5 New Year's Resolutions for the San Francisco 49ers
The New Year is a great chance for rebirth and change; you can better yourself with a fresh start. While many Americans will look to lose weight or save money, the San Francisco 49ers should look to set a few goals of their own in 2014.
After New Year's Day, the NFL playoffs will be in full swing, with the 49ers most likely hitting the road as a wild-card entrant to the tournament. With cold and harsh conditions on the horizon in Philadelphia, Chicago and Green Bay, the 49ers can hardly afford to make many unforced mistakes and move on.
San Francisco is riding high on a five-game winning streak, but the bubble can burst on one play when the slates clear for the postseason. While one can argue that the 49ers are one of the hottest teams in football, the pendulum can swing in no time at all.
If they hope to make a deep run in the unfamiliar underdog role, these five resolutions could put the finishing touches on an already dangerous squad. Unlike most New Year's resolutions, however, the 49ers should commit to these ideals for the long haul.
No. 5: Get Healthy
It's no secret that this year's 49ers team has been ravaged by injuries from the start. Before the season even began, the team lost cornerback Chris Culliver for the season and star receiver Michael Crabtree until Week 13.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham also missed a large portion of the season as he recovered from an ACL tear, while nose tackle Ian Williams was lost for the season in Week 2.
The 49ers have finally brought Crabtree and Manningham back into the fold, but Manningham is currently back on the injury report with knee issues. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle notes, the wideout missed last week's game with a knee injury and could be struggling with his recovery.
San Francisco has dodged a few bullets with tackle Joe Staley, and guard Mike Iupati also missed four games with a knee injury. The current injury report also lists key contributors such as cornerback Tarell Brown, defensive tackle Justin Smith and running back Frank Gore.
Injuries are a part of the game in football, but the 49ers have already shouldered a heavy load. Anything short of a healthy roster will have a hard time reaching New Jersey in February.
No. 4: Be Smart with Challenges
While challenges can be tough to judge with the subjectivity involved, it's also important for a coach to be smart with the two that he has. Even the best video review from upstairs isn't guaranteed to predict what the officials will see, so timing and importance are critical factors to consider.
A great example of this was seen in the Week 11 loss to the New Orleans Saints, when coach Jim Harbaugh found himself out of challenges midway through the second quarter.
He unsuccessfully challenged both an illegal forward-pass ruling and a bobbled catch early during that contest. As Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News points out, Harbaugh was critical of his decision-making after the game, regardless of his thoughts on the results.
While these challenges didn't decide the game, this could be a tough situation to put the team in for an elimination game. Going forward, it's a safe bet that Harbaugh will think twice about a risky or trivial challenge in the early going.
No. 3: Respect a Trailing Opponent
While NaVorro Bowman's pick-six electrified the crowd in last weekend's Candlestick Park finale, it also should serve as a reminder for how easily the 49ers could have lost the game. For Bowman to take his interception 89 yards for the score, the Atlanta Falcons had to have already been in great position for a score of their own.
The 49ers have taken the foot off the pedal on more than one occasion in the past three seasons, which won't fly against a quality opponent. While the team can be commended for gutting out a few victories this season, it's also important to play 60 minutes of quality football, no matter the opponent or scenario.
San Francisco also looked outright sluggish in the early going against Atlanta before turning things around in the second half, only to let Atlanta back within three points with two minutes remaining.
The bottom line is that the 49ers can't play up or down to the level of their opponents come playoff time. The competition is too strong, and top quarterbacks such as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Seattle's Russell Wilson are tough to stop once they get hot.
No matter how large the lead, San Francisco has to do a better job of consistently closing out and playing its own brand of football throughout.
No. 2: Manage the Play Clock
Unfortunately, this is not a new issue for the 49ers.
Brian Burke of Deadspin is just one of many writers to criticize the 49ers' misuse of timeouts in last season's Super Bowl. There's even a Reddit thread that is dedicated to praising the team for not wasting timeouts in last week's win over the Falcons.
While the 49ers were efficient against Atlanta in terms of getting lined up and getting plays off on time, this should be an afterthought heading into Week 17. Teams are allowed 40 seconds on the play clock for a reason, but it's not good to see the clock get below five on a regular basis.
Timeouts can be valuable late in a close playoff game, which should put a large emphasis on getting the plays in quicker. The entire process must tighten up, from offensive coordinator Greg Roman selecting the play to quarterback Colin Kaepernick executing his pre-snap reads.
The 49ers learned the hard way that wasted timeouts can doom them at the worst time. To avoid another shot in the foot, the entire offense needs to pick up the pace for the good of the team.
No. 1: Open Up the Playbook
As Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com reported after the Week 11 loss to New Orleans, offensive coordinator Greg Roman still sees big things to come in this offensive scheme.
“I think those opportunities are out there and the roof is going to blow off," Roman said, according to Maiocco. "It’s going to pop. It’s coming.”
Bleacher Report's Dylan DeSimone has written extensively about the 49ers' avoidance of screen passes and their misuse of running back LaMichael James. The 49ers rank 31st in passing offense, which opens Kaepernick up to a hefty load of criticism in his first full season as a starter.
While Roman hasn't given 49ers fans a whole lot to be excited about so far this season, a certain amount of faith must be placed in Roman and Harbaugh to turn up the dial when it counts. Not only is there no other real choice, but history will back this theory up as well.
From Alex Smith's QB Sweep and "The Vernon Post" in 2012 to the read-option breakout in 2013, the 49ers have saved the best for last in the last two playoff runs. While the offense has been frustrating to watch at times this season, San Francisco may have a few tricks left up its sleeve for the postseason.
After all, if Roman thinks this offense is going to "pop," there's no better time to get it done than in the playoffs.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more on the 49ers or the NFL in general, reach out on Twitter at @smeaton49.