With plenty to prove, 49ers will fight over final six games

Even with the playoffs out of reach, Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers say they have ample reason to keep playing hard. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and his team parted ways for last week's bye, Shanahan had a message that he wanted his players to consider before returning for the final six games.

"I want them to really reflect on the season so far and what they want coming back in these six games," Shanahan said. "We've got six games coming back. Lot of football to play and a lot of important football to play. I want them to sit there and really think of what their goals are for the rest of the [season]. Do they want to solidify themselves as a starter, a backup? 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're going through? And really, when they think about all that and they understand it all and what they want, which I'm sure they all have high aspirations, I want their actions to come back and show that."

Upon returning to the SAP training center on Monday, Shanahan had apparently gone through his own period of reflection. As he stood before the team Monday morning, he shared what that reflection wrought. According to fullback Kyle Juszczyk, Shanahan recounted that he spent part of the time away really frustrated about the team's 2-8 record through 10 games. He then transitioned to feeling better about it before getting frustrated again when he was watching other games on Sunday.

"I just don't think it's in us. If you're able to tank, I just don't think you belong in this league." Kyle Juszczyk

The gamut of emotions wasn't exclusive to Shanahan.

"It's hard to just not start getting frustrated about it again when you watch these teams and see what they're playing for, but it was good to hear him say that because I felt the same way," Juszczyk said. "Then he said he started to think about how the picture was starting to clear up for him, and we know what we're looking for in these last couple games. He knows where we're going and the way he put it is he wants to see who is coming with us. We're trying to find the right guys who are going to continue on this path with us."

The Philadelphia 76ers' "Process" (along with the success of the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs) has helped normalize the concept of tanking. Some Niners fans have taken to calling the team's latest lost season the "elegant tank," the idea being that the team is losing while continuing to play hard and actively trying to win.

In other NFL locales, perhaps the "T"-word might be appropriate, but not with the Niners.

"I just don't think it's in us," Juszczyk said. "If you're able to tank, I just don't think you belong in this league. Because there's just a certain mentality that you have to have to be able to last in this league, and you have to learn how to win, and that's something that we're continuing to do."

Indeed, while a cursory glance at the Niners' record would indicate a team that is far from being competitive, the record doesn't tell the whole story. This season, the Niners have played six games decided by one possession, including five decided by four points or fewer. But they have struggled to close games out, going 1-5 in those close contests.

In other words, while the 49ers have struggled to win, they have consistently made life difficult for opponents. Lack of effort, like what the Oakland Raiders put on the field against the Niners a couple weeks ago, has not been an issue in San Francisco.

Credit Shanahan and his staff for keeping the team engaged and understanding what's at stake long-term, something that could have been particularly difficult this season, given that it's the second consecutive season in which questions about the future have come up as early as October.

"Obviously, the leadership, the coaching, they're staying positive, they're staying the course," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "There's no finger-pointing. There's no 'It's this guy's fault' or 'It's this guy's fault.' It's a collective effort, and guys understand that. We've had some pretty devastating losses, close, where we felt like we should have won those games, and you have just got to move forward. And guys understand that."

As Shanahan points out, the Niners' roster is full of players who know they need to prove themselves, or they might not have jobs moving forward. The Niners' final six games will mean nothing in terms of the postseason, but they will go a long way in shaping the future of the franchise.

Heading toward their third offseason together, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have a good idea of where upgrades are needed. Shanahan has already spoken at length about the need to add "closers," players who can finish games that are there for the taking. Lynch has acknowledged the need for edge rushers, and other spots such as corner, safety and receiver appear to be in the crosshairs.

But the extent of those needs can be altered over the final six weeks, and others could pop up if certain players don't take a step in the right direction. Shanahan and his staff are demanding more from every player, and those who respond will be in position to stay.

"My goal is to get our guys to play the best they possibly can," Shanahan said. "Whoever is in our building, to get them to play the best they can. I believe that we can get more out of our guys. I believe that's up to myself, I believe that's up to coaches, and I believe it's up to the players. I think there are guys that are doing some good things. But even the guys who are doing the best, I still think there's even more. I think George Kittle has had a helluva year. I think he could improve a lot more. I think [Matt] Breida has done some good things. He can get better. I think [DeForest] Buck[ner] can get better. [Richard Sherman] Sherm can get better. From all the top guys I'm mentioning to the bottom guys, we all can get better, coaches included."