SANTA CLARA — "We’re still going at it. There’s five more games,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday. “I think our young guys are playing even more now.”
Indeed they are. But are those young guys any good? And an even more important question: Are they getting better?
We know this has been a hugely disappointing season for the 49ers. We know everything went into the landfill with about 5:30 left in the game at Kansas City in Week 3, when newly minted franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo scrambled for 13 yards and tore the ACL in his left knee as he approached the left sideline.
The jury was still out on Garoppolo and the 49ers at that point, but the team was interesting. Without him, there is no need for a jury. The Niners have pleaded guilty to being bad and boring. They are 2-9 and bearing down hard on the first pick in the 2019 draft.
Garoppolo’s injury makes any broad evaluation of the 49ers’ season elusive. So much of the hope swirling around this team was based upon its discovery of Jimmy G last year. The 49ers simply weren’t strong enough to survive the loss of their starting quarterback — or the other absences that have piled up along the way, such as season-ending injuries to halfback Jerick McKinnon, defensive backs Adrian Colbert and Jimmie Ward and special-teams whiz Raheem Mostert.
But that doesn’t mean the 49ers are impossible to evaluate. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said so himself at team headquarters Wednesday.
“I think it makes it a little harder maybe for you guys and stuff. Not just you guys, but the whole world, because people base performance always off of results,” Shanahan said. “Results are stats, for the most part. We watch how guys move, how they run, how they execute from a blocking standpoint, from a route-running standpoint and, since we’re talking quarterbacks, offensively. With the back, where they’re hitting the holes and things like that. So, you can evaluate talent.”
Shanahan was making the point, a correct one, that his criteria probably differ from mine, and yours. He continued: “That’s why I don’t make a big judgment on when things happen: ‘Well, this guy was this last year. Why was he so bad this year? He’s really good this year. How much did he improve?’ A lot of that is just opportunity. You don’t sit there and go through all of it with everyone, but that’s why I don’t know stats a lot, because we really try to look at the tape.”
I don’t break down tape with Shanahan’s depth of understanding, but I do watch rewinds of 49ers games. I also look at statistics and monitor scouting services. And it’s pretty clear that in at least one narrow regard, Shanahan and his staff are falling short this season: The 49ers’ younger players are not developing on schedule.
Shanahan disagrees, it seems. In response to my question Wednesday, he ran down a rather thorough list of young Niners who have excelled during this trying season.
Here is his internal scouting report: “We played our right tackle throughout the whole year. (Running back Matt) Breida is in his second year and he’s been able to play this whole year. Raheem I wouldn’t say is a real young guy, but in terms of running the ball he is. He got a lot more opportunities and I think he was getting a lot better, but he went on IR. (Running back) Jeff Wilson got his first opportunities last week, and I thought he came in and showed a lot of promise and did some good things. That was exciting. (Right tackle Mike) McGlinchey’s played well all year. He’s been up and down battling through things, and I think he’s continued to get better. You look at (linebacker) Fred Warner, he’s gotten better throughout the year. I’d like to see hopefully (defensive back) Tarvarius Moore get some more reps eventually. We’ve had some safeties be in and out there that have got some playing time. I thought Dante (Pettis, a wide receiver), last week was the first time that he got to play really a whole game. I think I said this on Monday, but he was the main guy who I thought took a step forward in Tampa.”