Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks was no moral victory. Moral victories don’t exist in professional sports. No one cares the Niners played tough against a good team on the road or that the game was close until the end. A loss is always a loss is always a loss.
But you must admit, the defense played well. And the running game was effective. And the special teams were good, too. Those three gave the Niners a chance to win. If the passing game had been even slightly better than dreadful, the Niners could have beaten the Seahawks.
The same principle will hold true for Thursday night’s game against the Rams. The Niners can win if their passing game is merely competent. It doesn’t have to flourish. Forget flourish. The goal is competent.
Five things the Niners must do to achieve an adequate passing game against the Rams.
1. Find a play that works.
Kyle Shanahan still hasn’t done that. Through two games, he hasn’t established one pass play he knows his players can execute.
Surely, they have to be good at something. He has to figure out what that something is.
When Bill Walsh was stuck, he would call “22 Z In.” Basically, that was a 12-yard hook route to Jerry Rice — Rice would run 12 yards up field, then stop and turn back toward the quarterback. Joe Montana also had the option to throw a swing pass to Roger Craig in the flat or a short pass to Brent Jones over the middle if Rice wasn’t open. Three easy completions.
Of course, Shanahan doesn’t have Rice, Montana, Craig or Jones. But, Walsh didn’t have them either in 1979, his first year as the 49ers head coach. Walsh had Steve DeBerg, who wasn’t Walsh’s quarterback of the future. Still, his offense ranked third in the NFL in passing yards that season.
What pass concepts will Shanahan establish Thursday night?
He should have his own encyclopedia of plays that work even with limited talent. When he coached the Redskins offense in 2011 and his quarterback was Rex Grossman, Shanahan had plays that were successful. His offense ranked 14th in passing yards per game.
When he coached the Browns offense in 2014 and his quarterback was Brian Hoyer, Shanahan had plays that were successful. His offense ranked 20th in passing yards per game.
Shanahan’s current offense ranks 31st in passing yards per game. That’s unacceptable. He’s better than that.
2. Build Brian Hoyer’s confidence.
Hoyer has become the subject of ridicule the past two games. That’s not fair.
He was excellent last season. He threw six touchdown passes and zero interceptions in five starts, and he passed for more than 300 yards four times. In his fifth start, he broke his arm and left the game early.
What was Bears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains doing that allowed Hoyer to be so successful? Shanahan needs to study that offense, then needs to design plays Hoyer can handle. Give him easy completions. Build his confidence. Build momentum for the offense.
Shanahan chose to bring Hoyer to the 49ers — Hoyer wasn’t forced upon him. Hoyer is his guy. Shanahan has to find a way to make things work with him.
3. Throw to Pierre Garcon early and often.
The best way to lay the foundation for the passing game is to pass to the most reliable pass catcher — Pierre Garcon.
Last game, the 49ers’ first pass went to Marquise Goodwin, who is just as likely to drop the ball as to catch it. The Niners didn’t throw to Garcon until halfway through the second quarter.
That’s backward. The Niners should throw to Garcon first on Thursday, and then keep throwing to him. Use him to get the flow of the passing game going. Trust him to get open and make the catch, even if the catch gains just 5 yards. Don’t worry about yards. Don’t worry about running after the catch. Just worry about completing passes.
If Hoyer completes 13 of 20 passes — 65 percent — the 49ers can beat the Rams.
4. Throw at least one deep pass.
Hoyer doesn’t have to throw 10 deep passes Thursday night. He doesn’t have to go bombs away. But he has to throw at least one pass longer than 20 yards downfield. One deep pass will keep the defense from crowding the line of scrimmage and open up short passes. Hoyer threw no deep passes against the Seahawks.
I asked Shanahan why Hoyer didn’t throw any deep passes. Asked if that was the game plan. Shanahan said no, he called a couple of shots early, but the pass protection didn’t hold up.
Shanahan needs to find the right protection to take a shot against the Rams. He can use eight blockers if he has to, and send just two receivers into the pattern.
If Hoyer throws nothing but short passes in front of the Rams defense all game, they will squeeze and smother those throws. They’ll have no fear of Hoyer throwing over the top of them.
The Niners can’t always throw short and never throw deep. They can’t be one-dimensional. Can’t be scared to take a shot. Opponents can smell timidity. It smells like death.
5. Change the game plan for third down.
Another reason the 49ers need to take a shot: They can’t convert third downs at a respectable rate. They have the worst third-down offense in the entire league.
They have faced 23 third downs and converted only four. That’s 17.4 percent. The Niners have to come up with something different.
Against the Seahawks, Shanahan called a lot of slant-rub routes. That’s when one receiver runs a quick slant, and another receiver screens off the corner who’s supposed to be covering the receiver running the slant.
That’s an effective play on third-and-3 or third-and-4, because it picks up about 4 yards. Shanahan was calling it on third-and-8 and third-and-9 when it had virtually no chance for success.
Shanahan either has to call longer passes on third down, or make sure his offense avoids third-and-long altogether.
If he calls a pass on first down, he should make sure the pass can get the offense to second-and-6 or shorter. Then, he has to call a run on second down to get the offense to third-and-short.
Shanahan knows this. He’s a good offensive coach, even though he coached poorly the first two weeks of the season. I expect he will rebound Thursday night. I expect he’ll follow this basic blueprint and the 49ers will win 16-13.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.