SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It’s football, the NFL. Not ice skating or diving.
There are no points for style, only for touchdowns or field goals. The only thing that counts is the final score.
As Herman Edwards famously told us in a post-game rant, “You play to win the game.”
The 49ers won the game Sunday, beating the Arizona Cardinals 36-26. The Niners' final TD, on the final play, was one of those bizarre occurrences that drive gamblers crazy, a TD off an Arizona fumble with 0:00 on the clock.
The Niners won, even though they trailed 16-0 early in the second quarter. Even though quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw two interceptions in the second half.
You know what this means? It means the Niners are 9-1, along with those fearsome New England Patriots. You know what this means? It means the Niners are very good, able to come back after a short week — they lost to Seattle in OT on Monday night — get into a hole and then, shades of the 1980s, find a way to win.
The Niners have a third-year coach, Kyle Shanahan, who knows the plays — “He gets the most out of us,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk — and a quarterback not afraid to make the plays.
“Jimmy’s confidence never wavers,” said Juszczyk.
Dare we toss Garoppolo’s name in the basket with that of the revered Joe Montana. Well, maybe that’s getting carried away a trifle. What Garoppolo did against the Cardinals, a team now with a 3-7-1 record, is what Montana did game after game.
Yet, the Niners, and their fans — probably including those who on the sunny sides of Levi’s Stadium went into hiding the second half — have to believe Garoppolo is the guy.
The ultimate way to rank a quarterback is not by passing percentage or sacks avoided — although those factor contribute — but how his team does. Did he bring it across the finish line? Did he win? Montana won. Tom Brady wins and wins. Jimmy Garoppolo is winning.
The go-ahead score, with 37 seconds remaining, was on a 25-yard pass play from Garoppolo to halfback Jeff Wilson Jr. It was Wilson’s only catch of the game. “I don’t know what to say,” said Wilson. How about thank you?
“That was the route we liked him on,” said Shanahan. ”Something we worked out with him in the week ... It was nice we had enough time afterwards so we could make the decision to get the sub in.”
What Juszczyk said about Wilson warming up in the huddle was, “I thought it was pretty hilarious. But I’m not surprised. He’s a gamer.”
So too is Garoppolo.
“It’s been like that all year,” Juszczyk pointed out. Then, alluding to the two picks, the second with 4:32 remaining and the Niners behind, Juszczyk said, “Anytime he’s made a mistake, there’s no letup. Everybody has all the confidence in the world in him, and he’s showing that confidence when he’s in the huddle.”
Garoppolo said on the pass that became the winner, “I felt the pressure up the middle and just kind of put it out there and let him make a play on it. I heard the crowd erupt. I didn’t even see him catch it.”
When Garoppolo’s name was linked with Montana and the other 49er Hall of Fame QB, Steve Young, he insisted, “Anytime you’re in a sentence with those two names, it’s an honor. I’ve got a long away to go to catch up to those two.”
Shanahan wasn’t about to make comparisons, just comment on what a coach and a team must go through, especially when an OT defeat on a Monday night is followed by a last-minute win the following Sunday afternoon.
“It’s exhausting,” he said, “whether you’re a head coach or a coordinator. It’s exhausting for me. I’m sure it’s exhausting for our players. I know it’s exhausting for my wife watching it, and I’m sure it’s exhausting for all the fans.
“That’s an intense game that goes back and forth. I think that’s why everyone loves this sport. It’s a lot more fun when it’s easier. But after the game it’s so much fun when you go through stuff like that, and it’s not perfect, and you find a way to win.”
Which, once more, the Niners were able to do.