Almost doesn't count in anything other than a game of horseshoes. So yes, while the San Francisco 49ers almost did something special after clawing their way into the playoffs at the expense of the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18, it was those very same Rams who avenged themselves by finally defeating the 49ers -- in the NFC Championship Game, no less. And the fashion in which the Niners saw their season come to an end will forever be etched into the cloth of the club, considering it was largely due to head coach Kyle Shanahan putting all of his chips on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
With an offseason full of questions ahead of them, the good news is the 49ers are presumably not in rebuild mode, seeing as they already have their answer at quarterback in Trey Lance. That's assuming the club doesn't take a weird turn somewhere, but the question/resolution at QB is only part of what went wrong in 2021.
And if they're to make it to the Super Bowl next time around, here's what they have to do:
Lance the boil
It's inevitable at this point, but it still needs to be said until it becomes a reality: it's time to unleash Trey Lance. Truth be told, the time had long arrived, but head coach Kyle Shanahan instead opted to let the Jimmy Garoppolo story play itself out, and so it did, to the tune of a season-ending interception against the Rams in a conference championship game that saw him complete only 16 of 30 pass attempts for a pedestrian 232 passing yards and a loss. The fact Garoppolo was battling injury only makes Shanahan's decision to ride him that much more curious, considering the 49ers had a third-overall pick twiddling his thumbs on the sideline. The end of the Garoppolo era has likely finally arrived in San Francisco, and Shanahan has a true dual-threat QB with a cannon for an arm -- a much more dangerous weapon who might've given them just enough oomph at SoFi Stadium on Sunday (and can going forward).
Secondary issues are primary
One of the biggest ongoing concerns for San Francisco was the defensive secondary, and it helped cost them another trip to the Super Bowl in their longstanding chase for a sixth franchise championship. When safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped a gift of an interception from Matthew Stafford that would've helped seal the casket on the Rams' season in the NFC Championship game, it felt like a microcosm of the season for that unit -- having plenty of chances to do great things but, more often than not, failing to deliver when the team needed them most (seeing as Jimmie Ward's unsportsmanlike penalty that immediately followed only hurt them further). Toss in the Josh Norman benching during the season and the fact Ward led the team in interceptions with only two and, well, you get the picture. Throw the sink at the secondary, in both free agency and the draft.
Re-establish the terror
It was not so long ago that the 49ers defensive front was one of, if not the most, fearsome group in the NFL. But after being ravaged by injuries a time or two, in conjunction with the normal business of NFL attrition, that's no longer the case. You can still bank on Nick Bosa shredding opposition on a weekly basis, but the 49ers need a definitive complement for him on the opposite edge. Kudos to what Arden Key was able to do in 2021, along with the progression of Samson Ebukam and the solid play of a very talented Arik Armstead but, for perspective, those three combined for just 17 sacks, while Bosa himself delivered 15.5. That tells you all you need to know about how important it is for the 49ers to locate another war daddy at the edge -- one who helps make sure opposing quarterbacks never get a chance to make the game-changing throw downfield.