Get ready in the red zone

Here is my Friday column.

The 49ers’ biggest need this offseason is not a player.

Not a wide receiver. Not a cornerback. Not a safety.

Talent isn’t the Niners’ problem – they might have the most talented team in the league. Sure, they could use a speed wide receiver, but they need something else. If they had what they needed, they would be Super Bowl champions already. They would have beaten the Ravens last season, and they would have beaten the Seahawks for the NFC championship this season, and they’d be preparing for this year’s Super Bowl.

The 49ers need Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman to improve their game management and play calling in the red zone, especially during the last few seconds of the game. This is called situational football. All great coaches are masters of it. Tom Brady continually says coaching situational football is one of Bill Belichick’s strongest skills. And you know that Bill Walsh was brilliant at situational football. All you need to think about is “The Catch.”

Two seasons in a row, Harbaugh seemed to forget he could use timeouts when his season was on the line. In the last Super Bowl, the Ravens sent an all-out blitz on fourth-and-goal. Harbaugh could have called his last timeout and Roman could have called a good play. It was the last play of the game. What were they saving a timeout for? Harbaugh didn’t call it, and Kaepernick chucked a prayer to Crabtree and the 49ers lost.

On the final drive of this season’s NFC championship game, Vernon Davis caught an 11-yard pass and got tackled at the Seahawks’ 18 with 50 seconds left. Harbaugh had two timeouts. He should have called one right then, right when Davis got tackled. Harbaugh, Roman and Kaepernick could have figured out a clever set of plays to methodically work the ball into the end zone and win the game. Harbaugh could have said to Kaepernick, “Make sure you don’t just chuck it up to Crabtree like you did in the Super Bowl.”

Harbaugh didn’t call timeout. He let it ride. Go for it, guys.

The offense ran to the line of scrimmage, no huddle, Kaepernick frantically yelling instructions over Seattle’s berserk crowd. Kaepernick dropped back and chucked it up to Crabtree, just like last season, and the 49ers’ season ended in the red zone, just like last season.

Last offseason, the 49ers hired former head coach Eric Mangini as an offensive assistant. The man has no offensive background – he was a defensive coach before becoming a head coach. He probably can’t help the 49ers’ red-zone offense. If he can’t even improve the 49ers’ clock management, the Niners need another offensive assistant.

The 49ers need coaching help. Someone needs to tutor them in situational football. What to do from the opponents’ 20-yard line to the 12. What to do from the opponents’ 11 to the 3. What to do on third-and-goal inside the 3. You get the point.

Their red-zone offense fell apart the second half of this season. When Crabtree returned Week 13, the Niners should have gotten better in the red zone, but they got much worse.

The final eight games of the season including the playoffs, the 49ers scored touchdowns on just 42 percent of their red-zone trips. If they had averaged 42 percent over the entire season, they would have ranked dead last in the league.

Inside the opponents’ 10-yard line, Kaepernick was the second-worst passer in the league this season. His quarterback rating was 54 in that part of the field. Even Terrelle Pryor wasn’t that bad inside the opponents’ 10.

The 49ers make games closer than they need to be.

The Seahawks fumbled on the first play of the NFC championship game, gave the 49ers the ball at Seattle’s 15-yard line. Greg Roman called a run up the middle on first down, a 2-yard pass to Crabtree on second down and a quarterback draw on third down. The Seahawks were ready for that stuff. The 49ers did not get a first down. They had to kick a field goal. No creativity. No understanding of situational football. No plays ready to go, ready to score a touchdown for that situation.

If the 49ers had scored a touchdown instead of taking the field goal, the game would have been different. The Niners may have beaten the Seahawks.

Harbaugh and Roman must make a more concerted effort to practice situational football – especially red zone offense, and end-of-the-game clock management. They have to devote significant time to those areas during OTAs, minicamp, training camp and even practices during the season. However much time they devoted to situational football in the past clearly was not enough.

If the 49ers don’t improve their red-zone offense and clock management, if the Niners blow a third consecutive Super Bowl season the same way they blew the past two, their biggest need next offseason will be finding new coaches.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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