Barber: C.J. Beathard gives it away for 49ers

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SANTA CLARA — So was it C.J. Beathard’s fault that the 49ers lost 28-18 to the Arizona Cardinals, or was it all the people around Beathard?

If you answered “yes,” you clearly watched that game at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. And please accept our deepest sympathies for that.

The 49ers dominated the Cardinals in some ways, more than doubling the visitors in yardage (447-220) and time of possession (40:12-19:48), and more than trebling them in first downs (33-10). But yeah, they lost. They lost to the worst team in the NFL — or shall we say the former worst team in the NFL.

It all came down to turnovers. The Cardinals didn’t have any. The 49ers had five of them, and four of those were credited to Beathard, who threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles. He threw two other passes that were nearly picked off.

After the game, various 49ers lined up to take the proverbial bullets for Beathard.

“It’s on all of us to block better for him, get open quicker for him,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “We just didn’t make things easy for him.”

“We need to help C.J. I didn’t help him,” wide receiver Pierre Garçon said.

“However many turnovers they had, we should have had the same amount,” safety Jaquiski Tartt said. “So even it up, or even go plus-one or plus-two. And we didn’t get that done as a defense.”

“I had one play that affected the turnover differential. I gave up that sack-fumble,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “… That’s what I can improve, the play-action and being more aware of the situation and understanding that (the defender’s) not going to bite on the run-action. I’ve got to adjust my set and give C.J. more time to go downfield.”

Listen, they’re not wrong.

The 49ers, and especially the offensive players, did very little to help Beathard against Arizona. His protection wasn’t great. His receivers dropped a couple of passes, including a flub by third-string tight end Cole Wick in the end zone on third down. One of the interceptions ricocheted off Garçon’s hands and into the arms of Arizona safety Tre Boston. And the Niners continued to make themselves unavailable by getting hurt; this time, running back Matt Breida was lost for the game with an ankle injury, and Garçon checked out for a good chunk of time with a sore neck. The weapons at Beathard’s disposal inspired little fear in the Cardinals.

But even if you adjust for all of those disadvantages, Beathard has to shoulder much of the blame. He earned most of those turnovers, and he earned the loss.

The first year-and-a-quarter of Beathard’s NFL career has been two steps forward, one step back. He lost four of his five starts as a besieged rookie in 2017, and his numbers were pretty dreadful as it happened — a completion percentage of 54.9, a passer rating of 69.2, etc. But he showed flashes of improvement, and seemed ready to turn a corner by the time Jimmy Garoppolo waltzed into the starting job in Week 12.

The 49ers felt good about the quarterback position heading into 2018. They had a solid backup to serve as Garoppolo’s understudy.

Then the preseason happened. For the most part, Beathard was undistinguished. He attempted 45 passes over three games, and none of them was a touchdown. He threw one interception. His rating was 74.9, worst among the 49ers’ four quarterbacks.

Shanahan has defended Beathard’s August performance, noting that the QB was playing with a hurt foot, and that he didn’t get much of a chance to find his rhythm as the coach divvied up playing time.

When Beathard got his first extended regular-season action of 2018 last week, starting against the Chargers in place of the fallen Garoppolo, he seemed to justify Shanahan’s encouragement. The Niners lost that game, but not because of Beathard. In fact, he nearly willed them to a victory in Los Angeles. He got pounded in that game, but he kept the 49ers in it until an interception with 2:31 left.

That performance caused 49ers watchers to recalibrate. Maybe the season wouldn’t be a total loss without Garoppolo. Maybe Beathard has made significant gains in Year 2. Maybe the talent around him is that much better this season.

Now we’re recalibrating again. Sunday’s ragged showing made the Chargers game look like an outlier, not a breakthrough.

It’s true that Beathard’s first interception Sunday was a catchable ball to Garçon. But his second, with about 4 minutes left and San Francisco trailing 21-12, was ill advised and thrown behind Victor Bolden Jr. And while, as Shanahan noted after the game, “fumbles, it’s hard to pin them on the quarterback,” Beathard didn’t show a lot of pocket presence on the ones the Cardinals took from him.

“I was trying to get the ball to Trent (Taylor), and he was getting held. Decided to wait a little bit,” Beathard said of the strip-sack that Arizona’s Josh Bynes returned for a touchdown with 4:33 left. “The guy hit the ball out of my hand, and that was that. Gotta get it out quicker.”

Beathard has some good qualities, most notably his physical toughness. The guy is not afraid to take a wallop. But he has yet to prove that he possesses the basic wiring that makes a superior quarterback — the internal ticking clock that tells you when to buy time and when to unload, the ability to efficiently run through the progression of the passing tree and, most of all, accuracy.

Garoppolo is flawed, but he has those layers of bedrock. Beathard had them against the Chargers. He did not against the Cardinals. Case in point: On a third-and-6 play with about 6 minutes left in the first quarter, he held the ball for approximately half a lifetime before Bynes flew in to sack him.

It’s a significant issue even if Garoppolo returns at 100 percent next year, because in today’s NFL, the No. 2 quarterback is one of the most important players on the team. Is Beathard entrenched as the backup? Days like Sunday make you doubt it.

After the game, fullback Kyle Juszczyk said, “We keep talking about how tough C.J. is. He’s one of the toughest guys I know, one of the toughest I’ve played with. But your quarterback, that shouldn’t be his No. 1 attribute, shouldn’t be his being tough.”

No, it should be his accuracy or his arm strength or his field vision. Those are the qualities that Beathard must improve if he wants to be the 49ers’ No. 2 quarterback next year.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-529-5218 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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