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Kyle Shanahan Is a Dream Hire — and the 49ers Are a Nightmare

The offensive genius heads to one of the most dysfunctional organizations in the NFL

(AP Photos/Ringer Illustration)
(AP Photos/Ringer Illustration)

After waiting for all of the other head-coaching vacancies to be filled, San Francisco might’ve just ended up with the best new hire of the bunch. While the move has been rumored for a couple of weeks now, the 49ers finally announced the hiring of Kyle Shanahan on Monday. He’ll join first-time general manager John Lynch to form a duo of rookies atop the San Francisco power structure.

Will Shanahan build an explosive, top-10 offense in San Francisco? If history tells us anything, yes. Will he butt heads with CEO Jed York and will this end acrimoniously? If history tells us anything, that’s another yes.

After hiring the 37-year-old, San Francisco hands over the reins to the NFL’s offensive wunderkind. Shanahan might be coming off an embarrassing loss in the Super Bowl, but he is the architect of top-10 offenses on three separate teams (the Texans, Redskins, and Falcons) in six of the nine seasons he’s been a coordinator. His scheme — with its wide-zone running and play-action-based passing — has been successful with a wide range of quarterbacks, including promising young superstars (Robert Griffin III), established veterans (Matt Schaub, Donovan McNabb, and Matt Ryan), and replacement-level journeymen (Rex Grossman and Brian Hoyer).

We still have no idea who his quarterback will be, but Shanahan has been open to catering his system to the strengths of the guy under center. He designed an innovative pistol-based read-option-heavy offense with Griffin in 2012; with Ryan this year, he tweaked an already-established quarterback’s game to incorporate more bootlegs and under-center snaps to create one of the most unstoppable offensive juggernauts we’ve ever seen.

From a pure football perspective, the 49ers couldn’t have done much better — but the issues have run way deeper for San Francisco over the past few years. Jim Harbaugh was forced out after overseeing three straight NFC championship appearances. Jim Tomsula lasted only a year, and so did Chip Kelly. In short, the 49ers are a destructively impatient organization that is prone — from the top on down — to organizational drama.

Shanahan himself has never been too far from controversy, either — whether it was the benching of McNabb, the souring of his relationship with Griffin, or his abrupt decision to resign in Cleveland because of internal politics surrounding Johnny Manziel. And while the Falcons exploded this season, Year 1 in Atlanta had its issues. The Falcons finished 8–8, and after releasing fan favorite Roddy White, the franchise career yards and touchdowns leader blamed Shanahan for the team’s troubles and accused him of mismanaging late-game situations.

It all depends on how much time York is willing to give his new head coach. It would be completely unrealistic to expect a Super Bowl in Year 1, and for all of Shanahan’s skills as a play-caller, he’s inheriting one of the most talent-starved rosters in the NFL. Even with an established veteran quarterback in Atlanta, it took more than a year to learn Shanahan’s system “inside and out.” The rebuilding process will take some time — probably at least two or three years.

With any freshman head coach — and especially with one taking over a roster as barren as San Francisco’s — there will be growing pains. But the 49ers front office has exhibited little to no patience over the past three years, and unless that changes, it won’t be long until they’re looking for another head coach.