A team without a real shot at the playoffs saw even their imaginary chances extinguish Sunday.
The 49ers season had been unofficially over for weeks, but with their ninth loss on Sunday, the end became official.
But don’t think these final games – once unofficially meaningless to the standings and now officially meaningless to the standings – don’t have meaning elsewhere.
No, these games are final auditions.
In fact, you can argue that the auditions have been underway for a few weeks now.
And after Sunday’s 41-33 loss to the Cowboys, some players are not going to land a role with this company next year.
San Francisco has a whopping 25 unrestricted free agents heading into this offseason, with 14 more early rights and restricted free agents. This, on top of all the players – like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo – that have contracts the Niners can purge at little to no cost.
With the salary cap likely to stay flat year-over-year, at best, there is going to be plenty of pruning come early 2021, and the final two games of a lost season might carry outsized importance. Recency bias is a difficult thing to avoid.
Of those unrestricted free agents (restricted free agents and ERFAs carry little risk of exiting and should be treated as if the Niners have team options on all of their contracts), there are four that the Niners cannot afford to let leave.
It starts with left tackle Trent Williams, who has been as good as advertised in his first season with San Francisco. Whether the Niners have Garoppolo, a rookie, or an established NFL veteran at quarterback next year, the Niners are going to want Williams at left tackle – the drop off between him and whomever the Niners could get to replace him would not be worth the cost savings (if there would be any).
Cornerback Jason Verrett, nickel back K’Waun Williams, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are the other three must-retains. Each of those players has proven to be an irreplaceable (at least for the Niners) player – a winner – and so long as the prices aren’t exorbitant, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch would be fools to not have them in red and gold next season.
(I’d love to include defensive end Kerry Hyder in this group, but I have a hard time believing the 49ers will be able to afford him after his tremendous season. Someone is going to want to pay him more than the $ 1.5 million he’s earned this year, and, again, with the salary cap situation, I’m not sure the Niners can pay his fair-market rate.)
There are also some players that the 49ers have already written off for 2021. Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, and others will be thanked for their service and sent away once the season ends on Jan. 3.
But there’s a whole mess of players that aren’t in either category – yet.
Mike McGlinchey might not be a pending free agent, but the Niners have to make a decision on his fifth-year option before the start of next season. After another game full of viral lowlights Sunday, it’s hard to see what the once-stout right tackle could do to have that option, worth an estimated (and fully guaranteed, come 2022) $ 13 million, exercised. But he’ll have two more games to show that he’s “still here”.
Then there’s Richard Sherman. Now, Richard Sherman, the agent, has made it clear to anyone who wants to listen that Richard Sherman, the player, isn’t going to re-sign with the 49ers. I think that’s a negotiation tactic. But after seeing the one-time backbone of the defense be cooked all day Sunday by Cowboys receivers, might the Niners be inclined to call Sherman’s bluff? They’d save some cash and Verrett could move back to the field side, where he outstanding this season – inarguably better than what Sherman has shown late this season.
There’s Jaquiski Tartt. He’s injured and cannot play again this season, but can any of his replacements do well enough to supplant him as the team’s best option at strong safety in 2021? We’re yet to see that happen, but the final two games could prove significant.
We know for certain that Nick Mullens isn’t going to be replacing Garoppolo as the starter anytime soon, but if the Niners give him another couple shots at starting – for whatever reason – could he perform well enough to make up for all of his prior sins this season, and keep his backup job in 2021, no matter who the starter is?
And what will the Niners want to keep working with Ahkello Witherspoon, whose only hallmark in San Francisco has been inefficiency, or Jordan Reed, or Kendrick Bourne?
There’s so much to be decided, and an eighth of a season – two games – isn’t an insignificant sample size, even if the contests themselves are only significant, from a team standpoint, for draft position.