You can drop passes. You can fumble. You can blow a coverage or miss a tackle. Those can be fixed.
But if a team loses its chemistry – its cohesion – it is cooked.
And let’s don’t pretend the 49ers weren’t headed that direction coming into Sunday night’s game with the Rams.
They had a losing record, a series of why-us? injuries and were coming off a defeat that even the players called embarrassing. Sports pundits were trying to troll up a quarterback controversy and 49ers’ icon Joe Staley was second-guessing the team on Twitter – during the game.
And the upcoming Sunday night game was on national TV. Everybody would be watching.
So it wouldn’t have been a surprise if everybody turned a little testy. Maybe Kyle Shanahan would snap at a media question about his play-calling. Or if Jimmy Garoppolo, after a series of questions about his future with the team, would give curt, one-word answers.
And most of all, perhaps players would start looking out for themselves and making selfish decisions. It can tear a team apart.
By all accounts, that didn’t happen. The team that took the field Sunday night against the Rams had a snap and energy that wasn’t there a week ago in the flop vs. the Fish.
I still think the playoffs are a long shot. There are tough games ahead, and a 2-3 start is a big hole out of which to climb.
But I’d watch this team. The one that flew around defensively, dialed up some clever offensive wrinkles and beat the Rams 24-16.
Regardless of how this season turns out, this was a moment. As Shanahan said after the game, he was watching his players carefully during the week.
“When you get embarrassed like that you learn a lot about your team,” he said. “I was very impressed with the character of our team, the way they carried themselves.”
Again, that’s not really a coachable skill. Attitude comes from setting an example and hoping others follow it.
So last week Shanahan was as affable as one can be after a beatdown. Garoppolo was pleasant and unruffled. George Kittle made jokes. After the game, Arik Armstead (wearing a “VOTE” T-shirt) put it well.
“We were angry,” he said after the game. “Not at what people were saying. That was fair.”
I also think they were more confident that they had their best players on the field and ready to contribute. Deebo Samuel was back at full speed and made an immediate impact. Jason Verrett, new at cornerback, had everyone Googling his career history. And Garoppolo was back under center, hardly limping on his sore ankle.
Here’s my latest theory on Garoppolo. Feel free to say I am full of seaweed.
I think the players like him. I think they wish him the best and hope he’s successful. And I think they believe he gives them the best chance to win.
First, he’s clearly their best quarterback. It was interesting that Shanahan made C.J. Beathard inactive for the game. He benched the guy he put in when he benched Garoppolo. Anyhow, this game made it clear, until further notice, Garoppolo is the quarterback. It is his job.
And by the way, as this game also showed, Jimmy G not only has the job, he can do the job.
At lot was made of how many of his passes were to receivers behind the line of scrimmage. For a while he had negative yardage on passes based on how far they traveled through the air. And no, that’s not the toughest throw in the game. But you’ve seen QBs sail a pass like that over a receiver’s head. Or throw it behind him.
And, by the way, he also makes some impressive throws. The fourth-and-two pass to Kittle was vintage. Garoppolo got it off quick in the face of all-out pressure and was ducking away from a shot by a blitzer as the ball hit Kittle’s hands. Fourth down, blitz, medium-long throw over the middle . . . a lot of things could have gone wrong there. Instead, Kittle took it for a touchdown.
“I didn’t see it,” Garoppolo said. “But I understand it was a pretty sweet play.”
So yeah, he misses targets sometimes, and we wish his long-ball accuracy was better. But quarterbacks are a rare breed. Ask Kirk Cousins, who signed that enormous contract with the Vikings, how he is enjoying his time in Minnesota.
I also think the 49ers like Garoppolo as a person. That’s he’s genuinely a no-drama, down-to-earth guy. When you make more money than anyone else, those are good traits to have. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Kittle, the team’s comic-in-residence, as a sidekick. If you’re hanging out with George, you are definitely at the cool kids table.
And maybe I’m making too much of this, but I also thought there was a revealing moment in Garoppolo’s virtual presser last week. A reporter (not me) started to ask a question. He or she (the transcript doesn’t say) gets halfway through and then has second thoughts. Finally, they ask if the game is a “must-win” situation.
“Sheesh,” they say, “just another awful media question.”
To which Garoppolo said, “I thought it was a good question, just for the record.”
I liked that. He took a moment to say, “Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. Hang in there.”
The kind of thing the 49ers might have been saying to each other last week. A few words of encouragement and a reminder to stick with it.
Because, as Garoppolo said after the game, “The NFL is hard. Not every week is going to be fun.”
Editor’s note: I will be on vacation next week so no “Inside.”