The San Francisco 49ers (4-4) were exposed by the division-rival Seattle Seahawks (6-1) on Sunday, losing 37-27 in a poor game masked by a few late scores.
The offense was overmatched, the defense struggled and the special teams fumbled. You usually lose when that happens.
Then Monday brought a whirlwind of emotions. In the span of three hours, Kwon Alexander and his contract were unloaded to New Orleans and news broke that Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle were out for at least six weeks.
In classically cruel 2020 fashion, the 49ers must rebound quickly if they want to stay alive in this playoff race.
They have a short week, hosting the 5-2 Green Bay Packers (who just lost at home to a one-win Vikings team) on Thursday Night Football.
Oh, and Green Bay’s backup running back A.J. Dillon’s pregame Covid-test came back positive Monday. So the Packers are undergoing contact tracing.
The game could end up being a bye week or pushed back. There’s no telling what else this week has in store.
Here are three thoughts (plus a bonus) from Sunday’s defeat:
The "Mullens Era" has begun
This thought was originally about how Jimmy Garoppolo should be rested the next couple weeks in favor of Nick Mullens.
Mullens starting is no longer a question. It’s a guarantee.
He’s back under center to face Aaron Rodgers. C.J. Beathard will dress and hold the clipboard.
The 49ers are by no means out of playoff contention. They’re just one game back of a Wild Card spot and have games with the teams they are chasing.
But as they fight for the postseason, they’ll face an important test for their future.
San Francisco must throw Mullens into the fire and take the reins off to see if he should be a part of the long-term plans.
Mullens is a restricted free agent after the season and the 49ers need to find out if he’s the guy that threw for 414 yards against Seattle in 2018, or the one that got benched against Philadelphia Week 4.
Even if Garoppolo returns healthy and has a solid end to the season, his 2021 status won’t change. Shanahan has almost surely made up his mind on whether Garoppolo returns.
This is usually where you come for Garoppolo optimism. But Sunday’s performance was hard to deny. It’s time to part ways (at least for 2020).
Garoppolo can still be a serviceable starter. But a Ryan Tannehill-esque turnaround will have to happen elsewhere.
It’s a true “chicken or the egg” situation. Does Garoppolo struggle because Shanahan doesn’t call certain plays? Or does Garoppolo hold Shanahan back because he can’t make the throws (likelier)?
Shanahan and Garoppolo are both talented, but sometimes things don’t work out.
Set your team up for success, not failure
After two straight weeks of perfect game plans and in-game adjustments, Shanahan reverted back to his early season mishaps.
The previous two wins were filled with jet sweeps, screens and quick passes to get the ball into their playmakers’ hands. The 49ers lost all (productive) creativity on offense on Sunday.
Shanahan had an extremely perplexing day. It doesn’t matter who starts at quarterback if his play calling remains that ineffective.
It might not have been creative but the play-calling was … different?
He called a deceptive wildcat direct snap to Brandon Aiyuk on a third-and-5 for a big conversion, and a beautiful cross-field screen to George Kittle for a huge gain.
No wait … that was actually Jerick McKinnon and Trent Taylor. The other two “playmakers” were stopped well behind the line.
The whole day was doomed from the start.
This marks the fourth of four losses that an inability to establish the run and poor quarterback play restricted the offense.
At some point Shanahan should realize his best chance to win is to play how they did last season.
The young linebackers still have room to grow
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh stifled Russell Wilson on the first two drives, but the offense was unable to capitalize on the great start.
On the third drive, San Francisco was on its way toward forcing another punt, but fullback (and former 49ers linebacker) Nick Bellore leaked out of the backfield on third and 9, caught a pass, and powered through Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner for a first down.
Wilson and D.K. Metcalf would make the 49ers pay with a 41-yard touchdown pass four plays later.
Greenlaw would go on to get beat a few times in coverage while Warner was outshined by Seattle’s All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner.
The Seattle defense has been horrendous all season but, as noted in the Players to Watch article, the linebacker duo of Wagner and K.J. Wright were still having solid years.
The Seahawks’ defense was great for so long, especially in big games, because of Wagner and Wright. Although the personnel around them has changed, they remain constant.
Greenlaw is a great run-stopper, but was exposed a few times in pass coverage. Was that just a product of Wilson’s MVP day?
Or was that a sign the 49ers should play more dime and dollar defenses, and get Jaquiski Tartt (when healthy) or Jimmie Ward in a linebacker-esque tackling role on third down?
Warner has been great, drawing DPOY-level praise in recent weeks, but Wagner reminded everyone he’s still the best middle linebacker in the NFL.
Wagner had 11 tackles, two sacks, three TFLs and four QB hits while overwhelming San Francisco's offensive line.
Even with the struggles, Warner is still the best player on the 49ers. He can still return to the DPOY conversation.
The 49ers should still be excited about Warner and Greenlaw as they have the potential to form a Wagner/Wright level tandem one day.
The 49ers should commit unsportsmanlike conduct penalties before every kickoff so the opposing team must kick it through the back of the end zone (sort of joking).
This one is a bonus thought. The 49ers kick return unit is consistently that bad. It doesn’t matter who is back there.
It can be Richie James, Kevin White, Dante Pettis or even JaMycal Hasty. The result is almost always a tackle before the 25. The rare time it isn’t, is because the returner fumbled.
Highlighted in the Super Bowl, teams are purposefully kicking short knowing it’s an extra 10 yards of leeway for their defense.
Without overhauling the entire unit, which is hard to do with no preseason, the only fix is to force the other team to kick it through the end zone.
Other than committing penalties on PATs, there’s no way to do that.
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