49ers takeaways: What we learned from season-ending 48-32 loss to Rams

49ers takeaways: What we learned from season-ending 48-32 loss to Rams

LOS ANGELES -- The 49ers have a lot of ground to gain if they hope to give any kind of challenge to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West next season.

The Rams on Sunday completed their domination of the 49ers this season with a 48-32 victory to wrap up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

The 49ers lost to the Rams 39-10 on Oct. 21 at Levi’s Stadium. Los Angeles forced four turnovers in that game.

The Rams (13-3) got off to a big lead Sunday, as the 49ers (4-12) committed turnovers on four of their first five possessions.

However, the 49ers did salvage something from their season finale. Second-year tight end George Kittle put an exclamation point on his breakout season with nine catches for 149 yards to set the NFL's single-season record for a tight end with 1,377 yards. Kansas City's Travis Kelce held the mark for less than an hour. He eclisped Rob Gronkowski's 2011 total earlier in the afternoon. Kittle achieved the record on a 43-yard touchdown catch-and-run late in the fourth quarter.

Here are three other takeaways from the season-ending game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum:

Setting records for futility

The biggest takeaway from the 49ers’ season was, well, their lack of takeaways.

In fact, their futility in that area was historic.

The 49ers set the NFL record for fewest takeaways in a season with just seven forced turnovers. The record prior to this season was 11, shared by the Baltimore Colts (1982), Houston Texans (2013), Dallas Cowboys (2015) and Chicago Bears (2016).

The 49ers also set the record for fewest interceptions in a season with two. The previous record low was three, set by the Houston Oilers during the nine-game strike-shortened season of 1982.

Antone Exum and Jaquiski Tartt had the 49ers' only interceptions. It was the first time in Richard Sherman’s eight-year NFL career that he did not have one.

No team in the NFL was more generous than the 49ers this season. They entered the season finale with a minus-21 turnover margin. And they added impressively to their league-worst total in the opening minutes of Sunday’s game.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk made the poor decision to reach the ball out on a third-and-1 play on the 49ers’ first series of the game. Mark Barron stripped the ball, and Aqib Talib scooped it up and returned it 47 yards for the Rams.

Quarterback Nick Mullens threw three first-half interceptions, including a pick-six to Rams linebacker Cory Littleton.

Mullens’ first interception came when he was hit as he was throwing. The other came when John Johnson deflected a pass that was intended for George Kittle in the end zone, and fellow Rams safety Blake Countess made the interception.

Solidifying draft position

The 49ers enter the offseason with their biggest needs being two edge rushers to get after the quarterback on nickel situations. They're well-positioned to add some upgrades, beginning in free agency in March and, then, during the draft in April.

The organization is expected to have in the neighborhood of $70 million in salary cap space. They also wrapped up the No. 2 overall draft pick with this loss to the Rams.

Former Ohio State star Nick Bosa and Kentucky's Josh Allen could be among the options at No. 2. The Cardinals own the top overall selection.

The 49ers will pick ahead of the New York Jets in the first round because of the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker. San Francisco played a weaker schedule to gain the tiebreaker edge over New York.

Building depth at running back

The 49ers had to use every bit of their running back depth, and they appear to be in good position for next season -- if they remain healthier than they did this season.

Their leading rusher Sunday was veteran Alfred Morris, who isn't likely to return next season. He carried 16 times for 111 yards.

Morris signed with the 49ers after the team experienced a rash of injuries during training camp. But he ended up being No. 5 in the pecking order after starting the first game of the season.

Morris was back in the lead-back role in the season finale. Matt Breida went on injured reserve Saturday with an ankle injury, and rookie Jeff Wilson Jr. made his second start of the season Sunday, but he lasted three carries before exiting with a shoulder injury.

Jerick McKinnon, Breida, Wilson and Raheem Mostert ended the season injured, but each is expected back next season. Mostert was the team’s best special-teams player before getting his opportunity on offense and proving himself. Mostert’s season ended in Week 9 with a fractured forearm.

Why Aldon Smith not labeling self as 'victim' is great sign of growth


Why Aldon Smith not labeling self as 'victim' is great sign of growth

My amateur opinion was that Aldon Smith never took responsibility for his actions.

Maybe I was wrong. But that’s the impression I got from him, including a time we spoke at length during the 2014 offseason when he came by our studios on Third Street in San Francisco. He visited some tech companies in the South Bay and our studios to get out and gain a greater perspective in life.

On the outside, it looked as if his life was spiraling out of control. But when you spoke with him, he portrayed himself as if he had everything under control. And he could be convincing, too.

That’s why I never really thought Smith had a chance to succeed in a comeback attempt.

Then, I read something Wednesday night that changed my mind. Or, at least, it gave me hope that Smith has turned an important corner. Smith posted a statement on his Instagram account after signing a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys.

It read:

There is beauty in the struggle.

Life will always present us w/tests. I’ve learned how to take a different perspective on the adversities of life. Instead of looking at life as a victim, I have embraced the journey as God has planned it, making exponential strides towards becoming a better man.

Take this time that we have away from our normal day to day activities and think about changing your perspectives. Focus not on how bad this situation is but instead on how we can all come out of this better people. Let’s work on the things we have been putting off and grow towards our ultimate potential.

I never thought Smith was a bad guy. Never. His was a sad story, for sure.

But I always felt he never took responsibilities for his actions -- the actions that derailed his Hall-of-Fame start with the 49ers and ended his tenure with the Raiders before it really even began.

There might have been plenty of underlying reasons Smith had run-ins with the law and issues with substances of abuse. But there are also a lot of people who went through worse and did not repeatedly make the same mistakes, the same poor decisions.

I was not sure how to feel about the latest, unexpected Smith news after Jay Glazer of Fox Sports and The Athletic broke the story that Smith signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys.

Glazer described Smith as “clean and sober now.” He added, it is “incredible how much he’s turned his life around.” Glazer revealed he has been around Smith for more than a year with the Merging Vets & Players program. Smith has been “amazing in helping veterans dealing with sobriety issues while getting help himself.”

While I did not doubt any of what Glazer described, what provided the most reason for hope came from Smith -- “instead of looking at life as a victim.” I can’t tell you how happy I was to read those words.

Smith is 30. He has not played in the NFL since 2015. I can only imagine what he faces daily. It is not just a matter of mental toughness or will power. If only it were that easy for him and the many others who deal with similar issues.

It means little to me how well Smith performs on the field this season and, possibly, in the next few years. The important part is that he sets himself up for the many, many years after his playing days are over.

This is a great step on that journey.

NFL rumors: Aldon Smith, Cowboys agree to terms as ex-49er, Raider returns


NFL rumors: Aldon Smith, Cowboys agree to terms as ex-49er, Raider returns

He's back.

Former 49ers and Raiders defensive lineman Aldon Smith reportedly is returning to the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, FOX's Jay Glazer reported Wednesday night.

NFL Media's Ian Rapaport later reported that Smith has agreed to one-year, $4 million contract.

Smith, the No. 7 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, spent the first four seasons of his career with San Francisco, totaling 44.0 sacks over his first 50 games. A series of personal conduct violations and run-ins with the law ultimately ended his tenure with the 49ers. He then played nine games with the Oakland Raiders in 2015, but has not played in the NFL since.

The deal is contingent on reinstatement from an indefinite ban levied after multiple violations of the substance abuse policy. A contract signifies confidence that he will be reinstated.

Reinstatement to the NFL requires proof of prolonged avoidance of substance of abuse (supported by clean drug tests), and a strong case made to the league.

[RELATED: 49ers, Raiders go offense/defense in latest mock draft]

In Dallas, Smith would reunite with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who was his position coach throughout his time with San Francisco.

The 49ers are scheduled to play the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in 2020.