San Francisco Chronicle
For 49ers, ‘win is a win’ as lead nearly collapses
DETROIT — When the game was finally over, the win was officially recorded and the 49ers were back in the visiting locker room, Kyle Shanahan asked his players how they felt about the victory. The response? Silence. “We’ve got to find a way to finish a little better,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said after he had dressed and processed his team’s 41-33 win over the Lions. “You’ve got to remember that it’s hard to get a win in this league. A win is a win. But you want to finish better.”
A win is indeed a win, and the 49ers know just how hard those are to come by. Last season, they followed up a trip to the Super Bowl with a 6-10 record. Garoppolo came in having lost two of his three season openers for the 49ers.
But the way the 49ers finished, watching a 38-10 lead slip away and clinging on for dear life as the Lions were marching down the field, will linger. At least in the short term, the near collapse overshadowed the team’s burning issues, like the quarterback competition between Garoppolo and Trey Lance and the return of pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.
“I think it was a good kind of shock,” George Kittle said. “It’s a great lesson for the young guys about how the NFL is difficult.”
The way the game unfolded brought back memories of last year’s disasters, complete with the toll artificial turf can take. First running back Raheem Mostert left the game with a knee injury, after just two carries.
Then, in the fourth quarter, cornerback Jason Verrett was seriously injured, and his emotional departure from the field seemed to change the energy level of the 49ers and the tenor of the game. Shanahan fears Verrett suffered a torn ACL and called the injury to one of the team’s leaders “crushing.”
The injury veered Shanahan off course. He had a four-score lead and started bringing starters out of the game. Bosa had untaped his ankles.
“I just thought I was for sure done,” Bosa said.
But the lead started to slip away, and Shanahan had to reinsert players like Bosa. And he was second-guessing his cautious approach — even though it seems like common sense to most of us who aren’t football coaches.
“I think I became too concerned with protecting our guys as opposed to doing everything we could to win the game,” Shanahan said. “If you take your best guys out and substitute them for any reason besides scheme, you’re trying to protect people. That’s what you’re focused on, which you can’t always do.”
The good news is the 49ers offense had built a big enough cushion to cover the defensive lapses in the fourth quarter.
“We got into a pretty good groove,” Garoppolo said. “Kyle was calling the plays; he was on fire and we were rolling pretty good.”
Ever since training camp, Shanahan has given every indication that Garoppolo would be the starter over Trey Lance. But he refused to come right out and say it, in a bit of gamesmanship to keep the opponent guessing.
But, as expected, Garoppolo was indeed the starter. On the first snap he had an ugly fumble on the exchange with center Alex Mack. (“Just a little too amped up,” Garoppolo said, “that was my fault.”) But before the Lance-for-starter backers could get warmed up on Twitter, Garoppolo completed his next eight passes. He finished 17-for-25 for 314 yards and a touchdown.
But Lance, the intriguing rookie that the 49ers traded up to draft, got the first touchdown pass of the season. He came in during the first drive and rushed once for a yard, then — after Garoppolo got the team down to the five — Lance came in and threw a touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield.
The lesson? Shanahan will cause confusion for both opponents and fantasy football participants.
Lance, who suffered a finger injury in the final preseason game and missed some practice time, took only four snaps and rushed three times for two yards.
“I actually didn’t think we would (rotate quarterbacks) on the first drive,” Shanahan said. “But you just get into some situations. It has to do with what you see and try to react.”
Garoppolo, who has been handling the competition with grace and hasn’t publicly pouted, didn’t seem to have any bitterness about giving way in the red zone to Lance.
“I thought it all went pretty smooth,” Garoppolo said of the rotation. “If we win, we’re happy with it.”
The 49ers did win, and neither the fourth-quarter collapse, nor the facts that the opponent was the hapless Lions and the opposing quarterback was Jared Goff, who has now lost five straight to the 49ers, doesn’t change the victory. The 49ers kept pace with Arizona, Seattle and Los Angeles Rams, all of which won easily.
Now the team heads to West Virginia, where it will spend a week before playing at Philadelphia — where the surface is, thankfully, grass. Their fans will head to social media to dissect the performance.
The 49ers’ immediate reaction to Sunday’s win was silence. But they’ve given everyone else plenty to talk about.