With six minutes and 39 seconds left in the second quarter in Washington, the 49ers made an in-game move that may have brightened their future.
With starting quarterback Brian Hoyer struggling for the sixth consecutive week, head coach Kyle Shanahan benched the veteran, replacing him with rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard —the 49ers third round draft pick out of the University of Iowa.
Even with Beathard showing serious promise taking his first real set of snaps as an NFL quarterback, San Francisco succumbed to the inevitable; another heartbreaking loss, this time a 26-24 nail-biter to the Washington Redskins.
Before Beathard’s entrance, Hoyer’s afternoon had been similar to his previous five starts. In an uninspiring effort, Hoyer managed just 34 yards from scrimmage on 4-of-11 passing, pushing San Francisco into an early 14-0 hole.
With little hesitation, Shanahan pulled the trigger and threw in Beathard.
In his first series under center, Beathard and the 49er offense picked up one first down including a 13-yard shotgun pass to tight end George Kittle, Beathard’s former teammate at Iowa, before being forced to punt the ball away. But Beathard was just getting started.
After the 49ers defense gave up a Redskins field goal, Beathard got the ball back to march down the field for a one-yard Carlos Hyde touchdown run, his first of two on the day.
Beathard would complete five of nine passes for 76 yards on drive, giving the 49ers a boost of momentum before halftime.
Coming out of the break, they further capitalized on the momentum converting a Robbie Gould 48-yard field goal to narrow the deficit to a single score, 17-10. Four more complete passes on five attempts added to Beathard’s confidence as his team still trailed by a touchdown.
A missed field goal by Gould, the 49ers looked to be on the collision course for an underwhelming second half but a run in with a familiar face changed the landscape of the game.
On the first snap of the redskins drive after taking over at their own 37-yard-line, 49ers linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong was able to strip former 49er tight end Vernon Davis. San Francisco safety Jimmie Ward was able to scoop up the turnover and return the ball to the Washington one-yard line.
A quick Hyde touchdown knotted thing to set up the fourth quarter for another showdown of will and desire.
The 49ers defense, however would let up a touchdown and a field goal to give Washington a nine-point lead with less than five minutes to go in the fourth after a missed PAT by Dustin Hopkins.
But, in a minute-and-a-half, Beathard showed why his head coach demonstrated the trust to throw him in in the first place.
With a 45-yard heave, Beathard connected with Aldrick Robinson to bring the Niners within two.
Beathard got another shot, gifted by a defensive stop, to win the game by giving him the ball back with 52 seconds on the clock, enough time to get into field goal range.
Assisted by a heads-up play by wide receiver Pierre Garcon, the 49ers were in range for a 58 yard attempt but a questionable offensive pass interference call against Garcon the very next play forced them to attempt desperation throws to get back in reasonable range.
Washington would pick off Beathard’s last pass of the day with three seconds left in the game to send the 49ers back to Santa Clara with yet another close game loss.
But unlike the last five losses, this leaves the team with a lot more optimism looking ahead to the rest of the season.
Finishing the day completing 52 percent (19-of-36) of his passes for 245 yards in less than three quarters, Beathard may have shown the 49ers the exact poise they have been looking for from the quarterback position.
In their five previous losses, a common criticism had been that of Hoyer’s, play. In several cases, without some of Hoyer’s mistakes, the 49ers may have been able to secure at least one win if not more.
The fact that Beathard has now emerged as a clearly competent option behind center may mean more competitive games thought the season and maybe even a word 49ers haven’t heard since December 24, 2016: win.