Were those the San Francisco 49ers on the field in Chicago on Sunday?
The hapless, talent-depleted 49ers who started the season 0-9 and had a 1-10 record going into Sunday’s game against the Bears?
No, while the team that played in Chicago might have been wearing the 49ers’ jerseys and helmets, it did not look like the team 49ers fans have come to know over the past few years.
This team looked poised. It looked competent.
It even looked — get this — fun.
I had to triple-check, but it turns out that it was, in fact, the 49ers who moved the ball efficiently on offense, held the opposing offense to 147 total yards, and won their second game of the season on Sunday.
It is amazing what a good quarterback can do for a football team.
The 49ers did not score a touchdown on Sunday, but the win over the Bears could turn out to be a turning point for this moribund franchise. The rebuild by head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch might have a long, long way to go, but Sunday’s contest showed that the Niners have a critical foundational piece in Jimmy Garoppolo.
The 26-year-old quarterback was stellar Sunday, going 26-for-37 for 293 yards and an interception, which was a perfectly thrown third-down pass that was ripped out of receiver Louis Murphy’s hands.
Yes, it was only one game, but you don’t have to be an NFL general manager to recognize game-changing talent. Garoppolo has it, and he showed it off early and often Sunday.
He looked so good, he made the valuable second-round pick the Niners gave to the New England Patriots in the trade to land him look like a pittance.
He looked so good that the Niners could have slapped a franchise tag on him right after he led San Francisco 92 yards down the field in the final 5:27 to set up the game-winning field goal.
With Garoppolo at the helm, the 49ers offense looked, to borrow a phrase, light-years ahead of where it was with Brian Hoyer or C.J. Beathard. Garoppolo’s accuracy, timing and awareness gave the 49ers’ offense verve. It looked like a confident unit — when was the last time you could say that about San Francisco’s offense?
It does not matter how many plays Garoppolo knew of Shanahan’s legendarily verbose and complicated playbook: The ones he knew, he could execute.
It took a matter of minutes for Garoppolo to develop a strong rapport with receivers Marquise Goodwin (eight catches, 99 yards) and Trent Taylor (six catches, 92 yards), and that, in turn, gave us our first true glimpse at Shanahan’s offense.
It was an exciting sneak preview.
With Garoppolo at the helm, the Niners had only one three-and-out series Sunday. Entering Week 13, more than a third of the 49ers’ offensive drives were three-and-outs.
And here is the best thing: It is only going to get better from here.
Garoppolo was able to move the ball with aplomb against a good Bears defense, despite having a bad offensive line in front of him (the middle was a sieve), next to no run game behind him (Carlos Hyde looked terrible and the team averaged 3.2 yards per carry), and questionable receiving depth around him — what happens when the 49ers have a competent roster around him?
There is a long way to go when it comes to building this roster around Garoppolo — and that has created some conflict for Niners fans, who have, to their credit, embraced the suck and are rooting for the team to tank, as to land a better draft pick in April.
But don’t think too hard about it — there should be only one goal: winning.
And while Garoppolo looked good, let’s not forget that the Niners did almost lose to the Bears on Sunday. The draft pick will take care of itself — don’t worry, it is going to be really high.
But one thing the Niners will not have to worry about finding with that super-high draft pick is a quarterback who has the ability to change the course of a franchise.
They already have their guy.