Slow & Steady: Goals the 49ers Can Accomplish By the End of the Season

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

Last year, San Francisco finished their season in storybook fashion. After going 1-11, they won their last five games in a row when Garoppolo took over under center.

This year, as the 49ers enter Week 14 at 2-10, they likely won’t see that same kind of successful outcome. But, the team still needs to finish on a positive note to help build confidence for 2019.

They could do that by setting a series of positive goals to meet by year’s end. And, Lord knows there are many issues the Niners need to work on...

Below, I outline several areas of concern which I think ShanaLynch should set constructive objectives for before punching the clock on the off-season.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

The 49ers’ losing record does not reflect how competitive they have been against good teams throughout the season. But, too many offensive giveaways have negated the good work done on both sides of the football. The result has been several close games the Niners should have won.

The Week 5 game against the Cardinals at home is a perfect example. The Niners outplayed Arizona in almost every offensive category in that game: First downs (33 compared to 10), total yards (447 to 220), yards passing (300 to 164) yards rushing (147 to 56), third down conversions (59 percent to 17 percent) and time of possession (40:12 to 19:48). The defense also played very well. Yet, San Francisco lost to Arizona 28-18 due to five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles), while the Cardinals played a clean game.

Week 6 is another example of how turnovers undermined the Niners chances of winning a close contest. It was that Monday Night Football game at Green Bay where San Francisco almost pulled off the impossible: beating Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field in primetime. Well, they certainly had their chances, but yet again, turning over the football three times (2 fumbles and 1 interception) when the Packers had none, wrecked the big opportunity the Niners had in that game.

And, while it’s never a good time to cough up the football, the Niners seem to have a knack for doing it at the most inopportune times this season. Take Week 4 when San Francisco was trailing the Chargers by two points with less than four minutes remaining. C.J. Beathard threw an interception and Los Angeles ran the clock out to finish what could have been (another) winnable game for the 49ers.

Then again during the Week 8 loss to the Cardinals, San Francisco was within ten yards of field goal range for a game-tying attempt when backup center Erik Magnuson hurled the football over the quarterback’s head. It left Beathard scrambling to recover the loose ball when time ran out. Arizona won it 18-15.

All told, through Week 13, the 49ers are tied for the second most giveaways in the league with 25 (15 interceptions and 10 fumbles). That’s almost three times more than the team with the least takeaways (Seattle, 9).

And, lest we forget about the takeaway problem the 49ers also have. Ball security is one thing, but when the defense can force only two interceptions and three fumbles all season long (good for 5 takeaways - the least in the league), it’s catastrophic.

You do the math. 25 giveaways minus 5 takeaways leaves the 49ers with a minus-20 turnover differential, the worst in the NFL. Last season, they finished minus-3, which means this is an area the Niners have regressed majorly in during year two of the ShanaLynch rebuild.

Obviously, the goal for the Niners to finish out the season is to try and reverse course and minimize all the dreaded turnovers. How about we shoot for… I don’t know… zero until the end of the year? Maybe it’s not realistic, but it’s doable.

Red Zone Scoring

To date, the 49ers have a 44.74 percent team red zone scoring percentage. That comes in 31st in the NFL. Only the Jets have been worse (36.67 percent). There is a slight bump when the Niners play at home (55.56 percent), but on the road, it’s been miserable (35.00 percent). This is another area the team has regressed in. It wasn’t wonderful in 2017, but it was better (47.06 percent).

Also, San Francisco’s individual players did not fare very well in the red zone this season, for the most part. Only tight end George Kittle (66.67 percent catch rate) and receiver Kendrick Bourne (77.78 percent) were above average when targeted inside the 20-yard line. Kittle was targeted 12 times for 8 receptions and had 2 touchdowns for 54 yards. Bourne had 9 targets for 7 receptions and 3 touchdowns for 33 yards. Not bad, but if we compare other players in the league who have received in the red zone, the numbers could be better.

For example, Brandin Cooks (Rams) and Christian McCaffrey (Panthers) were each targeted 13 times this season with 11 receptions. Cooks had 2 touchdowns for a combined 82 yards (84.62 percent). McCaffrey scored 5 times for 69 yards (84.62 percent catch). Inside the 10-yard line, the Panthers hybrid back had 100 percent catch rate (6-6; 3 TDs, 20 yards). Keenan Allen (Chargers) and Jared Cook (Raiders) have also excelled in the red zone, both 83.33 percent when targeted 12 times inside the 20-yard line and better than 67 percent inside the 10.

Niners running back Matt Breida did receive well 4 times with 2 touchdowns and 37 yards which was a 100 percent catch rate. But, as a rusher in the red zone, he only had 2 touchdowns on 21 attempts (33.9 percent). Alfred Morris also had 1 touchdown on 22 attempts (35.5 percent). No other 49ers rushers had higher numbers inside the 20-yard line.

Compare that to Pittsburgh’s James Conner who had 10 touchdowns on 34 attempts (82.9 percent), New York’s Saquon Barkley who scored 5 times on 38 attempts (77.6 percent), Cardinals running back David Johnson with 6 scores on 23 attempts (76.7 percent) and the Rams’ running back Todd Gurley who had 15 touchdowns on 61 attempts (73.5 percent).

Bottom line: The 49ers are really lacking when trying to score in the red zone. If they want to compete on a higher level, they have to see a pick-up in efficiency in this area. Granted, franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went out for the season in Week 3, which didn’t help. But, John Lynch has to seriously consider adding higher quality talent in the receiving corps.

In the meantime, San Francisco should aim to reach a higher red zone percentage in the last four games. Using the New York Giants as an example, in their last three wins, their red zone conversion rate has risen from 44 percent to 70 percent. They’ve played smarter football and eliminated mistakes like costly turnovers.

Durability and Player Health

Player health is an issue the 49ers need to address on a larger scale in the off-season where big changes can (and should) be made. But, as the 2017 season is winding down, the 49ers still need to squeeze out playing time from a very banged-up locker room. How will the trainers do this? Probably with a lot of luck, praying and tender loving care.

Still, major injuries to important players have been prevalent for this team two years in a row. Progress cannot be made while the roster is in total flux all the time. Is there an overall conditioning issue with this team? Are the trainers doing everything they can to help avoid injuries? Are the players who are picked for this team just not durable? Enough is enough. ShanaLynch needs to do something about this now.

Beyond just helping players prevent injuries using basic tools, perhaps the organization should look into proprietary software tools that use analytics to optimize performance. Are they already doing this? If not, the organization needs to get on this, pronto.

The English Premier League, Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Dolphins are among those using performance improvement techniques via software that gathers data from a variety of sources to try and identify potential problems with an athlete before they start. The leading company in this area is Kitman Labs, founded in Ireland in 2012. The Dolphins have already felt the benefits of their help when the team reduced injuries for the 2015 season by 75 percent.

San Francisco’s goal for the rest of the season: Get on the phone with Kitman Labs and figure out a solution for the players to be healthier and more durable in the future.

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