I’ve got some bad news for you. Brace yourself. The Niners are not going to win a Super Bowl this year. I know, sorry I had to be the one to tell you.
Let’s avoid the whole tanking debate, because you know how you feel about that. I think the players on the field should play as hard as they can every down, and try to win every game, for a bunch of reasons.
That said, a game where winning is not important opens up a bunch of possibilities. This season is lost. How can the San Francisco 49ers play to win next year, and after that?
1. Avoid Injuries
Of course the team always wants to avoid injuries, but there are some high risk situations that can be minimized. No “hospital passes,” such as comebacks in the deep middle of the field in tight coverage, jump balls or desperation throws on broken plays. Stick to receivers either wide open or in stride, and talk to Mullens about making sure he doesn’t throw behind his receivers. (He needs to work on that anyway.)
Discourage kick returns in marginal situations. Work on the QB’s quick release (or throw away) skills. And lean toward sitting injured players where you might have pushed them to suit up in a more important game.
2. Manage game film
The chess match against other teams’ DCs is far too complicated to just say “don’t show any good new play variations.” And other strategic goals — such as evaluating young players, or having the offensive line master certain plays — makes that too simplistic.
Besides, you want to plant wrinkles on film specifically to keep opposing coaches up late thinking about them. They’ll already be trying to imagine how this scheme will look with Jimmy Garoppolo back, and Jerick McKinnon finally available.
Shanahan should show some counter plays, like the Kittle jet sweep, specifically to force players to hesitate a moment during games. Is that a handoff to McKinnon, with Kittle coming through to block the backside DE, or is Kittle going take a handoff?
3. Evaluate players (and plays)
Shanahan has been very upfront that he is doing this. So, yeah, play Julian Taylor and Marcell Harris. Maybe give Richard Sherman some snaps at safety, a position he has talked about playing. And use the different skill sets of players to try out some plays that haven’t been practical this year.
Matt Breida has had an outstanding season, but he’s not a great pass receiving threat. Jeff Wilson, Jr. is — and so is Jerick McKinnon. This is a good time to try the plays the team might have run with their lead RB available, and Shanahan is already doing so. Wilson Jr. was targeted nine times against Seattle, and caught 8 of those passes for 73 yards; the team’s second leading receiver, ahead of even George Kittle.
4. Practice less common scenarios
Go for two on every touchdown, unless you’re still evaluating new long snapper Colin Holba. Try an onside kick. Send 8 men on a blitz. Maybe test Robbie Gould with a super long field goal where you might have punted otherwise — or go for it. Take a deep shot on fourth down (see #2 above). There are lots of edge case scenario plays you might need in an important game at some point. Now is the time to get game time practice in them.
Also, make this game interesting and kick Denver’s ass. The hardest thing to do at this point in a tough, injury-racked season is to make the game interesting and fun for fans. But the Faithful pay the bills, and the team owes them the effort to try.