SANTA CLARA -- The San Francisco 49ers will not be presented with many games more winnable than Sunday's, so it is a measure of their remarkable fortitude and stick-to-it-ive-ness that they could avoid doing so for an entire afternoon.
Not that they didn’t earn their 28-18 loss to the stultifyingly bland Arizona Cardinals, mind you. They did the absolute minimum a team can do with double the offensive plays, double the time of possession and double the yards, and their seemingly superb defensive performance was difficult to assess because the Cardinals either have no weapons, no ideas, or both.
And it isn’t like the 49ers didn’t get their weekly dose of bad news, as running back Matt Breida injured his ankle at the end of the first quarter, did not return after a promising start, and his longer-term prognosis is, as you might expect, day to day. So San Francisco could go with "We were unlucky."
But head coach Kyle Shanahan didn't even bother with that one, because he had the benefit of a better explanation for losing to the last winless team in the NFL -- the five unanswered turnovers the 49ers committed, four by backup quarterback C.J. Beathard.
So at least Shanahan could say his team wasn’t actually outclassed. Just properly beaten.
“You look at the stat sheet,” Shanahan said morosely, “and usually when, I think it's 90 plays to 40 (92-49, actually), you double them in time of possession (40:18-19:52), yards (447-220) and the defense (playing) its tail off all game (Arizona had 10 first downs and its longest sustained drive was five plays and 39 yards long), it’s hard to find how you lost that game.”
But it isn’t, as he showed in his next sentence.
“I haven’t been part of any game, I don't think many people have, where five turnovers to zero leads to a win.”
In other words, this result actually could have been worse. The 49ers could have lost to the Cardinals entirely on their own merits, in which case the future would look as dim as it did last year when they lost their first nine games before being gifted Jimmy Garoppolo in the Great Belichick Spite Trade.
Now maybe this would lead to San Francisco getting Le’Veon Bell in The Great Rooney Spite Trade, but that isn’t the way to plan. In fact, this is an outlier, a game that won't make sense even if the rest of the season is no happier for the 49ers than last year.
For the most part, this is a dumpster game, where the film and the numbers don’t mesh, and the only true conclusion is “don’t leave the ball lying around so carelessly.”
Therein lies the Beathard issue. His first of two interceptions, which came barely a minute after the only real offensive play the Cardinals made all day (the 75-yard touchdown pass from Josh Rosen to Christian Kirk), could be forgiven as a mistake quarterbacks make. The second, an overthrow to Victor Bolden that Bene Benwikere collected to instigate the final touchdown, was the act of a losing team with little time left and nothing to lose.
But the two strip sacks, the first by Chandler Jones to kill a budding drive early in the third quarter, and the second by Haason Reddick that Josh Bynes ran back for the clinching touchdown midway through the fourth, were the result of Beathard lingering too long in a collapsing pocket waiting for wide receiver Trent Taylor to stop being held on his route.
It was also proof that the most effective way to sack a quarterback in the brave new world of football is to ignore the highlight hit and the ensuing penalty and fine, and just go for the arm. Jones is particularly gifted at that, and may even be the equal of Khalil Mack in that esoteric category.
Thus, Shanahan will compartmentalize this game as a manifesto in ball security rather than a treatise on roster shortcomings or injury – mostly because nobody is interested in injury stories when the box score says otherwise. True, maybe Garoppolo protects the ball better, and true, maybe the 49ers have the ball for 50 minutes if Breida and Pierre Garcon play the entire time.
But injury or no, this game was there to be won, and wasn’t. Indeed, with all their statistical advantages, they led the game for only 10 seconds, which is even more remarkable – and in that way, more galling.
Next up is Green Bay in Green Bay a week from Monday, then back home against the seemingly indomitable Los Angeles Rams. After that, the 49ers travel to Glendale for the inevitable revenge game against Arizona, where they can try to outdo themselves in every statistical category save that one.
Either that, or San Francisco will have to relearn all the lessons learned a year ago when the 49ers lost games every week in more conventional ways. Last year, they were largely bad with an opportunity to learn how to be better. Sunday, they were okay, with the wherewithal to learn that they could still be dreadful.
Either way, what the 49ers did Sunday was exceedingly difficult to do, but they did it, and did it comfortably. I guess that’s something, even if it comes disguised as a new form of nothing.