Despite an historically poor field of competition in the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers were unable to prove their young team president right when he predicted even after an 0-5 start that the 49ers would win the 2010 NFC West title.
They had a chance to do so with a record as paltry as 7-9, and shockingly stayed in realistic contention until losing to the St. Louis Rams in Week 16. But in the end, a thoroughly confusing quarterback carousel coupled with other grossly underperforming units led to the eighth straight season of playoff-free 49ers football and the much-anticipated, much-demanded release of Mike Singletary as head coach.
Jed York seems intent on a major overhaul to return the 49ers to a posture of perennial contention, but before they can do any of that, the 49ers have a date with the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 in which the team and interim head coach Jim Tomsula can learn a lot about the future of the team.
It is highly unlikely that the 2011 season will even occur, but how can the 49ers make the most out of yet another Week 17 game with absolutely no short term ramifications? How can they do the most good in building for 2012?
The answer is surprisingly simple. With nothing to lose, nothing should be held back.
Jim Tomsula is an unlikely choice for head coach in this league, which should clearly suggest that the selection reflects a strong desire by Jed York to eliminate most or all of the coaching staff after the final gun sounds next week. This should mean—not being in a real position to audition for a permanent job—Tomsula should have little hesitation in putting a line-up together that could help the 49ers learn the most about what they have.
Practice squad quarterback Nate Davis should start. Both the 49ers and Cardinals are out of the playoffs, but playing time in such a game will give the team a better sense of Davis's skills at true game speed than the limited reps he has seen in preseason action.
Brian Westbrook should watch most of the game from the sideline, or be used as a decoy or blocker. Rookie Anthony Dixon should shoulder the majority of the carries to help the team assess just how far he has progressed in both running skills and pass blocking.
Up to this point, Dixon has been used sparingly and only in formations and situations which do not play strongly to skill sets. Letting him start and carry to the majority of the runs could help determine whether Dixon's preseason production was simply a product of vanilla defense, or a sign of better things to come.
Why has rookie wide receiver Kyle Williams been virtually unused this year? Even with the departure of Jason Hill and a season-ending injury to Dominique Zeigler, Williams has remained sidelined both in the return game and on offense.
Ted Ginn Jr. is great, as evidenced by his touchdown return against the Rams, but the 49ers largely know what they have in him. Inserting Kyle Williams could help the 49ers determine if he is the dynamic return and slot receiving threat they thought they were getting when they drafted him, rather than letting the issue continue to linger by holding him on the sidelines.
What should be the top priority for Week 17?
Defensively, the 49ers have been more adventurous in learning about their young players. NaVorro Bowman, Phillip Adams, and Taylor Mays have all seen significant playing time. Adams was injured in the loss to the Rams, but the rest of the young defensive options should see as much time as possible in the season finale.
Ultimately, one game against another non-playoff team is not the optimal scenario to gauge a player's worth, but it is what the 49ers are left with. Clouded hopes of making the playoffs combined with desperation from Coach Sing in trying to save his job kept the 49ers from using much of the preceding weeks to make these assessments.
But 60 minutes is a long time in the world of football, and valuable information can still be gained, if the team is truly inclined to do so.
Jim Tomsula and his coaching staff should do what's best for the team, and treat Week 17 as an extra preseason game for 2011 or more likely 2012. Winning a sixth game is not nearly as important as assessing personnel. Hopefully Tomsula agrees.
Keep the faith!