SANTA CLARA -- The collective gasp could be heard all the way across the Golden Gate Bridge on Sunday as Lions defensive back Tracy Walker stepped in front of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s pass in the flat with the 49ers leading by three and just 2:15 remaining in the fourth quarter.
From up 17 points in the early fourth quarter, to almost certain defeat in a matter of moments.
In case you missed it, the story doesn’t end in crushing defeat for the 49ers, but in a 30-27 win. It turns out that somewhere in the middle of the field, Lions safety Quandre Diggs was holding on to 49ers tight end George Kittle.
The savior of San Francisco was not one play or one person: It was a tiny weighted yellow flag sitting in the middle of a sea of finely groomed grass.
“Very happy, yeah. I didn’t see what happened with the flag and everything, but, yeah, very happy,” Garoppolo said at his postgame scrum.
Garoppolo hadn’t seen the holding call that completely changed the trajectory of the game. He was too busy chasing down Walker, who made it all the way to the 49ers' 7-yard line before the quarterback could drag him down.
“A win is a win,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I’m extremely excited about that and we’re all happy, but it was extremely frustrating there at the end. I thought we had a chance to completely finish them and put it away, especially when the defense got us that ball back.”
It’s clear that the 49ers still are learning how to win. They came out of halftime the aggressor, built a big lead and then lost their momentum late. It’s a classic sign of a team that hasn’t been together long and has young players in crucial positions. If anything, Sunday’s near-loss is another learning experience for a team that comes into the season with high expectations.
Garoppolo finished the game 18-of-26 passing for 206 yards and two touchdowns. After throwing three interceptions in the opener, he barely escaped with a clean sheet against Detroit.
It wasn’t a perfect game for Tom Brady's former understudy. Garoppolo was sacked six times on the afternoon, including multiple times in the red zone. It appeared that Garoppolo held the ball too long on at least a couple of those sacks, which he took the blame for afterward.
“I’ve got to help the O-line out,” Garoppolo said of his performance. “I thought those guys were battling today. They handled their games well up front and picked up the blitzes. It’s a mix-and-match thing. They help me, so I have to help them.”
Garoppolo was sacked three times in the opener last week. Shanahan pointed to multiple reasons for the increase in sacks in Week 2, but he also acknowledged that the ball needs to come out of the backfield quicker.
“I thought we could have done a better job today beating man coverage, but on a number of those, I thought we had to get rid of it,” Shanahan said. “I’ll see when I see the tape on all of them, but those ones in the red zone, especially, you’d like to give a guy an opportunity, and if he doesn’t beat man, we’ve got to get rid of the ball.”
It’s a work in progress in San Francisco. Losing starting wide receiver Marquise Goodwin to injury doesn’t help matters either. Garoppolo is balancing risking mistakes, like the ones that cost the team dearly in Week 1, with playing too conservatively and taking hits.