens figure to dish out, Bosa and bookend Melvin Ingram are pretty important—more often than not, they’ll be who Lamar Jackson is reading on option plays. And so a couple guys paid to harass quarterbacks will look to do it in a different way.
Seahawks RB Chris Carson: Two weeks ago the Ravens effectively muddied up a game against the Chiefs, and took them to overtime at Arrowhead. The formula for Seattle to slow down high-flying Kansas City will be much the same, and with rookie Rashaad Penny nicked up, Carson (44 carries the last two weeks) will likely be the focal point of that effort against a spotty defense.
Eagles DT Fletcher Cox: The Texans have managed their offensive line issues to a reasonable degree, but the Jets were able to get to Deshaun Watson pretty consistently (six sacks, 11 hits) on Saturday night. That means the Eagles front, and especially Cox, promises to be a problem in a crucial game for both teams.
Rams QB Jared Goff: This isn’t so much about what Goff’s is up against (maybe the worst team in the league in Arizona) as it is how the Rams’ franchise quarterback has played the last few weeks. Since the team’s bye, Goff has had passer ratings of 68.6, 19.1 and 66.8, with a single touchdown pass against seven picks. This week and next (against the 49ers) have to be get-well games for Goff.
Saints C Max Unger: And you can really add guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat to the mix here, too. If the Steelers are going to affect Brees, it’s going to be right up Main Street, behind their twin interior terrors Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, which puts the onus on Unger and the guys next to him.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
A pair of future draft prospects to keep an eye on this weekend.
Buffalo QB Tyree Jackson (vs. Troy, Dollar General Bowl, ESPN, Dec. 22, 7 p.m.): A towering quarterback prospect (listed at 6’7”, 245 pounds), Jackson has drawn the interest of the NFL for a while now. Coming into this season he was more a curiosity than anything else. His production since has made him a legit player to watch. He got off to a hot start, and finished with 2,857 yards, 27 touchdown passes and 11 picks in a 10-win season, winning a MAC East title and MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Even if he’s still got a ways to go. “He’s a developmental QB,” said one AFC GM. “Raw talent, needs to improve his accuracy and decision-making, and should stay in school to continue to play and gain experience instead of sitting on the bench [in the NFL].” Another AFC exec added, “It’s early with him. Big body with a live arm—you just don’t know where the ball is going at times. He has a [Byron] Leftwich type of body and long release.” Jackson, by the way, is draft eligible, and there’s even been some speculation he could head for a Power 5 school (he’s currently a redshirt junior eligibility-wise) as a grad transfer. Whatever happens, because of his massive frame and tools, it’s worth keeping an eye on him.
Louisiana Tech DE Jaylon Ferguson (vs. Hawai’i, Hawai’i Bowl, ESPN, Dec. 22, 10:30 p.m.): There’s a ton of defensive tackles and edge players in this year’s class, and Ferguson is one of the likely Day 2 types who could become a great value pick—he had 15 sacks as a fifth-year senior and goes into this game with 42.5 career sacks, needing 1.5 to tie Terrell Suggs’ NCAA record of 44. Ferguson has a good frame to boot, carrying a listed 262 pounds at 6’5”. “He’s got speed,” said one club’s college scouting director. “He’s a long-limbed guy who pops off the ball, he can bend, and he’s good at the top of his rush, plays hard. The only thing is that there are games where’s productive, and games where he disappears, so you’d like to see a little more consistency. But he’s talented.” The public, of course, doesn’t know as much about him as Ohio State’s Nick Bosa or Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, or even Florida State’s Brian Burns or Florida’s Jachai Polite. But it’s good bet that a little more attention is coming in the next few months.
From Gil Sery (@gilsery): After seeing the Chargers beat the Seahawks in Seattle, Steelers in Pittsburgh AND Chiefs in Kansas City, why do so many sports broadcasters still insist that KC will have the #1 AFC seed? How much more do they need to see before they'll root for the Chargers?
Couldn’t help but kick things off with Gil’s question, because I love it when fans think that we root for teams. We (or at least I) don’t, but I think the reason for the feeling that the Chiefs will remain the top seed is because they … still have the inside track to it.
Yes, the Chiefs have to go to Seattle this week, but the Ravens visit the Chargers’ bandbox on Saturday night. So both teams have challenges, and Anthony Lynn’s crew, for reasons relating to the division-record tiebreaker, needs to gain ground over the next two weeks. Is it hard to see K.C. losing to the Seahawks? No. But the Chargers could be in for the same fate this week against Baltimore.
POWER RANKINGS:Chargers climb to No. 2
Next week these guys get division opponents playing out the string—the Chargers are in Denver and the Chiefs host the Raiders—which makes the results of Week 16 even more important to the two jockeying atop the AFC West. And for the record, it doesn’t really matter to me who comes out on top.
From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): If the Giants had better options available in the draft at quarterback, would there be this much talk about Eli returning next year?
Craig, I think you have to look at this logically. First off, the Giants will likely be drafting in the 8 to 12 range, meaning that even if they like, say, Oregon’s Justin Herbert or Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (if the two even declare), there’ll be no assurances they will be in position to select them. Second, Eli Manning costs just $17 million in 2019. That’s less than Case Keenum got on the open market in 2018.
Now, add those two together—the fact that they likely won’t be in a position to know they’re getting their guy in the draft (if they have a guy), and the reality in what quarterbacks cost—and it’s not hard to see where treading water at least through March and April, and maybe for another year, with Manning actually makes some sense.
Don’t think I’m missing your point, by the way. I do think that there will be teams that approach this year like the Browns and Jets did 2017—both those clubs looked at the ’17 and ’18 QB classes in tandem, and decided to punt on ’17, preferring the ’18 quarterbacks. Likewise, some teams will see Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and decide to wait. So Haskins and Herbert become Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes then?
From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): Is it possible that Frank Reich was the genius and Doug Pederson is just a guy??
This is such an interesting question—and one I’ve honestly considered quite a bit when looking at how things played out this year. And it’s not because either of your conclusions there are true. It’s because of where perception was in the NFL a year ago. On the Eagles staff, other teams saw Reich as something of an afterthought, a non-play-calling offensive coordinator with a brilliant QBs coach (John DeFilippo) alongside him.
That perception crushed Reich’s head coaching prospects. The Colts were the only team to interview him last year, and even they didn’t bring him in until after the first round was complete, Josh McDaniels was picked as head coach, and later walked away from the job. DeFilippo, by comparison, interviewed in both Chicago and Arizona, and was quickly snapped up to be Vikings OC after Philly won it all.