SANTA CLARA — Is C.J. Beathard the guy or not?
That’s what the rest of the 49ers’ season is about now – 10 more games. Beathard has to answer this crucial question for himself and the team. Is he the franchise quarterback, the 49ers QB of the future, or do they have to keep searching? They need an answer.
You could argue the 49ers shouldn’t have to search, that they’d have their answer if they drafted a quarterback in the first round this year. The Niners had the second pick and traded down one spot to take defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Thomas is solid, but doesn’t seem like a franchise-changing talent, at least not yet.
Instead of Thomas, the 49ers could have drafted quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has appeared in six games for the Texans, posted a passer rating of 101.1 and thrown 15 touchdown passes – tops in the NFL. He certainly seems like the Texans’ answer at quarterback. He might have been the 49ers’ answer.
But 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t want Watson. Watson is a running quarterback who played in a spread offense at Clemson. Shanahan wanted a pocket quarterback who played in a pro-style offense, and that’s Beathard. He played in one at Iowa.
The Niners took Beathard in the third round with the 104th pick in the draft. It remains to be seen if Shanahan made the right decision. He hasn’t been proven wrong yet, and he has a good track record drafting quarterbacks. He took Kirk Cousins with the 102nd pick in the 2012 draft.
Shanahan knows what it takes for a quarterback to succeed in his offense. He constantly talks about how complicated his scheme is and how long it takes a player to master it. If Watson were on the 49ers now, he might still be on the bench studying his playbook.
And if he were playing for the 49ers, he might not be as successful as he has been in Houston. He definitely wouldn’t have the outstanding supporting cast he has on the Texans.
And as well as Watson has played this season, he did not play well in his NFL debut. He came in midway through the game, completed 12 of 23 pass attempts for 102 yards, threw one touchdown pass and one interception and posted a passer rating of 60.4. His breakout performance came two games later.
This brings us to Beathard. His first extended action in the NFL was better than Watson’s debut. Like Watson, he came into a game in progress against the Redskins. Beathard completed 19 of 36 pass attempts for 245 yards, threw one touchdown pass and one interception and posted a passer rating of 72.1. Maybe Beathard will turn out to be better than Watson. Maybe Beathard is the answer for the 49ers.
He definitely did good things on Sunday. He led a nice, two-minute touchdown drive at the end of the first half. He led the team back from a 17-0 deficit and tied the game. And he seemed confident and relaxed the whole time. He wasn’t intimidated to face players he grew up watching and admiring. And his teammates responded to him. They rose to the occasion to give him the help he needed. Brian Hoyer, now deposed, inspired none of that.
Sure, Beathard sometimes seemed uncertain he had made the corrected read. He hesitated and some of his throws were soft. Once he gains experience and starts trusting what he sees, he will throw with more conviction and his arm will seem stronger.
But Beathard will have to show more than arm strength to prove he’s the answer at quarterback for the 49ers. He’ll have to show he can play at a high level, can become one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
Because if he can’t become a high-caliber quarterback, the Niners will get someone else who can. They will have more than $60 million in cap space and could sign Kirk Cousins if he becomes a free agent during the offseason. Cousins currently is the third-highest-rated quarterback in the NFL.
Or, the 49ers can draft a quarterback — they will have one of the top picks next year. Draft experts consider the 2018 draft class one of the best ever for quarterbacks. The Niners could choose between Sam Darnold from USC, Josh Rosen from UCLA, Baker Mayfield from Oklahoma, Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State, Josh Allen from Wyoming and Lamar Jackson from Louisville.
Beathard is competing against all of them. That’s a high degree of difficulty, but good quarterbacks embrace that challenge.
“(Beathard has to) show that he has the ability to lead us where we want to go,” Shanahan said on Wednesday. “Everyone’s goal in this league is to have an opportunity to go all the way. People are always going to look at the quarterback first – he’s the guy who touches the ball every play. There definitely aren’t 32 (quarterbacks who can win a Super Bowl) in the world.
“By no means do you have to be one of those top-five guys. But, you have to show the ability that you can build things around a person who gives you the chance no matter what type of defense you go against, that he’s got the ability to make those throws, he’s got the ability to make some off-schedule plays and he’s the type of person who can handle all the stuff that goes with it.”
What does Beathard think he needs to accomplish to become the answer at quarterback? “I’m really not looking that far ahead right now,” Beathard said. “I’m just trying to take it one game, one day at a time and stack blocks. Have a good day at practice today, a good one tomorrow and a good game on Sunday as a team and hopefully get a win.”
Winning would help. Winning and answering questions go hand in hand.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at email@example.com.