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Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

49ers’ Kyle Shanahan discusses the “chain reaction” of resting players in Sunday’s regular season finale

Marc Adams
Jan 6, 2024 at 10:14 AM--

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After losing on the road, in the NFC Championship Game, the past two seasons, the San Francisco 49ers worked hard to earn the top seed in the NFC. In doing so, they were awarded home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and a first-round bye, which means they should be more rested than their NFC opponents. It also means they only have to play two games to get to the Super Bowl, instead of three.

But last week, when the 49ers clinched the number-one seed before the final week of the regular season, it essentially gave them a two-week bye. That meant head coach Kyle Shanahan could rest some of his players during the finale against the Los Angeles Rams, should he decide to do so. But that opportunity came with another set of questions, namely, is there such a thing as too much rest? And if you rest players, how does that affect those who still have to play the game?

On Friday, Greg Papa sat down with Shanahan, on the latest episode of NBC Sports Bay Area's "49ers Game Plan," and discussed the balance between resting players to protect them from injury, and playing players to keep them sharp for the postseason. Papa asked Shanahan how he handles this football game, considering you don't want your players to be off multiple weeks. Papa asked, "I go back to the game last year, the last game of the year against Arizona on January 8th. You got a nice lead and then at some point, you started pulling guys out. Would you like the starters to get a little taste early in the game and then at some point take them off the field?"

"Yeah, definitely," Shanahan answered. "And even in that game, I mean, things could change. So we had to start it out that way. It wasn't just set in stone in every aspect, and it is set in stone in every aspect this time, but it's just, it's different three weeks before we play a game. And also with how many guys we got banged up, I mean, the guys we have to take care of are the guys that are hurt. And right now we got about seven of them.

"There's technically six, could be seven. We'll see how this next day goes, but we can't sit those guys because we have all these injured guys. So you got guys up. I'll try to get guys out and be safe, definitely. But what you have to be careful of is those other guys that are up, they're going to be playing in our playoff game, too. And if you rest, you're down all these safeties and now you want to rest another safety and, well, who's playing all that stuff? You want to do the same thing at receiver? Well, receivers can go.

"We want to do it at running back. Christian [McCaffrey] can go. We have two more running backs on our roster. Man. I want JP [Jordan Mason] and Elijah [Mitchell] for the playoffs, too. They're a big part. But if I rest them, then JP or Elijah's got to do the whole game just by themselves. What if we rest Deebo [Samuel] and [Brandon] Aiyuk? Hell yeah, we want to rest them. Now, Jauan [Jennings] and Ray-Ray [McCloud] and Ronnie [Bell]—three receivers for an entire game can be very difficult.

"And why don't you use an extra tight end? Well, I'd also like to rest [George] Kittle. And so we got two tight ends left. And there's two tight ends on the field a lot at one time. Well, especially if we ever want to rest Juice [Kyle Juszczyk], because then you don't have a fullback, so it's kind of a chain reaction."

Shanahan's dilemma is that, as he mentioned, the 49ers have multiple injured players who cannot or should not be playing in this game. When you have several players out, it makes it difficult to sit other players because you risk injuries to those who are playing. For example, the 49ers' two starting safeties, Ji'Ayir Brown and Tashaun Gipson, are both injured and cannot play in Sunday's season finale. That means Isaiah Oliver will have to play safety, meaning he can't help out at corner, so there may be a corner that you'd like to rest but now you can't.

Shanahan continued, "And you get the same thing at corners, you get the same thing at safety, you get the same thing at D-line. Yeah, I don't want Bosa and Hargrave and some of those guys to go, but I also don't want [Javon] Kinlaw and Kevin [Givens] to play 60 straight plays. We need them, too.

"So it all works hand in hand and you got to see how the game goes. It is nicer to see that they kind of are set at the six or seven. So I got to see how that goes. I'm glad that they're not having to play for a ton, but I got to be smart with our guys. I got to kind of play it out, see how it goes. And I expect us to come out. I expect our team to be prepared to play the whole game and hopefully, I can call them off sooner than later."

It's yet another challenging decision the head coach of an NFL team must make. But Shanahan is assuredly glad to have the difficult decision to make, as opposed to the past two seasons when the 49ers had no bye week leading into the playoffs. Now San Francisco has its best chance to get back to the Super Bowl since 2019. All they have to do now is play their game and see how things unfold.

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