Never was that more evident than in Sunday’s 28-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, a game in which the 49ers dominated nearly every major statistical category but were unable to come away with a victory against a previously winless team.
On paper, the Niners dominated the Cardinals, outgaining them 447-220, picking up 23 more first downs and running a whopping 92 plays to Arizona’s 49. In total, the 49ers had the ball for 20 minutes, 24 seconds more than the Cardinals. Even the red-zone problems that had been an issue for San Francisco weren’t apparent as it scored touchdowns on all three trips inside Arizona’s 20.
So, what went wrong? Well, one thing in particular stood above the rest.
“You look at a lot of those things, it’s hard to find how you lost a game,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Then it’s very easy when you look at the turnover column. I haven’t been part of any game, I don’t think many people have, where five turnovers to zero leads to a win. We have to improve that drastically to have a chance.”
Indeed, whenever someone talks about how turnover margin is the biggest indicator of winning and losing in the NFL, any doubters need only to look at what took place Sunday. The 49ers coughed up five turnovers to the Cardinals, including three lost fumbles and a pair of interceptions. Arizona returned one for a touchdown and turned two others into scores after the takeaways. The Niners, meanwhile, failed to create a takeaway of their own.
In a game that seemed ready-made to help the ailing Niners get back on track, those costly mistakes only served to keep them off the rails.
“You can’t win ball games turning the ball over five times,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “I feel like we played well in all the other aspects except for turnovers. Just got to take better care of the ball.”
While there’s truth in what Beathard is saying, there’s also truth in the idea that the Niners as they’re currently constructed can’t afford even half the number of mistakes they made in Sunday’s game. Despite those errors, the Niners still had chances to win.
The self-inflicted errors weren’t limited to giveaways. They also mishandled an extra point attempt, had a brutal coverage bust to allow a 75-yard touchdown pass and committed nine penalties for 65 yards. Even kicker Robbie Gould, who hadn’t missed a field goal in 33 consecutive attempts, missed a 45-yarder wide right.
Put simply, the Niners followed the recipe for how to lose to a winless team step for step until they’d actually done it.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “Those are self-inflicted wounds and those are the toughest ones to swallow. It’s because you don’t feel like it’s the opponent, you feel like you’re hurting yourself.”
This was San Francisco’s seventh consecutive loss to Arizona and perhaps its most demoralizing of the season given how it went down and the quality of opponent. And the news gets uglier from here: With 11 games to play this season, there’s a real chance that things are going to get worse before they get better.
At 1-4, the Niners now face a two-game stretch in which they travel to Green Bay for Monday Night Football before returning home to face the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football. Over the next five weeks, the Niners will play on national television four times, unless they are flexed out of that Sunday night appearance.
Barring that, the 49ers’ long, slow march to the end of another lost season will be televised. Only compounding all of that is the fact the team’s seemingly endless list of injuries is making it increasingly difficult to figure out just where the Niners are in their rebuilding process.
“The margin for error just gets smaller when you keep losing guys like that,” Juszczyk said.
After Sunday’s loss, the Niners are now 21 games into the era of Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. They inherited a mess that figured to take plenty of time to clean up.
Mixed in those 21 games have been hints of progress and hope mixed with signs that they remain a team with far more questions than answers. Over the next 11 games, the 49ers will have a chance to move in the right direction. But Sunday’s loss was quick to remind that those steps will be difficult for this team to take.