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The Kyle Shanahan Conundrum

The 49ers hired Shanahan to bring his offense to San Francisco. That worked. They also gave him tons of influence over the roster. That hasn’t worked at all.

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Chip Kelly is as good of a head coach as Kyle Shanahan is. Jack Del Rio is better. So is Bill O’Brien, Joe Philbin, Rex Ryan, and Mike Tice. I’m sorry, guys, I don’t make the rules, and I certainly don’t make the numbers.

Before this season, Shanahan’s shaky career record (29-35, a .453 win percentage) wasn’t much of a conversation topic. He’d taken the 49ers to a Super Bowl, for goodness’ sake! And there was that one year when starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was injured, and that other year Garoppolo got injured—oh, and of course, the first year on the job for Shanahan, when he and new GM John Lynch didn’t get Garoppolo until midway through the season (and didn’t start him until even later). He might have had a sub-.500 record, but he’d dealt with so much quarterback volatility that there was no doubt he was a good coach.

The tune has changed during the 2021 season, as Shanahan’s 49ers have fallen far short of high expectations with a 3-5 record. What their slow start has done to Shanahan’s career win percentage (now .444) is one thing; what it’s done to public faith in Shanahan is another.

It’s peculiar that a coach not three seasons removed from a Super Bowl berth and who is at the forefront of the system that’s sweeping across the league is on the hot seat. Cleveland, Minnesota, New York, Green Bay—they’re all running spinoffs of Shanahan’s offense, to varying degrees of success. The explosion of head coaching hires from the branches of Shanahan’s coaching tree emphasizes just how good this offense is; Shanahan’s struggles in San Francisco remind us just how much more there is to being a head coach than running a good scheme.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
Shanahan and Garoppolo before Super Bowl LIV
Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

That’s because head coaches wear different hats within the building—that’s just the nature of the job. Bill Belichick is a stellar defensive coach, but he’s also one of the league’s best culture-setters. Mike Tomlin’s another tremendous culture-setter, and he has his background in defense as well. All coaches want to be culture-setters, of course, but some are brought in more for their play-calling and designs: young guns like Matt LaFleur (definite hit!), Zac Taylor (maybe a hit!), and Brandon Staley (jury’s still out!) fit that description.

Coaches also have varying degrees of influence in the personnel department. Belichick is essentially the general manager in New England; Tomlin largely stays out of star general manager Kevin Colbert’s way. Most healthy franchises have a natural balance between their head coach and general manager, as the orthodox view of team-building sees the head coach try to build a team to win games now, and general managers try to build a team to win games later. Head coaches want veterans; general managers want flexible salary caps. It’s like a seesaw. Enough weight on each side holds healthy franchises in a quivering equilibrium. But the seesaw can also be nudged to one direction or the other to fit a team’s winning window. Rams general manager Les Snead isn’t building for the future—not with his team enjoying the primes of Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald; Lions head coach Dan Campbell isn’t clamoring for established veterans, as his team is in the first year of a rebuild.

That organizational fine-tuning is a key part of good team-building. But more teams than ever before are setting the fulcrum of that seesaw at different positions. The Philadelphia Eagles won a Super Bowl with head coach Doug Pederson, and then fired him a few seasons later after the team’s fortunes turned; after he was fired, it was revealed that Pederson didn’t have control over the active game-day rosters, that there were contentious splits between the coaching staff and front office about whom to draft. The Houston Texans had the opposite problem: Bill O’Brien had personnel control, following the model of his mentor in New England. O’Brien the head coach struggled to jell with star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, so O’Brien the general manager traded him to Arizona for pennies on the dollar. He made several other questionable moves (notably the Jadeveon Clowney trade and the Laremy Tunsil fiasco) during his tenure, and the Texans fired O’Brien after an 0-4 start in 2020 and are now back in rebuild mode.

From the day he landed in San Francisco, Shanahan has had more front-office control than the average head coach. San Francisco ended the 2016 season as the only team without a player on the roster to receive a single All-Pro vote. They were down as bad as any team in the league, and Shanahan was the man they tagged to pull them up.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers
Shanahan and Ryan after a game in 2019
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

But he was hired for his offense. There are no two ways about that. That offense had elevated fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins to solid starting quarterback, and elevated solid starting quarterback Matt Ryan to MVP. It turned relatively unheralded running backs Arian Foster, Alfred Morris, and Devonta Freeman into 1,000-yard rushers.

You’ll notice, quickly, the strengths of the offense: It maximizes later-drafted, role-specific players. San Francisco kicked off its Shanahan era with that exact approach. The Niners acquired Garoppolo for a second-round pick midseason—a very cheap price for a potential starting quarterback—and got 100 carries and 400 yards out of rookie undrafted free agent running back Matt Breida. Two years later, in 2019, the Niners would take that Garoppolo-led offense all the way to the Super Bowl, sitting late in the fourth quarter with a two-score lead on the Patrick Mahomes–led Kansas City Chiefs.

Not quite a 25-point lead—not that Shanahan would know anything about those.

That Super Bowl appearance was the realization of the plan. Shanahan had brought one of the league’s best offenses to San Francisco, and it was a contender.

It also concealed the upcoming problem.

Remember Breida? He was the 49ers’ leading rusher in 2018, after Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert went down with injury. Before that, in 2017, it was Carlos Hyde, a holdover from the previous regime; in 2019, it was Mostert, a league journeyman and career special-teamer; in 2020, it was Jeff Wilson Jr., who’d been floating around on the roster for the previous two years. Injuries forced Shanahan to run through all his options at running back, and still, through the strength of his system, the 49ers rushing offense was finding success: Only once in four seasons were they below average in rushing offense DVOA.

NFL: AUG 31 Chargers at 49ers
Joe Williams
Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

You know who was never a contributing rusher on the team? Joe Williams. He’s an easy name to forget, as he never took a regular-season snap. But he was a fourth-round pick by the 49ers in the first draft of the Shanahan-Lynch era, and he was an important one: not for his value to the team, but for the process behind his pick. As Peter King wrote in the wake of the 2017 draft, Williams was a total Shanahan pick—even to the point that Williams was not on the 49ers’ board in the war room. The scouting department hadn’t considered him to be a potential target.

But there Shanahan was, in front of the board, demanding Williams. “I’m telling you right now: If we don’t get him, I’ll be sick. I will be contemplating Joe Williams all night.” One call between Lynch and Williams later, and the 49ers didn’t just draft Williams—they traded up for him.

Williams was an immensely talented player, built with the speed for Shanahan’s offense, but taking him was the result of a bad draft process, an impulsive reach for a shiny new offensive toy. Williams was placed on IR his rookie season with a minor injury—in all likelihood, to give him a redshirt year—and then cut before the 2018 season. It didn’t matter too much then. The 49ers were a young team, developing talent, clamoring for a foothold in the competitive NFL. They didn’t yet have a record of success to live up to, or much urgency for success. Mistakes were expected.

But the process that led to the Williams pick became a trend. The 49ers stuck to their board, yes—but the early investment in offensive weapons for Shanahan’s system continued. In 2018, they traded up for wide receiver Dante Pettis at the top of the second round. Pettis had some flashes in his rookie season, but during the 2019 preseason Shanahan noted that Pettis was “still trying to earn a role on this team.” He barely saw action to start the season, got a few weeks of increased play, and then went right back into the doghouse by midseason. Shanahan said, after the 49ers’ first loss in Week 10: “The more he doesn’t take advantage of his opportunities, the less opportunities he gets.”

San Francisco 49ers v Chicago Bears
Brandon Aiyuk
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that coaching approach, though it’s rare to hear it said so plainly about a highly drafted player only 1.5 seasons into his career. It would reflect the story of wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, a first-round draft pick for whom the 49ers once again traded up. Aiyuk had a promising stretch during his rookie season, but to start the 2021 season, he was nowhere to be seen on offense. Shanahan insisted he’d just been beaten out by veteran acquisition Trent Sherfield in camp, and that a hamstring injury was holding him back. But Aiyuk had been a full participant in practice in the week leading up to the season opener. The second-year wideout is back in the rotation and has enjoyed two strong weeks, noting last week that he and Shanahan had “some words” that helped him get back on track.

Aiyuk still could hold down a starting job; Pettis was never able to, and was cut by the 49ers in 2020, now serving as a depth piece for the New York Giants. Other players have gone in and out of Shanahan’s doghouse, including Breida, whose fumbling issues in 2019 caused him to be traded during the 2020 draft. Rookie CB Deommodore Lenoir, who impressed in the preseason and early weeks of the regular season, has been a healthy scratch in recent weeks after a couple of busted coverages—nothing shocking for a rookie fifth-round pick thrust into starting action. Veteran liabilities Dre Kirkpatrick and Josh Norman are playing ahead of him right now.

Just as the doghouse is a trend, so are the offensive draft misses. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel was a hit in the second round of the 2019 draft; Jalen Hurd, a running-back-to-receiver convert with a bad injury history, was not nearly as successful. In 2021, history has repeated itself, as third-round running back Trey Sermon has worked his way to, at best, fifth-string running back, while sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell holds down the starting job. And Aaron Banks, the second-round guard the 49ers so desperately need? He’s been a healthy scratch more often than not, with shaky veterans Daniel Brunskill and Tom Compton above him on the depth chart.

The 49ers hired Shanahan to bring his offense to San Francisco. That worked. In the process, they also gave him tons of influence over the roster. That hasn’t worked at all.

Shanahan has a player development problem. It’s impossible to pin down the exact cause of the issue from outside the building, but it’s easy to see the symptoms. Rookies aren’t given long leashes, especially on offense, and the messaging they get from their head coach doesn’t seem to elicit improvements. Impatience and high expectations magnify little mistakes and thrust veterans over young players in an effort to quickly heal those minor problems. But without rookie development, those minor problems fester, becoming issues that cannot be overcome.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals
Trey Lance
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Nowhere is this reality more concerning than in the future of Trey Lance, the greatest and gravest of Shanahan’s aggressive trade-ups. Such are Lance’s physical gifts that he entered the league with Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb, and Colin Kaepernick comparisons. But he also came into the pros with just one season of FCS experience—a nearly unprecedented lack of experience for a top-five draft selection. More pro-ready passers, like Mac Jones and Justin Fields, were on the board for Shanahan and the 49ers. But he chose Lance, the player who, above all else, needs development.

How can the 49ers be trusted to develop Lance under these conditions? The offensive line protecting him is anchored by good but aging veterans with spotty starters laced in between. The receiver room is a turnstile, stabilized only by the continued dominance of Samuel and tight end George Kittle—when healthy. So far, Lance has gotten six quarters of action, made plenty of mistakes, and has seemingly already been shelved for the first time in his career—he’s healthy on the sideline as he watches Garoppolo make the same, predictable errors that drove Shanahan to find his replacement in the first place.

This is the seesaw out of balance. Shanahan is a man with a pail facing a roaring fire, running to and from a river of only his own strengths, his own perspectives, his own abilities. The coaching talent that long supported him—defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, receivers coach Mike LaFleur, offensive line coach John Benton—is elsewhere. He is alone, with his consolidated power, and the consequences of it.

If Lance is good, none of it matters. That’s the great relief, the great truth, of NFL football: win games, and nobody cares. Shanahan’s win-loss record might look concerning, but there’s plenty of context to explain that away—for as funny as it is to see the coaches ranked above him in win-loss percentage, everyone knows that Shanahan is a better coach than most. He pushed his chips in with Lance, and if Lance pans out, the 49ers will suddenly start winning a lot more games. Nobody will care where Aiyuk was, or is, once Lance hits Deebo for a game-winning playoff touchdown.

But if Lance isn’t good, San Francisco’s franchise must be put back into balance. Shanahan the offensive designer can no longer overcome the failings of Shanahan the player developer and Shanahan the personnel executive. Someone—either Lynch, or a new addition to the front office—must replace Shanahan’s influence in the draft war room and free agency meetings, ensuring that the players acquired aren’t only idealized fits or familiar veterans for Shanahan’s grand vision. Someone—almost definitely Lynch—must become a voice to champion young players as they work through mistakes in real time. Shanahan needs to return to his bread and butter, the rock-solid foundation that got him this job in the first place: designing plays and then calling them. Doing that well, and leaving the other responsibilities for leaders with strengths for those roles, should return San Francisco to its winning ways.