The 49ers acknowledged how difficult it’s been dealing with the loss of their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. He was, after all, the spark plug generating optimism for a team on the heels of a 6-10 season.
“You’ve got to talk about it,” Kyle Shanahan said, soon after Garoppolo was placed on season-ending injured reserve Wednesday with a torn ACL in his left knee. “You’re down a little bit about it, but when you come in today it’s time to get ready for the next game.”
The 49ers play Sunday at the Los Angeles Chargers, a talented 1-2 team that lost to arguably the top two clubs in the NFL: the Kansas City Chiefs and L.A. Rams, who are both undefeated. San Francisco (1-2) will start 2017 third-round draft pick C.J. Beathard, who went 1-4 as a rookie starter before getting unseated by Garoppolo.
In a Monday team meeting, Shanahan encouraged his players to acknowledge their emotions about losing the franchise quarterback and use it as fuel heading into the third road game in four weeks.
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Shanahan’s message, according to full back Kyle Juszczyk: “It’s okay to be down right now. But let’s change that. Let’s evaluate the tape, see what we can do better. Let’s change how we’re feeling by playing well going forward.”
The football world predictably doesn’t think much of the 49ers’ chances. They’re 10.5-point underdogs Sunday, according to Bovada, and their Super Bowl odds dropped from 28-to-1 to 80-to-1 following Garoppolo’s injury. Many have written San Francisco off entirely and believe its on track to a top-10 draft choice for the fourth straight year.
“We can’t really sit back and mourn and feel bad for ourselves while the Chargers are out there practicing, getting better,” tight end George Kittle said. “They don’t really care. So we’re just going to move forward and we’re just going to do what we can with what we got and we’re going to win some games.”
Kittle and Beathard played together in college at Iowa and were drafted by San Francisco two rounds apart in 2017. Kittle, the team’s leading receiver, is as confident in Beathard as anyone in the 49ers locker room. He said that confidence grew well before Beathard was starting for the Hawkeyes. It came when both were redshirt freshmen playing on the scout team in 2013.
Iowa had the country’s ninth-ranked scoring defense in the country that season. Yet Beathard dominated against it on the practice field as a 19-year-old.
“C.J. is just a baller,” Kittle said. “All he cares about is football really, other than his family. So he spends so much time on it. He knows everything he needs to know at quarterback. It’s just who he is and it’s awesome to have a quarterback like that who is 100 percent invested. It’s pretty easy to get behind him.”
Kittle, Beathard and slot receiver Trent Taylor spent a portion of the offseason after OTAs working out in Beathard’s hometown of Nashville. They ran routes they struggled to connect on throughout 2017, when Beathard finished with a 55 percent completion rate, the second worst among qualified starters. “We weren’t that great at (those routes) last year but definitely improved upon them,” Kittle said.
Shanahan noted the 49ers’ supporting cast is better this season, his second implementing the system. And the running game is “without a doubt” stronger with second-year pro Matt Breida and Alfred Morris splitting carries, he said. Breida enters the weekend tied for the league lead with 274 rushing yards in three games, though he was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice after hyperextending his knee in the first half against the Chiefs.
Shanahan also said there was a fear Beathard’s lackluster supporting cast last season would hurt his development. Quarterbacks who get banged around early in their careers — Beathard took 17 sacks and 52 hits in five games in 2017 — often become gun-shy, lose their confidence and never recover.
But Shanahan doesn’t think that happened with Beathard, who endeared himself to the 49ers leading up to the draft because of his toughness. The offensive line has improved this season with new center Weston Richburg, left guard Laken Tomlinson in his second season with the team and Mike Person inserted at right guard.
“That wasn’t exactly the situation I wanted to put C.J. into. That’s why I think myself and a lot of our team earned a lot of respect for him,” Shanahan said. “... He never wavered, never saw his confidence change and when he eventually was benched and we put Jimmy in, you would think a guy would be less confident after that. You guys can ask him, but I truly believe he was more confident.”
Beathard admitted to being unhappy initially last season after the team brought in Garoppolo and then gave him the starting job. Beathard went down with a knee injury late during a November loss to Seattle and Garoppolo famously came in and threw a touchdown pass to cap his first series as time expired. He never relinquished the starting job thereafter and was given a $137.5 million contract over the next five seasons, while Beathard’s rookie deal was due to run out in three.
“C.J., it was tough on him, but he handled it like a man,” Shanahan said. “He didn’t sit there and make excuses about it. He supported Jimmy as much as anybody could support a person.”
Said Beathard: “That’s so far in the past, it’s hard to look back to that. But, I looked at it as an opportunity to grow and learn and get better and just be the best backup that I could be all the way up to this point. And, just learn from Jimmy and Kyle and take it all in.”