Kurtenbach: Shanahan, 49ers back at square one after loss to Cardinals

Kurtenbach: Shanahan, 49ers back at square one after loss to Cardinals

SANTA CLARA — Sunday was Kyle Shanahan’s 75th game as the man in charge of the San Francisco 49ers.

That’s five years at the helm. Five years as the team’s head coach, offensive coordinator, and man in charge of personnel.

It’s as if none of those years happened.

The 49ers are back at square one.

Yes, the scoreline might read 31-17, but I can assure you that it was so much worse than that.

San Francisco turned in arguably the worst performance in the Shanahan era Sunday — a performance more fitting of the Jim Tomsula era.

In a game the Niners should have won — had to win — against a division rival on the skids, San Francisco’s offense was sloppy and underwhelming. The defense was even worse. It was downright feeble. The whole team was undisciplined. And the head coach made a series of baffling, white-flag decisions to ensure that Arizona never had to feel uncomfortable at Levi’s Stadium.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – NOV. 7: Arizona Cardinals’ James Conner (6) gives a straight arm to San Francisco 49ers’ Tavon Wilson (32) on a 35-yard run early in the third quarter, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

It was the kind of loss that would put any other coach on the hot seat.

But not Shanahan. He has four years remaining on his contract, which was extended after the 2019 season.

Making sure to lock in a long term on his deals — twice — seems to be the only genius thing about the Niners’ head coach.

Let’s be clear: This team stinks. And it’s going to take a whole lot of evidence to knock me off this stance.

The Niners have not won a game in Santa Clara since Oct. 18, 2020. They have lost five of their last six games overall.

So far this season, the Niners have beaten two of the worst teams in the NFL — the Lions and Eagles — as well as the Bears, who aren’t good either but don’t deserve to be in that class.

And when the Niners have lost, they have made it an event — an exhibition of futility.

No event was bigger than Sunday’s loss.

They weren’t just beaten by an Arizona team that lacked its MVP candidate quarterback, its All-Pro wide receiver, and should-be Pro Bowl running back (not to mention defensive tackle J.J. Watt) — they were stomped by that team.

It’s amazing the Niners still have any teeth between them after that game and the metaphorical kicks they took directly to the mouth.

Taking a step back, it’s nearly comical: Career backup Colt McCoy, who has been in the NFL for 11 unremarkable years — a quarterback who has eight wins to his name and is kept around because he’s a nice guy who can be had on the cheap — might as well have been Murray on Sunday.

McCoy had his best game as a pro, by far, completing all but four of his 26 passes for 249 yards and a gaudy 119 quarterback rating.

In fact, it was a better performance than Murray had when these two teams played earlier this season.

The Niners couldn’t do anything to stop McCoy or backup running back James Conner, who had two touchdowns and 96 yards. They couldn’t stop Conner’s backup, Eno Benjamin, either. He ran for a 21-yard touchdown — right over Niners cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick — to seal the game early in the third quarter.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 7: San Francisco 49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk (11) fumbles the ball against Arizona Cardinals’ Isaiah Simmons (9) in the second quarter at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

The Niners, on the other hand, lost two early fumbles and didn’t start moving the ball with any consistent success until it was garbage time.

And it certainly didn’t help that their head coach decided to punt the game away — figuratively and literally — with two baffling second-half decisions.

Not only did San Francisco run its normal, huddle-after-every-play offense after falling behind 31-7 early in the second half, Shanahan also decided to not go for a two-point conversion after scoring to cut Arizona’s lead to 31-13 late in the third quarter. (A two-point conversation would have made it a two-score game instead of the three-score deficit a 31-14 deficit presents.) He also decided to punt the ball, down those 17 points, one possession later — despite being 39 yards from the end zone they were trying to reach.

A coach who makes those kinds of decisions isn’t one who is playing to win the game — no matter how far-fetched a win might have been.

No, that’s a coach who was looking to avoid a scoreline that folks would investigate in a few weeks, months, and years.

That’s Shanahan’s idea of a backdoor cover.

Shanahan said after the game that he didn’t think the aforementioned situations called for such bold coaching decisions. He thought the Niners had enough possessions remaining in the game.

It’s another non-sensical excuse — one of dozens this season — from a coach whose belief in his own omnipotence consistently fails to match reality.

Remember: The Niners thought they were going to go to the Super Bowl this year, despite the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is their quarterback, their defense had no depth (which was immediately exposed), and Shanahan’s shuffling of offensive personnel shows more anxiety than intellect.

Some fans and professional blowhards like me bought the preseason hype.

At least I and some others had enough sense to have a change of mind when the evidence was presented to the jury.

Yes, these Niners might be more talented than the squad Shanahan first coached in 2017, but what is it that Shanahan’s team executes well?

We’re 10 weeks into the season and the best I have is “run left… sometimes.”

The Niners are 34-41 under Shanahan, including the playoffs.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – NOV. 7: San Francisco 49ers’ head coach gets back his flag from an official after challenging an out of bounds call on San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk (44) during a loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

At this point, what reason is there to believe that the losses are less indicative of Shanahan’s tenure than the wins?

No, that magical 2019 season looks more and more like the exception that proves the rule.

And yet there’s a half-season to still play. Shanahan’s job isn’t on the line because ownership is either asleep or afraid. Neither is acceptable.

Shanahan will continue to ignore the obvious and pretend as if his 3-5 squad has a chance to turn this thing around, despite being winless in its division — the toughest in the NFL.

Yes, his 2021 squad looks every bit like the kind of team that will be drafting early come the spring. (If only the 49ers still had their first-round pick!)

We should know, we’ve seen Shanahan coach quite a few of those around these parts.

Yes, losing is the 49ers’ way under Shanahan, until proven otherwise.

I’m not holding my breath that anything changes anytime soon.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 7: San Francisco 49ers’ Arik Armstead (91) pressures Arizona Cardinals’ Colt McCoy (12) in the first quarter at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
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