One of the charming qualities of sports is magical thinking. It is the idea that a team with pluck, grit and gumption can overcome a more talented team on sheer will and want-to.
You take your best shot and the next thing you know the USA hockey team is beating Russia in the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Olympic Games.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason we call those miracles. They don’t happen very often.
Was there ever a moment in Thursday night’s 34-17 loss to the Packers when you thought the 49ers had a chance? Aaron Rodgers and company motored down the field on the opening drive with the precision of a marching band to take a 7-0 lead. They never looked back.
As analyst Troy ‘Aikman said at one point, “This Green Bay offense is kind of just doing whatever they want right now.”
It was both ugly and discouraging, and raises real questions about where Kyle Shanahan’s group is headed in the second half of the season. We need to look at that.
But first, an editorial comment. This game should never have been played. It should have been postponed, as the Cal football game was, when it was clear the COVID-19 risk was too high.
You have to like the hypocrisy of the NFL. On one hand they announce that they are launching an “investigation” into the 49ers’ pandemic procedures. They want to know what Kendrick Bourne was doing to cause a positive virus test, which meant that three other players, all starters, could not suit up. They are taking this seriously, dammit
Yet the league pushed ahead with a nothing-to-see-here game on a short week, when both the Packers and the 49ers had positive COVID tests. By the way, whatever the league is doing to combat the spread of the pandemic, it isn’t working. CBS Sports is reporting that 40 percent of NFL teams had at least one positive test last week. And Green Bay had another positive test after the game.
The 49ers never had a chance. With an injury list longer than a voting line in Georgia, they were already at a disadvantage. But with the four starters sitting out with COVID, San Francisco essentially had a one-game suspension of four starters.
And, with three days to prepare the team had to close down the practice facility for a day and try to fit in workouts virtually.
So the 49ers had to field a team of backups – beat reporters calculated only four offensive starters were available – they had to prepare in a short week in which one full day of practice was essentially eliminated.
At the very least the game should have been moved to Sunday to get a handle on the outbreak for both teams. In a final, maddening development, Bourne has now tested negative, so he and the other three players could have played in a game on the weekend.
But that would have meant eating all that Thursday Night Football money, so the game went on. And the 49ers were manhandled.
What does that mean for the rest of the year? The good news is they aren’t as bad as they looked Thursday night. If the Packers showed anything it was that the NFL is a league of difference-making stars. Rodgers and his receiver, Davante Adams were spectacular. Players like Bourne, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams, the COVID Four, are all difference makers, and they should be back.
But the trends aren’t great. Nick Mullens is reaching the “bless his heart” stage of his audition. He’s out there trying, but when you see him try to fling a throw wildly while getting clobbered by a Packer, you can’t but think we’ve already seen this film — even before the ball fluttered into a defender’s arms.
So no, he doesn’t look like the answer. And we’ve already gotten a look at backup to the backup, C.J. Beathard. He reminded us that he stands in there fearlessly, takes some big hits, and doesn’t get much done.
In a sign of the muddled state of the QB position, it was reported Friday that the 49ers have signed 34-year-old Josh Johnson, who is the very definition of a journeyman quarterback. To quote his Wikipedia page, Johnson has played for: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 49ers, Sacramento Mountain Lions, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders, Washington, Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Wildcats. Can’t say he hasn’t gotten his chances.
Which is when someone is bound to say they wonder where the 49ers would be if they’d signed Tom Brady?
My guess? The same place, because Brady would probably be hurt by now, like Jimmy Garoppolo, after getting hit too often.
Mullens took the now-familiar weekly sack for 49er quarterbacks against Green Bay. That would be the blindside blast from a full-tilt edge rusher that nearly took his head off. He fumbled. Who wouldn’t?
Finding a way to rebuild the offensive line, especially up the middle, would improve things dramatically. That means not only protecting the quarterback but running the ball.
And again, the defense has to get the other team’s offense off the field. The Packers converted six of 12 third down plays and picked up one on fourth down with a gutty, veteran play.
Needing only a yard, Rodgers threw what looked like a mistake to Adams. But the ball was right where it should be – outside and away from the defender – and Adams made a sensational catch for the first down.
Great players make great plays. Average players, even hard-working, gritty ones, make average plays.