Even after another close loss, C.J. Beathard gives 49ers something to watch for rest of season

LANDOVER, Md. -- The San Francisco 49ers did not find their first victory of the season on Sunday in Washington. In fact, the Niners dropped to 0-6 with a 26-24 defeat at the hands of the Redskins.

In the process, the Niners became the first team in the NFL's Super Bowl era to lose five straight games by three points or fewer.

Although any hope of a miracle one-season turnaround had already vanished, the 49ers and coach Kyle Shanahan offered fans a reason to pay close attention over the season's final 10 games, and his name is C.J. Beathard.

With Shanahan acknowledging he would be open to a shake-up at quarterback when he felt the time was right, the Niners' coach finally made the move during Sunday's game. And it's a move he confirmed he will stick to moving forward after the game.

"I tell him each week to be ready and prepare that way," Shanahan said. "I wanted him thinking [he was a starter] since the first game. Whether you're planning it or not, that's how you have to think of it. You are one play away from an injury. I try to keep the same temperament and mentality with those guys all the time but I knew this week it was about time."

With starting quarterback Brian Hoyer and the offense off to another slow start -- they entered the game without a touchdown pass in any quarter but the fourth this season -- Shanahan turned to Beathard with 6:39 left in the second quarter.

At the time, the Niners were trailing 17-0 and appeared well on their way to a blowout loss that would represent a major change from the past month in which they'd lost four close games in a row.

Playing in the stadium where his grandfather Bobby Beathard's name is in the Redskins Ring of Honor, C.J. Beathard didn't shrink from the moment or cower in fear at the home crowd. Beathard calmly zipped a pass to tight end Garrett Celek for a 13-yard gain on his second snap. It was Beathard's first pass attempt and completion in the NFL.

The first drive with Beathard ended prematurely when two of his next three attempts were dropped, but if Shanahan sought a spark from Beathard, he got one. To close the first half, Beathard operated a strong, if not particularly smooth, two-minute drive to get the 49ers into the end zone as the first half ended. He followed by putting together a field goal drive on the first possession of the second half.

Before Washington scored again (a field goal with 10:37 left in the game), the Niners scored 17 unanswered points to tie it up. No, Beathard wasn't responsible for all of those points, and he had his share of miscues, but there's little doubt Beathard gave the Niners a boost when they needed it most. He finished his two and a half quarters 19-of-36 for 245 yards with a touchdown and an interception for a passer rating of 72.1.

"I thought he did great," left tackle Joe Staley said. "I thought he came in there and did a really good job. He threw the ball around. I thought we were able to do a better job protecting him than we did early on and they were able to push the pocket early on. He did well."

Ultimately, Beathard's first extended debut was very close but just not quite enough for the Niners to end their run of close losses. He was unable to piece together the final drive needed to win it in the fourth quarter. But he got them close, including an impressive 45-yard touchdown to receiver Aldrick Robinson with 1:58 to play.

"That's something you dream about and unfortunately, we weren't able to finish there but we had a lot of improving to do and keep building and keep getting better as the weeks go on," Beathard said.

This season has always been about much more than just 2017. With Hoyer at quarterback, the Niners knew what they were going to get. There would be good moments mixed with many more bad ones. Hoyer had been exactly as advertised in the first five-plus games.

Beathard has no such sample size. The Niners don't know what they have in him any more than anyone else does. And for a team that on Friday released linebacker NaVorro Bowman and isn't shying away from a full-blown youth movement, now was the right time to go to Beathard.

Had Shanahan waited to turn it over to Beathard until late in the season, the Niners would have gotten a glimpse of what he could be, but the sample size would undoubtedly have been too small to make any definitive judgments about how they should approach the position in the offseason.

Making the move now gives the Niners a much better chance to see what they have in Beathard while also allowing him to work through the inevitable rookie mistakes.

For now, the focus will be on improvement as Beathard enters his first week knowing he's the starter.

"We are going to go look at this film hard," Shanahan said. "Anytime you get those valuable reps, especially as a rookie, you are going to have some good plays, you are going to have some bad plays. It's how you respond to those that makes these NFL quarterbacks and gives them a career."

Earlier this week, I wondered whether it was possible that the 49ers already had their own version of Kirk Cousins on the roster. Like Cousins, Beathard is a former Big Ten quarterback from a pro-style scheme.

Ten games won't be enough to make such a bold determination. But if nothing else, Beathard makes things more interesting for the 49ers in an already lost season.