Every person that cares about NFL football was freed from having to pay any attention to the San Francisco 49ers at the moment quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3. They briefly rose to notice when rookie quarterback Nick Mullens had a decent game on Thursday Night Football, but for the most part they have spent this season playing seriously bad football, albeit within the anonymity of a thick aesthetic fart cloud.
Which, you know, whatever. Every NFL season requires at least a few teams that sort of mill around and kill time and kick the periodic field goal until everyone can go home. There are just too many players and too many teams to pay attention to every week, which means that we need completely forgettable squads like the 2018 Niners to make the season more digestible. Niners fans were surely sad to see Garoppolo go down along with the Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, but the rest of us were granted a favor. We had one less thing to care about.
But you don’t come to this column to turn away from the NFL’s gaseous undercarriage, and that’s not why I write it. You and I come here to lean into the sour air that spills from it, to breathe it in, to drink deep of it, and so to more fully understand what bad football looks like. So let’s get into this goddamn game.
The Niners lost 27-9 to the Buccaneers on Sunday, and did so by playing exactly the kind of football you’d expect to see from a team that’s doing nothing but running out the clock. You know what this looks like: plenty of insta-doomed runs and short passes to the running back, even more throws to a tight end posted up 8-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and just enough poorly timed mistakes to stall out anything in the shape of progress. Mullens’s No. 1 wide receiver in this game was Dante Pettis, a rookie who received 14 targets over the first 10 weeks of the season. As a result, Mullens spent most of it clutching tight end George Kittle like a favorite binky.
Kittle leads the team with 56 receptions on the year—somebody named Kendrick Bourne is second with 25—and Mullens threw at him a team-high 12 times on Sunday. This wasn’t super fun to watch! No offense to George Kittle, but there’s really no way to enjoy watching a blocky tight end catch the ball in the middle of the field, take two steps, and then get tackled by three guys, let alone watch it happen over and over and over again. He finished the game with six catches for 48 yards. When a tight ends dies and is judged by our lord God to be unworthy of passage into paradise, the sentence is to spend all of eternity catching six of 12 targets, for 48 yards.
If you’re looking for a drive to sum up the Niners’ day, it was their last of the first half. That drive went like this: A run for -4 yards, an incomplete pass to Kittle, a completed pass to Kittle that was voided by a defensive holding penalty, another incomplete pass to Kittle that was voided by defensive pass interference, a false start penalty, a sack, and then this:
That was followed by a 15-yard run on third-and-30, and then a punt. All told, the drive lasted 1:38 and went for one yard on five plays.
Hey, real quick, did you forget that Richard Sherman now plays for the Niners? Let’s see how that’s going:
Despite moments like that, the Niners did have their chances in this game. They had a very solid 79-yard scoring drive in the first half, and then a wonderful opportunity to take the lead early in the second. Down 13-6, the Niners found themselves with a second-and-goal from the one-yard line after a replay review determined that Jeffrey Wilson’s nine-yard touchdown run had actually come up just short. Any good team put in that position can be counted on to come away with an easy touchdown, but all the Niners came away with was three points and a bad case of doo-doo ass. They managed to do this by running the ball for no gain on second down, having a quarterback sneak get stoned at the line on third down, and then having their fourth-and-goal attempt snuffed out by a false start, which forced the field-goal attempt. Head coach Kyle Shanahan was not pleased by that sequence of events:
The Niners would have one more moment of brightness before the end of the game. Starting at his own 15-yard line and down 27-9, Mullens completed back-to-back passes to Pettis and Bourne for 22 and 17 yards, respectively, and then Wilson ripped off an 18-yard run. There was still 7:50 left to play, and there was suddenly a chance that the Niners might be able to get back into the game. Mullens must have been feeling confident, because he reached for that chance:
Again, this is all fine. Any success the Niners were planning on having this year was entirely dependent on Garoppolo playing well, so there’s no use getting all bent out of shape about them being 2-9. Sometimes a key injury renders an entire season meaningless. The Niners will play five more games this season and you will not watch a single snap of any of them. You will almost certainly not think of them again for many months. And then, sometime in late spring, you will read something in a magazine or on a website that asks if The Niners And Jimmy Garoppolo Are Ready To Bounce Back, and you will remember that there is a professional football team in San Francisco. Maybe they will bounce back, or maybe they’ll go 4-12 and Garoppolo will be a bust and all that patient waiting that Niners fans did during this lost season will have been for nothing. Who knows. Football is fucked up like that.