After six games last season, the 49ers were 1-5. At the same point this year, they’re 0-6.
Yet this year’s version of the team is starting to look much different than the 2016 version.
For one thing, the San Francisco team under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan has pushed almost every opponent to the limit. Since a 23-3 loss to Carolina in Week 1, every game has gone down to the final moment. The Niners have lost five straight games by a total of 13 points. Many of last year's losses were lopsided.
The other difference? Shanahan’s team is now on a youth movement, which should make the final 10 games of this 2017 season interesting, whether the team wins or loses.
Shanahan benched veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer early in Sunday’s loss at Washington and went with rookie C.J. Beathard, who performed well enough to be declared the team’s new starter.
And, as Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com noted, the youth movement extended far beyond Beathard Sunday. Longtime inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman was released in the days before the game, opening the door for rookie Reuben Foster to be the starter beginning this coming Sunday against the Cowboys (he was held out one more game coming off a high ankle sprain). Also in the starting lineup Sunday were No. 1 pick Solomon Thomas at defensive end and George Kittle at tight end. Wagoner noted, too, that rookies Trent Taylor (wide receiver), Matt Breida (running back) and Ahkello Witherspoon (cornerback) all received plenty of playing time against Washington, and performed well.
Wrote Wagoner: “The 49ers’ youth movement has taken hold, whether they want to call it that or not.”
Other young players such as defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, cornerback Rashard Robinson and safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt also have been playing well.
But it’s the arrival of Beathard into the starting role that will make the rest of this season truly interesting for 49ers fans. If Beathard continues to build on what he did Sunday, completing 19-of-36 throws for 245 yards and a touchdown with one interception, the 49ers may not have to spend their No. 1 pick or a ton of money to get a rookie or veteran QB in the 2018 offseason. That would allow GM John Lynch to continue to build up the rest of the roster. On Sunday, Beathard rallied his team from being down 14-0, leading his team to three TDs and a field goal. One of the TDs was on a 45-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson.
Beathard’s willingness to throw deep and his time-buying mobility in the pocket made the Niners offense look different than it did with Hoyer. The analytic website Pro Football Focus gave Beathard a mediocre grade for the game but indicated the rookie showed potential.
Wrote PFF: “Beathard see-sawed between some big-time throws and head-scratching ones throughout the day. It’s a good sign that he went 3-of-7 for 98 yards on deep passes (20+ yards downfield), but it was not so good that he completed only three passes on 11 pressured dropbacks.”
Beathard will now get a full week of preparation as a starter going into the game against Dallas. The game is set for a 1:05 p.m. kickoff at Levi’s Stadium Sunday.