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Kyle Shanahan’s Fourth-and-Goal Moment

The 49ers coach has a long, painful history of chasing a Super Bowl win, from the 2016 season, to the last San Francisco–Kansas City title game, to two recent NFC championship losses. Will this be the game when all his hard, arduous work pays off? Or will it be one more Sisyphean restart?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In late January, a few days before the 49ers outlasted the Detroit Lions 34-31 in the NFC championship game, San Francisco’s celebrated offensive tackle Trent Williams reminisced about his first NFL coaches. The year was 2010, and Williams had just been drafted fourth, by Washington, a team that had an intriguing new staff. The head coach and executive vice president was Mike Shanahan, famous for his West Coast–style offense and for winning two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos in the ’90s. The quarterbacks coach was Matt LaFleur, now the head coach of the Packers. The assistant tight ends coach was Sean McVay, who’d go on to lead the Rams to a Super Bowl win in the 2021 season. And the offensive coordinator was Shanahan’s 30-year-old son, Kyle—a guy who immediately stood out to Williams because of his age and, crucially, “his swag.”

“Obviously, in 2010, you didn’t meet too many 30-year-old coordinators,” said Williams, who joined the Niners in 2020 and earned his third straight first-team All-Pro nod this season. “So him walking in with Jordan shorts and Jordans on—it was a shock to me.” This wasn’t Kyle Shanahan’s first offensive coordinator role: A couple of years earlier, he’d been promoted to the same job with the Houston Texans at age 28, making him the youngest coordinator in the NFL. “Anytime he spoke football, anybody would listen,” Williams said. “You knew he knew what he was talking about.”

These days, Shanahan, now 44 and the head coach of the Niners since 2017, is increasingly the guy being talked about. And there is much to discuss.

He has become one of the NFL’s most influential and successful coaches, taking over a 2-14 San Francisco team and leading it to four NFC championship games in the past five years. Twice—in the 2019 season and again this coming weekend—Shanahan’s Niners have gone all the way to the Super Bowl. Players he has worked with refer to him as an offensive “genius” and a “mastermind.” The branches of his coaching tree are in constant bloom, seeding the league with a determined new generation of coordinators and head coaches, from Miami’s Mike McDaniel to Houston’s DeMeco Ryans. In his press conferences, and in his conversations with players and executives, he is blunt but also forthcoming. And he remains a committed sneakerhead (though I don’t feel qualified to comment on his degree of swag).

“He takes ultimate ownership of the team, which I think is what a head coach should do,” Niners center Jake Brendel told me a few days before facing the Lions. “Everything runs through him.” That includes both the glory and the blame. “Any loss that we have, he takes it harder than anyone else, I think,” Brendel continued. “He takes ownership of all the performances, good or bad.”

Even amid all of Shanahan’s success over the years, there has still been a good deal of the bad. Sometimes it feels as though every major accomplishment he has earned has been netted out by some equal and opposite frustration.

As the offensive coordinator of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, he helped build a 28-3 third-quarter advantage over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl … only to lose 34-28 in overtime. As the head coach of the 2019 Niners, he was on the sideline while a 10-point Super Bowl fourth-quarter advantage over the Chiefs … turned into an 11-point loss. (He told Peter King recently that this one hurts most.) Two more trips to the NFC title game in the past two years resulted in … interceptions, injuries, and two more rough playoff exits.

Which is why, as the Super Bowl rematch with Kansas City approaches and the Las Vegas media days begin, there’s been a preemptive curiosity about what this could all mean for Shanahan. With the possible exception of Niners quarterback Brock Purdy, there might not be another person on the field or the sidelines Sunday night whose perception is more closely tied to the score of this game. This will be Shanahan’s fourth time coming within a game or two of winning the title since he began coaching the Niners, making this year’s attempt feel kind of like a pivotal fourth-and-goal. Football is famously a game of inches, but this result could swing Shanahan’s legacy in directions that are miles apart.

Being the Guy Who Just Can’t Win the Big One is a powerful sports archetype, which is why it’s also, by definition, a little unfair. The label is disproportionately applied to the athletes, teams, and coaches who are disciplined and talented (and lucky) enough to have not only gotten close to a Big One in the first place, but to have done so enough times to develop a track record. That in and of itself is, in the grand scheme of a 32-team league that crowns one champion every year, pretty rarefied air.

Realistically, though, no one cares about that kind of consolation-prize nuance. Why should they? The point is to win, and to be the best, you have to beat the best. If you haven’t done that? You’ve lost. Pretty simple. Before the game against the Lions last month, Shanahan told reporters that the hard part about getting so close to the title and not winning it is that you don’t just feel the sting of failure; you also feel the Sisyphean dread of starting all over. “After that, it’s like, Oh my God, that took so much and was so long to get there,” he said. “How can you ever do that again?”

On paper, and on the field, this iteration of the 49ers is stacked with an unbelievable breadth and depth of talent. The offense features Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey and Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk; the defense has Fred Warner to make grabs and Nick Bosa to produce sacks. Bosa is also highly skilled at the art of giving postgame locker-room pep talks. Following this year’s NFC championship win, which marked the second straight week that the Niners had battled back from a second-half deficit, Bosa got in quarterback Purdy’s face to tell him, in earnest: “Bro, the fact that you are doing this blows my mind.”

“All of us, bro,” Purdy replied.

“Did you think you’d be this good?” Bosa asked the former Mr. Irrelevant. “I think I’ve asked you this before.”

“Honestly,” Purdy said, smirking, “I could do better, bro.”

This is the kind of attitude that has endeared Purdy to Shanahan, who remarked during a December press conference that he didn’t mind coaching a quarterback who tended to be hard on himself. “You’d rather someone be a little harder on themselves than take it easy on themselves,” he said then. In late January, I mentioned this remark to Shanahan and asked him whether, as a coach, he had evaluated his own tendency to judge himself harshly. “You should probably ask people who know me well,” he said. “But I think I’m pretty hard.”

Have the people who know him well ever mentioned that they think he’s too hard on himself?

“Yeah,” Shanahan admitted. “I think if you’re not hard on yourself, it’s kind of hard to put in the work and stuff that it takes to be an NFL coach. I think most of us are pretty hard on ourselves. We’re kind of perfectionists because you know how hard it is to win games for everybody. So you demand a lot out of everybody, just like you demand a lot out of yourself. It’s a very fine line of winning and losing, so you question every single thing, every single moment, and that always starts with yourself.”

Sam Darnold, Purdy’s backup who signed a one-year deal with San Francisco in March, said that he noticed this mentality in the Niners locker room the first day he arrived. “When the head coach is like that,” he said, “when everyone is like that, top down, it really is a trickle-down effect on the best players on the team. … So when you’re not super hard on yourself, you’re almost kind of the outlier in the group.”

It’s illustrative to compare the close-but-no-cigar state of the franchise under Shanahan to the combustive way things were before he came to town. Near the tail end of the 2016 season, I went to Levi’s Stadium to take in a dismal clash of two truly sad-sack teams: the then-3-9 Jets against the 1-11 Niners. (By the end of the evening, the Niners would fall to 1-12.)

San Francisco’s organization was in the midst of a strange time on a number of fronts. For starters, it was on its third head coach in three years. Jim Harbaugh had taken the team to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season, but he clashed with general manager Trent Baalke and CEO Jed York and acrimoniously parted ways with the team after the 2014 campaign. Harbaugh’s replacement, longtime Niners assistant Jim Tomsula, was announced via a bizarre press conference in January of 2015 and was canned less than a year later. Chip Kelly arrived after that to some fanfare, but his eagerly anticipated offensive schemes soon fizzled out.

The brand-new stadium was largely empty that December; the dominant mood at the tailgates was “aggrieved.” Not only did fans want Baalke outta there, but they also agitated for York, whose family owns the team, to step away from the team in disgrace—logistics be damned. The biggest/only smiles of excitement I saw that day came when Niners fans started discussing a CBS report from that morning that suggested the team should go after Coach Shanahan—Mike Shanahan.

A few weeks later, both Baalke and Kelly were fired. At the press conference announcing the change, someone asked York why he shouldn’t be sacked as well. “I own this football team,” York said. “You don’t dismiss owners. I’m sorry that that’s the fact and that’s the case, but that’s the fact.”

This was about a month before the now-infamous Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl, and in the wake of that loss, Kyle Shanahan faced plenty of criticism of his own for his aggressive play-calling decisions in the game. But he was also in the midst of being pursued by several teams about head-coaching gigs, the Niners among them. On the Flying Coach podcast in 2022, Shanahan told hosts Sean McVay and Peter Schrager that at the time, he wasn’t particularly interested in the franchise.

“San Francisco wasn’t my first choice on paper,” Shanahan said, adding that he was so exhausted from the grind of the playoffs that he very nearly canceled the interview altogether. “They had changed coaches three years in a row. And, you know, their offense was ranked 31st. Their defense was ranked 32nd. It wasn’t the best situation.” Because Shanahan didn’t think he really wanted the job, he was relaxed and candid during his conversations with York and the 49ers’ then–executive vice president of football operations, Paraag Marathe. “For me to say all the problems I had and what I didn’t like about the job and to watch it not faze them and to actually make us connect more?” Shanahan said. “It was awesome.”

So Shanahan took the job. (And somewhere, perhaps, a monkey’s paw curled.)

“When he came, he brought a new energy, new sense of urgency,” recalled Niners defensive lineman Arik Armstead, the lone player whose San Francisco tenure began pre-Shanahan and is still going today. “The culture was a lot of hard, hard work. And everyone was, you know, trying to prove that we deserved to be here.” Shanahan and general manager John Lynch massively retooled the roster they inherited, turning over nearly half of it. (Departing players included quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, and receiver Torrey Smith.)

The Niners went 0-9 over the first nine games of the 2017 season. Their quarterbacks were journeyman Brian Hoyer—whom Shanahan picked up because Hoyer knew his offense from their time together with the Cleveland Browns—and rookie C.J. Beathard. Shanahan had hoped to eventually target another one of his former athletes, Kirk Cousins, in the offseason. But instead, that Halloween, San Francisco traded a second-round pick to the Patriots for winsome backup Jimmy Garoppolo, which was initiated by Bill Belichick. (According to reporting by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, Belichick respected Shanahan—both because he knew his dad and because Shanahan had sought Belichick out in the wake of that Super Bowl loss to New England to ask for his thoughts and advice on what went wrong.) Garoppolo ultimately started the final five games of the season for San Francisco, and the Niners won them all. Things were maybe looking up. And then they got weird.

One of the consistent themes of Shanahan’s tenure with the 49ers is that there’s been a lack of consistency. Not necessarily in game plan or execution, but in crucial personnel. It’s a testament to Shanahan that so many of his former colleagues and assistants and contemporaries have moved on and up to head-coaching or coordinator gigs of their own. (“He loses, like, his best friends,” Kittle observed on a radio show.) But it’s even more impressive that the team’s performance has held up despite constant infrastructure and roster reshuffling. Just look at the changes from Shanahan’s 2019 Super Bowl team to this one: Fewer than 10 active players were a part of both squads. “I call him a guru, man,” wide receiver Jauan Jennings said about Shanahan’s ability to prepare but also adjust.

The quarterback position especially has been involved in all manner of story lines that resist quick summary, but here’s a shot: Garoppolo missed a season for knee surgery, threw a bad pick against the Rams, accepted a pay cut in the form of a contract restructure, and now plays for the Raiders. Trey Lance came to Shanahan in a dream (I assume), was acquired during the 2021 draft in exchange for three (!) first-round picks, got his first start in a monsoon, did not become the next Josh Allen, and is now a Dallas Cowboy. Purdy was taken at Shanahan’s insistence with the last pick in the last round of the 2022 draft, rose from third string to starter that season, hurt his elbow in last year’s NFC championship game, was told there was a slight chance he’d play backup to Tom Brady (!), and is now an MVP candidate who is, like his coach, just one more win away from a far simpler, kinder narrative.

Last week, York showed up for a downright jovial chat with Bay Area media in which he described a story about Shanahan telling him, during last year’s training camp, that he was pretty sure Purdy was the team’s best quarterback. York wasn’t necessarily amused at the time: “One thing that owners don’t love to hear when they’ve invested money and/or draft picks, or both, into people,” he said, “is that the last pick in the draft is the guy that we think is the best. That’s generally not great news.” But York’s chipper demeanor as he told this anecdote suggested that, in hindsight, Shanahan knew what he was talking about. And the details of his story spoke to two of the coach’s strongest qualities: an unfiltered directness and a willingness to be decisive. What happens in the Super Bowl may well hinge on how he wields that second skill.

Shanahan only needs to look across the field on Sunday night to see a coach who successfully changed a longtime reputation as a big/late-game bungler. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was 40 years old when he took the reins of the Philadelphia Eagles in early 1999, making him the second-youngest coach in the NFL at the time. (Only Jon Gruden was younger.) When Reid joined the team, Philadelphia had won only two playoff games in the preceding decade. Across his first six seasons, the Eagles appeared in four straight NFC championship games and made one trip to the Super Bowl.

In a way, all of that success was part of Reid’s problem. The further the Eagles advanced every year, and the better they played, the more there was at stake for them to lose. And lose they did. In Reid’s first NFC championship game, during the 2001 season, the Eagles fell to the Rams, 29-24. They’d drop two more conference finals, in successive years, after that. And in the 2004 season, when the Eagles finally made the Super Bowl, they lost to the Patriots, 24-21, in a game that was marred by a series of weird end-of-half decisions by Reid. It wasn’t long before the coach’s name became synonymous with “poor clock management.” You could say something like, “Andy Reid is at it again,” and everyone would know what you were talking about. That reputation even followed him, at first, to the Chiefs.

Now, paired with Patrick Mahomes and carrying two Super Bowl rings on his fingers, Reid is seen as a jolly genius who shreds opposing defenses for sport and then waves to Taylor Swift. Reid’s trajectory is living proof that this kind of shift is possible. But until it happens for Shanahan, all he can do is prepare. Without the commitment to a game plan, he told Schrager and McVay, “Human nature will take over, or your nerves will, and you’ll just try to survive. And that’s not what you want from a play caller. That’s not what you want from a leader.” The Super Bowl is what all that being hard on himself was for.

Until the game begins, and maybe even after, Shanahan’s quest to raise the Lombardi Trophy will continue to be an object of curiosity, some of it innocent and some of it pretty savage. When you have a reputation for having such high standards, you’re likely to find yourself being judged against them. The other day, on the NFL Network show Good Morning Football, the hosts compared a photo of Shanahan that was taken the last time the Niners made the Super Bowl to a slightly more haggard one of him taken last week, noting that the visible stress from the intervening years was reminiscent of those before-and-after-office snaps of Barack Obama.

Another gag has been to compare Shanahan to that other noteworthy son of a gun who wished to follow in his successful dad’s footsteps but didn’t crack the code: Kendall Roy. (In fairness, they really do look alike.) (Also in fairness, Shanahan did name his son Carter in homage to Lil Wayne, a very Kendall thing to do.)

With a loss this weekend—particularly if it involves late-game chaos of any type—more of this will come. With a loss, Shanahan will start cementing a reputation for being almost but not quite when it counts.

With a win, though, he’ll validate his coaching philosophies and his instincts and the opinion of the guys in the parking lot outside Levi’s Stadium the other weekend, named Oscar and Sam, who told me Shanahan’s “a beast!” and “an animal! Love him!” and “Win a couple rings! He deserves it! It’s our time! It’s our time, baby! I’m sorry, I’m excited.” With a win, he’ll position himself not just to walk in his dad’s footsteps, but to leap past them. “If you asked me 14 years ago,” Williams laughed, looking back on the first time he met Shanahan, “I probably would have never seen this coming. But, you know, I just think it’s so, so dope that he’s one of the best coaches in the league.”

Such divergent fortunes based on the final score of one game against an almost-dynasty aren’t fair, and they’re not even personal. They’re just football, that irresistible, impossible sport that Shanahan has always had in his blood. That sport that demands so much from him—and compels him to demand so much of himself.

An earlier version of this piece misstated Ahmad Brooks’s position on the 49ers. He was a linebacker, not a tackle.

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