The 49ers keep coming close to victory with no ounce of gold to show for it in 2017. Sunday's 26-24 loss at Washington marks the fifth consecutive game San Francisco has lost by a field goal or less. The Niners are now 0-6 under rookie coach Kyle Shanahan this season after going 2-14 in Chip Kelly's final year.

But who cares?

San Francisco is winning in the big picture for later, even if nothing shows up in the standings now.

MORE: 49ers-Redskins box score, stats

This was supposed to a be major rebuild for general manager John Lynch and more of an audit season for Shanahan. It was hard to expect good results, as they had to overhaul their defense and figure out the best pieces on offense. In terms of improving the team for the short term and evaluating it for the long term, it has been a smashing success.

Last year's 49ers were lost. In addition to their lack of young talent and being too old in spots with their personnel, there was no plan or execution, especially at quarterback. This year, in contrast, it's clear Lynch and Shanahan are men with a plan and have been since they were hired together.

Given the way Deshaun Watson has been playing for the Texans and the fact that Mitchell Trubisky just sparked the Bears to victory, Lynch and Shanahan are bound to get more talk-show flack for passing on a first-round QB early and choosing to stockpile picks. Much of that decision was tied to the stopgap route with a struggling Brian Hoyer.

That short-sighted narrative should have changed a little after the team benched Hoyer in favor or rookie third-rounder C.J. Beathard, who nearly completed a huge second-half comeback against the Redskins and showed plenty of upside as the likely new starter going forward.

At the same time, the player the Niners did pick at No. 3 overall, defensive end Solomon Thomas, broke out with his best game as a pro pass rusher with his second career sack among seven tackles. Inside linebacker Reuben Foster, their second first-rounder, should return next week, as indicated by the team's decision to part ways with longtime stalwart NaVorro Bowman.

Shanahan also has delivered more sneaky gamesmanship regarding the use of his backs, veteran Carlos Hyde and undrafted rookie Matt Breida. It's very similar to his early days with the Falcons' duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in 2015, before he maximized their usage together.

Breida and rookie fifth-round tight end George Kittle have been key contributors. Rookie fifth-round wide receiver Travis Taylor has flashed as a return man and an ideal slot option. That's all behind Pierre Garcon, who was a terrific free-agent signing as their top wideout, picking up where he left off in a Shanahan offense from his Redskins past. Two more veteran additions, Alrdick Robinson and Marquise Goodwin, have helped as speed elements of late.

So the 49ers' record might be the same as that of the Browns, but don't confuse them for that clueless, winless mess in Cleveland. The Browns have seen limited results from their high-volume drafting and have been reluctant to let their most skilled kids play no matter the growing pains. (See the benching of DeShone Kizer for Kevin Hogan.) Lynch and Shanahan are doing things smarter than the similar "highly educated meets offensive minded" combination of Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson.

The 49ers want to win games as much as the Browns do, but San Francisco seems more content with the fact that it was not supposed to go anyw

here this season. Lynch and Shanahan have been aggressive in making changes wherever necessary. They're not attached to sentimental favorites of either the 49ers' past (Bowman) or their own (Hoyer).

The NFL is a cold business, but the rational over the emotional wins in management and coaching, Bill Belichick being the ultimate case in point. Even he had to go through one bad re-assessment season before his current genius run with the Patriots.

There are signs everywhere that say the 49ers are improving. They are only a few field goals from being 5-1 instead of 0-6. Being better at winning close games is something that takes time for a mostly young team finding its way.

Once Lynch and Shanahan see the goods they've got and what they still need to get, they can go to work for 2018. According to, they are sitting on $62.6 million in salary cap space. After Kittle made tight end Vance McDonald expendable for a trade to Pittsburgh before the season, they're up to nine picks already in next year's draft, including five in the first three rounds.

49ers select rare talent for their offense

If Beathard works out, they will have plenty of spending and drafting flexibility next year. If not, they can go harder after that franchise QB through either route.

Given how bad Hoyer was at times, Beathard will put them in position to win a few games. They've already stacked up well against teams that, on paper, should be much better. They've fought to the end in every game except the Week 1 loss to Carolina, meaning the players are buying into Shanahan and playing consistently hard for him.

From a distance, it might seem like the 49ers are going further downhill this season. In reality, they have jump-started their climb back to NFC relevance.