SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the long and boring history of the NFL bye, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team that needed one more than this year's edition of the San Francisco 49ers.
"They need some rest; they need to get away," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "We'll have a couple days just to keep guys loose and moving around a little bit so we don't get too far away from football, but this is as much of a needed rest as a team I've been on."
The needed down time isn't just about getting injured players more time to heal and, potentially, return. Shanahan is hopeful that cornerback Richard Sherman, running backs Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert and receiver Deebo Samuel will be back in time for the team's next game Nov. 29 against the Los Angeles Rams. The week off will also be about giving players who were expected to play supporting roles and have been thrust into starting jobs a chance to recharge.
The reigning NFC champion Niners find themselves at something of a crossroads entering the bye. At 4-6, they remain on the periphery of the NFC playoff chase and, theoretically, could make a push down the stretch if they do indeed get some of those key players back in the lineup. Realistically, a playoff run is a long shot as the Niners would likely need to win out or win five of their remaining six games against a schedule that includes four teams with six or more wins. Of course, that doesn't mean the final month and a half of the season is lacking significance.
A small sample of the questions the 49ers need to answer: What to do with Jimmy Garoppolo and the quarterback position? Who to keep in the secondary where none of the primary cornerbacks are under contract beyond the season? What will it cost to keep Trent Williams and can the Niners find a way to make it happen? What does an extension for star linebacker Fred Warner look like?
What's more, San Francisco will have to answer those questions against the backdrop of an offseason in which the salary cap could dip as low as $175 million, and in which evaluating players following a regular season filled with an avalanche of injuries is increasingly difficult.
Those evaluations can be burdensome in two ways. For one, it's incumbent on the Niners to figure out where the injured players stand, how much they have left in the tank and whether those injuries were a fluke or something with long-term implications. And for players who have remained on the field, it's fair to wonder if they can be judged fully when surrounded by so many moving pieces.
Mike Tannenbaum, ESPN's front-office insider and former NFL general manager, said the biggest test for Shanahan and general manager John Lynch is separating themselves from players they might really like but who might not fit in anymore.
"I think one of the real underrated aspects of team-building is the ability to correctly evaluate your own," Tannenbaum said. "Of all the great things that Bill Belichick does, he really evaluates his own in a very sober, dispassionate way. I think San Francisco is going to have a little bit of that inflection point where some of these players on IR, like where are they in their careers and can they really ask those honest questions? Or will they bring back players next year just because they're brand names?"
With a whopping 40 players scheduled for some form of free agency, and decisions needed on the futures of high-priced players under contract such as Garoppolo, center Weston Richburg and end Dee Ford, the Niners could look drastically different next year.
How different will depend on how the rest of the season goes, where the salary-cap number ends up and what draft capital the 49ers carry into 2021. And even if the final six games don't go as they hope, they will have to make the most of that time to determine who will be a part of the process of getting them back to contender status.
"Trying to do the best you can each week, every practice, I think that goes hand in hand with evaluating guys, what they are now, what they're going to be next week, how they're going to help us finish out this year and what they're going to be in the future," Shanahan said. "My biggest thing, and what I'm getting guys to focus on, is just getting better. That's a cliché you say a lot, you get better or worse, but when guys are down, you better make sure you don't make it worse. ... Hopefully, we'll get a few guys back as this goes through the end. And to me, when guys just worry about that stuff, it helps us know what they are, how they're responding to adversity, how they're going to be going forward. I want guys who are always continuing to improve, whether you're a rookie or you're a 10-year vet. If you're not improving, you're on your way out."