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Brian Hoyer offers hope, but Jared Goff reminds what 49ers still need

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The start of Thursday night's game against the Los Angeles Rams couldn't have been any worse for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer.

On the first offensive snap, Hoyer threw an interception right to Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, who promptly returned it to San Francisco's 3. The Rams scored on the next play and never relinquished their lead in a thrilling 41-39 victory at Levi's Stadium.

To Hoyer's credit, he bounced back and went on to have what was easily the best game of his young stint as a 49er. Hoyer ran for a 9-yard touchdown and hung tough in the pocket despite relentless pressure to finish 23-of-37 for 332 yards with two touchdowns and that interception, for a passer rating of 98.0.

"Hoyer is a grinder," receiver Pierre Garcon said. "He doesn’t let a lot of things bother him. He's a veteran in this league, nine years, so a lot of things happen and you have got to have a short memory, especially as a quarterback, but he played great, he kept standing in the pocket, kept playing well for us. You definitely respect a guy like that who keeps playing no matter what happens. That's what you want on your team. No matter what happens, you keep playing as if nothing happened and that's the guy that we have in this locker room."

After Hoyer's interception, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan chatted with him on the sideline. Shanahan said he told Hoyer to just "start over."

"It was a tough way to start, the situation we were in, especially after Sunday vs. Seattle," Shanahan said. "I knew it was going to be tough. We wanted to come out here and play well. To start out with the first play as a pick, basically a pick six, I think they took it to the two. I knew that was going to be tough, so I just went up and talked to him, looked in his eyes, he looked fine. He said, 'I'm ready to go. I'll be all right.' He responded pretty well the next drive."

Although the Niners walked away with their third consecutive loss to start the season, Hoyer's performance was encouraging enough to make you believe he has moved past the disappointing outings he had against Carolina and Seattle to open the season. If nothing else, Hoyer at least quieted the early, if understandable, calls for rookie C.J. Beathard to get his opportunity. And he is clearly capable of keeping the Niners competitive in most of the rest of their games this season.

Despite all of that, it was still hard not to walk away from Thursday's game thinking how much better things would look for the Niners' future if it was a talented young quarterback making such a costly early mistake, then showing the resolve to bounce back and keep his team in the game. Better yet, it was hard not to watch what took place Thursday and wonder what if the Niners had a young quarterback like the one on the opposite side?

Strange as it is to say given how much he struggled as a rookie, Rams quarterback Jared Goff looked every bit the part of a competent, potentially good NFL quarterback against the Niners. With offensive whiz kid Sean McVay calling the shots instead of the archaic, leather-helmet offenses of Jeff Fisher, Goff looks much more like the player the Rams thought they were getting when they traded a boatload of picks to move up to get him atop the 2016 draft.

That isn't to say that Goff has fully arrived; he still has plenty of proving to do. But his comfort in McVay's offense was evident early, and he went on to put up an impressive line of his own, finishing 22-of-28 for 292 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, for a passer rating of 145.8. In the second half, Goff went 11-of-12 for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

This wasn't Goff the game manager, this was Goff at least part of the way realized and leading his team to victory rather than serving as an innocent bystander.

"I'm really pleased with Jared tonight," McVay said. "I thought he made really great decisions with the football. You really look at what that defense had done coming into this game against two very good teams in Carolina and Seattle, I'm really impressed with them as a whole. I thought Jared managed the game extremely well, distributed to his playmakers and gave guys a chance down the field. You look at Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods coming away with over 100 apiece. Those are the kinds of things we expect from him."

Make no mistake, there was nothing wrong with the Niners' approach when they declined to spend an early pick on a quarterback such as Mitchell Trubisky in this year's draft. They added additional draft capital for 2018 and have the flexibility to go get a quarterback if they need to make a move up. They also have plenty of cap space in the coffers to chase a Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo should those players hit free agency. The quarterback question will be the one that continues to loom largest over this team until it makes its move to get Shanahan the guy he wants.

Take nothing away from Hoyer for what he did Thursday night. It was a positive step in the right direction for an offense that had been listless in the first two games. But for a rebuilding team with as much work to do as the Niners moving forward, signs of better days ahead would be more abundant if it was a young quarterback of their own making an early mistake and responding like a veteran.

That day could come as soon as next season or perhaps even this year if Beathard eventually gets his shot, but the waiting will be the hardest part in what figures to be another long season for the 49ers.