If the 49ers are going to succeed next year, they’re going to have to improve in one key area. Trey Lance should have very little to do with it if all goes according to plan.
Allow me to take you back to the NFC Championship game. Nursing a three-point lead early in the fourth quarter, the 49ers faced a 2nd and 1 at the Rams’ 44-yard line. The following two plays would gain a combined -1 yards, the offense would punt, and the 49ers would go on to lose 20-17. As it turns out, this outcome was not a rare occurrence. In fact, it happened all season long.
Nick Wagoner has a piece on ESPN.com about the struggles of 49ers’ running backs in short-yardage situations last year:
[The 49ers] were perfect in 2021 when close enough for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to execute a sneak but one of the NFL’s least successful teams when handing it off.
The 49ers ranked 29th in the league in third-down run conversion percentage, gaining a first down on just 42.4% of their rushing attempts on third down.
On handoffs to running backs, their conversion rate of 42.1% was last in the NFL on fourth or third-and-3 or fewer.
They averaged 2.3 yards per carry on third-and-2 or fewer yards, which ranked 26th in the NFL.
I can only imagine how much lower that first number would have been without the incredible efforts of Deebo Samuel last year. Obviously, those numbers are pretty bleak, especially with an offensive mind as gifted as Kyle Shanahan.
Part of the reason for the Niners’ struggles in short-yardage could be attributed to defenses loading the box in those situations, knowing that the conservative Kyle Shanahan wasn’t likely to put the ball in Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands, and Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t likely to make them pay deep down the field.
Hopefully, the addition of 6’0”, 220-pound running back Ty Davis-Price will help in this area. Trey Lance could also contribute here as well, of course, but ideally, your running backs are successful enough that your quarterback doesn’t have to risk his health pounding it up the middle in short yardage. Hell, let’s get totally crazy and wonder if even Trey Sermon could carve out a role for himself.
Whether it’s Elijah Mitchell, Trey Lance, Ty Davis-Price, or Trey Sermon, somebody has to step up for the offense. Converting short-yardage situations keeps the offense on schedule, keeps the chains rolling, and keeps the defense resting on the sideline. There are too many talented players, and the team has too good a coaching staff to struggle like that for the second year in a row.
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