Excuses are a form of weakness. They offer an easy way to exonerate blame or shift accountability when things go wrong.
But there’s a fine line between using excuses and pointing to reality.
The reality for the 49ers in 2018 is they lost their $137.5 million quarterback three weeks into the season, and their success was dependent on Jimmy Garoppolo elevating a roster still early in its team-wide reconstruction. Garoppolo’s impact was made clear by his 5-0 run as the starter in 2017 on a team that was previously 0-9.
The results have been catastrophic since Garoppolo was lost to his left knee injury. San Francisco enters Sunday’s game against the Broncos an NFL-worst 2-10 and the frontrunner for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
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But they’ve had issues independent of Garoppolo’s injury, where missing the starting quarterback doesn’t qualify as a valid excuse.
Namely, the defense hasn’t held up its end of the bargain, and the offense has made too many mistakes.
The 49ers should be better than 2-10, even without their franchise quarterback.
They’ve had chances to win games but have come up empty – against Arizona twice, in Green Bay, versus the Chargers and at home against a miserable Giants team. Those were winnable games where San Francisco went 0-5. They gave up fourth-quarter leads in four of them, and lost to Arizona (currently 3-9) in October because they gave away five turnovers.
The only thing keeping the 49ers from having just one victory this season – and none since Garoppolo went down – was the lifeless effort given by the 2-10 Raiders during a Thursday night game in November.
Some of the reasoning for San Francisco’s failings sounds like a litany of excuses, particularly after the defense showed promise during the five-game winning streak to end 2017 while ranking ninth in the NFL allowing 4.96 yards per play and 19.8 points per game.
The defense came into 2018 with more experience, more depth and added a potential Hall of Famer at cornerback. It should have been better, on paper.
But the numbers are down. The 49ers rank 29th in scoring defense, dead last in takeaways (they have five, the Ravens and Eagles are tied for 31st with nine), and opponents score touchdowns on 61 percent of their trips to the red zone, ranking 19th.
Richard Sherman was asked following last week’s loss in Seattle about the lack of progress from his side of the ball.
“We’re just beat up,” he said. “You think about the guys we have out there, you know? We lose our number one receiver, number two receiver, number one quarterback, number two quarterback, number one running back – you know, it just ends up adding up.
“You lose your starting safety, you lose your backup safety, you lose person after person. ... But guys are playing hard and giving us the best chance. Kyle (Shanahan) is coming up with great game plans and obviously Nick (Mullens) threw for 400 yards today, so guys are getting yards. We just have to execute in the red zone and on defense we have to find a way to get the ball.”
Every NFL team deals with injuries at varying levels, which makes Sherman’s answer sound like a laundry list of excuses.
Mullens’ 414 yards were the most by a 49ers quarterback since Tim Rattay in 2004. The Seahawks controlled the game by rushing for 168 yards against San Francisco’s talented defensive line, which has proven to be a strength of the team – and the most healthy position group on defense. Stopping the run has been has been the defense’s best trait.
The 49ers were capable of making that game more competitive than a 27-point blowout. Not having Garoppolo didn’t have anything to do with Jeff Wilson Jr. having the ball ripped from his hands 5 yards from the goal line, or Richie James Jr. fumbling during a punt return, or Jaron Brown running uncovered for a 45-yard gain on Seattle’s first scoring drive.
It has to be important for Shanahan’s club to remain accountable and not fall back on excuses for their shortcomings. The 49ers won’t develop a winning mentality by deflecting blame to injuries.
I asked Shanahan about how his team maintains accountability without using the circumstances as an excuse for poor play.
“You don’t use it as an excuse,” he said. “You just try to do your best every week. When you get asked questions, you answer them and you tell the truth. But, I’m not out here campaigning telling stuff. That’s just a fact. It’s part of the NFL. We’re not the only team going through that. Lots of teams go through it and this isn’t the first time in my career I’ve been on a team going through it. So, it’s part of it.”
And how have the players handled themselves?
“I think they’ve handled it as well as they can, just from a mental standpoint and effort standpoint and not making excuses and things like that,” said Shanahan. “You know our record. We’d like to handle it better. You’d like the next guy up, you don’t miss a beat. You’d like nothing to change, but we have had inconsistency with the people in and I think that does lead to inconsistent play. So, I’d like it to be better, but I also understand it’s a little part of it.”
It was nearly impossible to expect the 49ers to be playoff contenders without Garoppolo. But the constant shuffling on defense has been a real issue. San Francisco is going to start its eighth different combination of safeties on Sunday – and either their third- or fourth-stringer and free safety, which is arguably the most important position in the secondary.
Additionally, they lost linebacker Reuben Foster, one of their most talented players, because of his decisionmaking off the field. Top receiver Marquise Goodwin missed time early in the season because of a thigh injury, and recently was away for two games because of a family matter. All that is true.
But it’s also true that they should be better than 2-10 (assuming they’d never tank on purpose). Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon should be better. No. 3 overall draft pick Solomon Thomas should be better. The team should have addressed defensive end with a viable option off the edge during the offseason. Seven non-quarterbacks have lost fumbles throughout the year.
Differentiating between excuses and reasons is a subjective process. But being eager to use excuses is not the approach from a position of strength – and certainly not the way to develop a winning culture.
“You’ve got to guard against all of it being an excuse,” Sherman said this week. “At first, it’s like, they’re young. … ‘Oh man, we’re going through this, the guys are young.’ I remember being young and not having that as an excuse and still playing at a high level. That was never an excuse for me.”
Sherman wouldn’t have become one of the best defensive players of the last decade if he accepted mistakes and deflected blame early in his career. After losing in Seattle, it’s the point he and the 49ers should have made first.
That’s the importance of owning up.