SANTA CLARA — I’m not sure what Thursday night’s game at Levi’s Stadium should be titled, but I know the subtitle: How Kyle Shanahan Stopped Worrying and Learned to Trust His Quarterback.
The 49ers lost again, 41-39 to the Rams this time, in an unexpectedly entertaining slugfest. They’re 0-3 now, and they did many things poorly in this game. But there were some highly encouraging developments in Loss No. 3, and foremost among them was the Niners’ head coach developing some faith in Brian Hoyer.
It took a while.
About five minutes into the second quarter, San Francisco trailed the Rams 17-7 but was gifted great field position when LA’s Tavon Austin coughed up a punt and long snapper Kyle Nelson recovered for the 49ers at the Rams’ 12. The Niners fired several rounds into their feet, though, with left tackle Joe Staley committing a false start and fullback Kyle Juszczyk holding on a run play and rookie tight end George Kittle dropping a pass around the 5-yard line.
So the 49ers soon were staring at third-and-18 at the Los Angeles 20-yard line. Shanahan’s reaction? Wave the white flag. He called a handoff to Carlos Hyde, who gained 2 yards. Robbie Gould came on for a field goal.
After the game, Hoyer downplayed the handcuffs that had been clasped around his wrists.
“It’s third-and-18, I mean, in the red area,” Hoyer said. “Your chances of converting that are probably pretty low. They know you’re just trying to kick a field goal. I really don’t know a play anyone could call there. Maybe you bust a screen.”
But when Aaron Rodgers or Derek Carr or Drew Brees or, hell, even the Rams’ Jared Goff faces third-and-18, he gets a crack at making something happen. He might be on a shorter leash than usual, might be reminded to throw the ball away if no one breaks open immediately. But he gets a shot.
Brian Hoyer did not.
Later, about midway through the third quarter, the 49ers found themselves with a second-and-goal at the Rams’ 1 after a 5-yard run by Hyde. Shanahan fed his halfback again, up the middle, and he was stuffed for no gain. On third-and-1, the Rams must have figured the ball was going back to Hyde. And indeed it was. This time LA linebacker Alec Ogletree was the first to hit him in the backfield, and the Rams swarmed him again at the 1.
Los Angeles led 27-13 at this point, so Shanahan decided to go for it on fourth down. You’ll never guess what came next. OK, you guessed. Carlos Hyde up the middle. This time he scored, and the 49ers were within a touchdown again.
Shanahan’s play call worked, so it’s hard to fault him. But once again he had demonstrated a gaping lack of confidence in his quarterback.
And let’s be honest. Shanahan had every right to be suspicious.
Hoyer had spent much of his first 10 quarters with the 49ers making you wince. In each of the first two games, he threw an interception in the short zone when he failed to anticipate a linebacker breaking to the receiver.
It wasn’t a linebacker this time, but Hoyer again put his team in a hole on Thursday. And this time he decided to get it out of the way immediately. On the first snap of the game, he locked eyes on wide receiver Marquise Goodwin as if he were the only player on the field, and Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was all over it. He intercepted the pass with a head start and ran it back to the 49ers’ 3.