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It happened again. Drew Brees got sacked, a flag was thrown when it shouldn’t have been, and the balance of a game the 49ers were leading shifted firmly in New Orleans’ favor. San Francisco went on to lose 27-13, looking every bit like a team destined for a top-10 pick than one with any hope of a playoff berth.
This time, unlike the infamous Ahmad Brooks hit in 2013 which was the flash point for a 23-20 loss, Kentavius Street’s would-be first-career sack on Brees eventually knocked the 41-year-old out of the game by halftime with a rib injury. In that loss, New Orleans followed the penalty with a game-tying field goal and followed up with a late game-winner.
On Sunday, after a 10-0 lead built by San Francisco dominating possession early, the Saints used that penalty to tie the game at 10 apiece, and finished with another touchdown after a muffed 49ers punt to go up 17-10 at the half.
Nick Mullens had an ugly interception and looked shaky as C.J. Gardner-Johnson continued to rush off the edge. Jerick McKinnon couldn’t run the ball, and Kyle Shanahan didn’t seem encouraged to play to McKinnon’s strengths, which do not include rushing the ball to the outside.
And yet, with Jameis Winston at quarterback and the 49ers’ defense playing about as well as is possible given that they are without Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas and Jaquiski Tartt, there was a chance.
Rookie Javon Kinlaw had his best career game thus far, splitting a double-team on a key third-down run stop, and picking up his first career sack, and another half sack as he and Jordan Willis capitalized on a Kerry Hyder pressure. Hyder, off course, was phenomenal, and is up to a team-leading 5.5 sacks on the year.
After watching Marcell Harris prove week-in and week-out he cannot be trusted in coverage, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh opted for Tarvarius Moore at strong safety and stuck Harris in as a quasi-SAM linebacker.
But none of that really mattered because the 49ers turned the ball over twice on special teams, and more pressingly, because the offense was inept. Most of that blame settled on Shanahan and Mullens’ shoulders. C.J. Gardner-Johnson had eight tackles, three quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss and a sack, rushing from the slot at will.
Mullens clearly was not able to identify that despite it happening time and time again. Given the frequency of those blitzes, and his quarterback’s inability to diagnose that as an issue, some of that blame must also fall on Shanahan.
Aside from that, Mullens had what seemed like a half-dozen passes swatted at the line of scrimmage, and just as many ugly throws, culminating in a game-sealing interception by the Saints’ Patrick Robinson in the end zone.
That’s what this season and the future of this team continue to come back to: the talent at the quarterback position.
Clearly, neither Nick Mullens nor C.J. Beathard are remotely capable of keeping this team competitive. The question is whether you think Jimmy Garoppolo still is.
San Francisco, now at 4-6, will likely have to win five of its next six games in order to make the playoffs. Even if that somehow becomes a possibility, which would be an astonishing feat, do you want that if you’re in the 49ers’ front office?
This team is far too injured to have a chance of making a playoff push, even if they were to somehow get there. At this juncture, watching this team will continue to be like pulling teeth. This is not a team capable of coming from behind to win games.
There will be returnees after the bye: Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert, Richard Sherman, Tevin Coleman.
That could well make this team competitive again, and a win over the Rams would immediately put them back in the realm of playoff contention. Sure, that’s a nice thought.
But anyone who’s being honest about this team understands this is about next season, and next season starts with the future of the quarterback position. San Francisco’s current trajectory probably puts them in the range of finishing in the 5-11 to 7-9 range.
That might represent the opportunity to draft a transcendental quarterback; a guy who won’t underthrow a wide open Richie James Jr. on a deep pass, a guy who has the arm talent to throw players open, who can diagnose potential blitzers before the play. It’s that proposition—not the playoffs—that, at this point, should be appealing to the higher-ups in this 49ers franchise.