Even in defeat, 49ers find hope in play of C.J. Beathard

CARSON, Calif. -- The injuries mounted. The costly drop led to a game-changing interception. The opposing defense hit him and then hit him again.

If Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers felt like a painful case of déjà vu for San Francisco 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard, it was understandable. And the result was all too familiar, too, as the Niners came up just short in a 29-27 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Making his first start in the Niners' post-Jimmy Garoppolo world, Beathard took a beating reminiscent of the ones that were so prevalent during his five-start stint as a rookie in 2017. In all but one of those games, Beathard and the Niners emerged on the other side with plenty of bumps, bruises and defeats.

In many of those losses, Beathard and the Niners were simply unable to keep up when adversity struck. For stretches of Sunday's loss, the Niners looked to be doing a re-enactment of last October's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

That day, the 49ers watched as multiple starters left with injuries and their mistakes eventually snowballed into a 33-10 loss.

Even though the Niners lost again Sunday, this one felt a bit different.

There's no such thing as a moral victory and the Niners wouldn't accept one even if there was. But, when the pain of a close loss subsides, the Niners can find solace in the fact that when disaster struck, they took their cues from their quarterback.

"C.J., he fires us up the way he plays," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "He's going to always put everything on the line."

Beathard, who teammates, coaches and Beathard himself often describe using the word "toughness," never flinched in the face of what seemed like unrelenting adversity.

To wit, by the time the first half was over, the Niners had blown a 14-point lead and watched as starting left tackle Joe Staley and receiver Dante Pettis departed with knee injuries. At various points in the game, Beathard was without right tackle Mike McGlinchey (knee), center Weston Richburg (knee) and running back Matt Breida (shoulder). And that was just on offense.

As the Chargers ran off 20 straight points to take a nine-point lead in the third quarter, Beathard and the Niners refused to go away. That was true even after Beathard's red zone pass for tight end Garrett Celek bounced off Celek's hands and into the waiting arms of Chargers defensive back Trevor Williams, who returned it 82 yards.

Again, the Niners leaned into Beathard's leadership style just as he never shied away from contact. Despite taking eight hits in the pocket and a handful more when scrambling, he finished 23-of-37 for 298 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 82.9. He also chipped in seven carries for 19 yards.

Beathard, making his sixth career start, acknowledged that he felt more comfortable this time out than he did last year. That was evident in his production, according to coach Kyle Shanahan.

"I thought he played well," Shanahan said. "He played very tough, made some big plays, especially in some of the situations with guys going in and out. He handled a lot of adversity well and a little chaos with some of the injuries but I was proud of how he played."

After a first half of methodical drives with few shots taken down the field, Beathard found tight end George Kittle for an 82-yard touchdown that trimmed the deficit to two.

Following a defensive stop, Beathard led another drive for a field goal that gave the Niners a 27-26 lead with 12:39 to go. It was only fitting that Beathard twice escaped pressure and put his body on the line to keep that drive going, even departing after having the wind knocked out of him on a big hit from Chargers defensive back Casey Hayward Jr. as he tried in vain to pick up a first down on third-and-5 at the Chargers' 19.

A week after the Niners lost Garoppolo for the season as he attempted to make something happen, Beathard found himself scrapping for every inch, even at the possible expense of his health.

"[It was] not really a debate, especially in a situation like that, where it's third down and you're inches away from converting," Beathard said. "It could change the game if we get that first. So if I could do it again, I'd do the same thing."

Given one final shot to lead a game-winning drive, Chargers safety Derwin James hit Beathard as he attempted to throw with the ball bouncing into the arms of defensive end Isaac Rochell.

Still, the fact that Niners had a shot to win at the end represented a step forward even if it didn't feel like it right away. Much of that can be attributed to Beathard.

"He's a bad ass," Kittle said. "C.J has got more grit than anybody I know. C.J. is one of the most competitive people I've ever been around. He hates losing more than anybody I know. He played the game angry and that's just how he plays it. And it's awesome…the guys responded to C.J. being out there and I think we responded really well and we're looking forward to having C.J. lead us from here on out."

With that, the Niners' spirited comeback attempt fell short. To be sure, it was a disappointing result. It was also one to build on.