© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — One week ago, a day after the 49ers squandered a lead in the final minute of their 27-23 loss to the New York Giants, Kyle Shanahan challenged his team. He told his players to use the upcoming bye week to reflect on their 2-8 start, envision a strong finish, and decide whether they want to be part of the future plans.
On Monday, Shanahan and his team reconvened. He talked about his thoughts throughout the bye week. In the opening days, he was frustrated. Then his emotions leveled out. Once the Week-11 games rolled around, however, he was reminded of San Francisco’s trying season.
“On Sunday, we are watching football, and it’s hard not to start to get frustrated again to watch these teams and see what they are playing for,” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said Monday. “It was good to hear him say that because I feel the same way.”
The roller coaster that has been the 49ers season has featured their starting quarterback and running back suffer season-ending knee injuries, a six-game losing streak, and a recurring feeling of falling just short. The 49ers have held second-half leads in six of their 10 games.
Shanahan is trying to strike the balance between urgency and patience. He has overhauled the roster from the one he inherited, retaining just 12 players from the 2016 squad. He expects to win, but he needs the right guys, which is why he views the final six games as a tryout of sorts for many players.
“Do they want to solidify themselves as a starter or backup?” Shanahan said last Monday. “Do they want to be a part of it here? Do they want to be one of the answers or a solution to what we are going through?”
Shanahan spread a similar message to his team Monday morning.
“The way he put it is, he wants to see who is coming with us,” Juszczyk said. “We are trying to find the right guys that are going to continue down this path with us.”
Fortunately for the 49ers, they already have the template for a successful finish.
Last year, they started with an 0-9 record, which included five consecutive losses by three or fewer points. Then Jimmy Garoppolo was traded to the 49ers, and everything changed. They cruised to a 5-0 finish under Garoppolo, who imbued life and confidence into a team now facing similar frustrations one year later.
“You can kind of take that as an example for these next six weeks, and be like, ‘Dang, look how well we finished last year. Why can’t we do that this year?” Juszczyk said. “I just think that’s something we are trying to replicate.”
But a signing of Garoppolo’s magnitude is no longer possible, with the trade deadline having passed. The 49ers will need to find solutions internally. So far, that has not come easy.
“Things did feel different at the end of last season,” Juszczyk said. “There was a swagger about this team. Everyone had confidence and things were clicking. We didn’t come back that way. And it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what made it that way, but it’s something we all kind of look in the mirror, we had a chance to over the bye, look in the mirror and decide how we want to finish the season.”
If the season ended today, the 49ers would have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Their 2-8 records ties with the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders for the worst in the league. The 49ers would receive the top overall pick because their strength of schedule is the weakest of the three teams.
Many 49ers fans have deemed the remaining six games as pointless and looked ahead to a potential top overall pick. The 49ers may be missing a dynamic edge rusher, and the upcoming draft is replete with them. But many of San Francisco’s persistent issues — miscommunication, poor fourth-quarter offensive execution, and missed tackles — won’t magically vanish by adding one piece. The final six games will provide much-needed repetition for San Francisco’s 23 rookies and second-year players.
The Rams and Bears are the only teams with winning records remaining on the 49ers’ schedule. They have a chance to enter the offseason on a positive note, just as they did one year ago. Their focus on winning remains, even if it comes at the expense of the top overall draft pick.
“If you are able to tank, I don’t think you belong in this league,” Juszczyk said. “There’s a certain mentality that you have to have to be able to last in this league. You have to learn how to win, and that’s something that we are continuing to do.”