Grant Cohn: A challenge for remainder of 49ers' season
I challenge you, 49ers.
I challenge every member of your organization to start improving after the bye week.
You have six games left. I challenge you to make the most of them. Since Kyle Shanahan became the head coach in 2017, you have played 26 games and not improved as a team. You lose every week unless Jimmy Garoppolo plays, or you face an opponent that quit on its head coach and doesn't want to compete.
I challenge you to end that trend between now and Week 17.
I'm calling you out one by one, starting with your head coach.
1. I challenge Shanahan to improve his offense in the red zone and during the fourth quarter.
You're the main reason the offense can't finish, Kyle.
You don't know how to win a game unless it's a blowout. Your record is 0-9 in games decided by four points or fewer when Garoppolo doesn't play.
You coach well enough for the first three quarters. That's when your offense gains a whopping 6.37 yards per play. But during the fourth quarter, it falls apart, gains only 3.75 yards per play. That's on you.
I recently asked why you struggle closing out opponents, and you said you need 'closers,' meaning better players.
Wrong. You have a closer. You just don't know how to use him during crunch time.
Tight end George Kittle is your closer. He is one of the best tight ends in the NFL. He's having an All-Pro season. But you have called only 11 passes for him during the fourth quarter — roughly one per game. You don't let him close.
Instead, you call passes for backup wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor. It makes no sense. Each has 16 fourth-quarter targets. That's 32 combined, compared to Kittle's 11. That's on you, Kyle. It's your job to get Kittle the ball with the game on the line.
Your red-zone offense has gotten worse, too. In 2017, the offense converted red-zone trips into touchdowns 47.1 percent of time. This season, the offense has converted only 46.9 percent of the time.
Don't blame the regression on Garoppolo's injury. During his eight starts, the offense converted only 44.4 percent of the time in the red zone. He brought out the worst in you as a red-zone play-caller.
You need to focus on running the ball more effectively. In 2017, your offense gained 2.3 yards per carry in the red zone. This season, it averages 1.6 yards per carry in the red zone. The league average is 2.6.
Find a solution, Kyle.
2. I challenge Robert Saleh to improve his defense when the 49ers lead with fewer than four minutes left.
You're the main reason the defense can't finish, Robert.
Your defense plays well most of the time. It currently ranks 10th out of 32 teams in fewest yards allowed. But when the 49ers have a lead during the final four minutes of a game, your defense disappears. Suddenly, it gives up 5.9 yards per play and allows an average passer rating of 107.9.
I blame you, Robert.
You can't just call vanilla coverages late in the fourth quarter and allow the opponent to expose your weakest link, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. Teams always put their best receiver on Witherspoon during crunch time. He's everyone's target. You have to protect him, Robert. Every other defensive coordinator in the NFL would.
You should call 'cheat coverages' to close out the game.
Instead of standard Cover 1, which is man to man with a safety in the middle of the field, cheat the safety way over to Witherspoon's side and force the quarterback to throw somewhere else.
Instead of standard Cover 3, which is three deep zone defenders and four shallow zone defenders, use a hybrid Cover 3. Make everyone play zone, while Witherspoon locks his receiver man to man. This would take the pressure off him.
These adjustments will take you 10 minutes to make, Robert.
3. I challenge Richard Hightower to improve the special teams.
What in the world do you do during the week, Richard?
You're the special teams coordinator, and you have no imagination. Your players haven't a faked a punt, blocked a punt, faked a field goal, blocked a field goal, returned a punt for a touchdown or returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
They have not succeeded in shortening the field for the offense or lengthening the field for the defense.
Your unit's longest punt return of the season has been just 23 yards. Your unit ranks 21st out of 32 teams in yards per punt return allowed, and 27th in yards per kickoff return allowed. You're failing in every way.
Show something, Richard. Give the 49ers a reason not to fire you at the end of the season.
4. I challenge John Lynch to insist the coaching staff plays defensive lineman Jullian Taylor.
Other than Kittle, your draft picks haven't been so good, John. The organization could decide you're the problem. And you may be it.
But before you take the blame, force the coaching staff to play rookie defensive tackle Jullian Taylor. You drafted him in the seventh round, and he played well with the starters during the preseason.
So far, he hasn't played one snap during the regular season.
Call Shanahan and Saleh into your office and instruct them to play Taylor instead of Arik Armstead. Enough of Armstead. He's had four seasons to establish himself, and can't. Give Taylor a shot. You're wasting his rookie season.
5. I challenge the 49ers to win two more games.
That's all. Just two games. That's two wins in six games. That's four wins total. That's not much to ask.
Andy Reid could win four games with this team. So could Sean McVay. So could lots of coaches. Even without Garoppolo.
No more excuses. You have two upcoming games against teams who probably will fire their head coaches after the season — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Denver Broncos. Beat them. Or, beat one, and upset someone else, like the Seattle Seahawks.
Doesn't matter. Just win two more games.
I freaking dare you.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and pressdemocrat.com in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.