In four-plus years as the head coach in San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan has gone 31-38. He’s finished either third or last-place in his division in three of his four full seasons, and despite his teams consistently finishing in the top half of the league in terms of total offense and defense, they are consistently outside the top-16 in points scored and points allowed.
Shanahan has coasted off the success of his 2019 season, but it’s time the 49ers start looking at Shanahan with a little more scrutiny.
Just because Shanahan once reached a Super Bowl does not mean he still deserves to be a head coach in the NFL. Doug Pederson won a Super Bowl, and the Eagles fired him after five years. What about another 49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who not only reached a Super Bowl in his four years as the team’s head coach, but never had a losing record?
Shanahan, however, appears to be untouchable because of the narrative surrounding him.
Shanahan has been viewed as an offensive genius — a “quarterback whisperer,” if you will — ever since Matt Ryan won the MVP Award in 2016. The success of Jimmy Garoppolo (in terms of win percentage) convinced even more people of Shanahan’s brilliance. However, for as long as Shanahan has been on the 49ers’ sideline, he has underperformed. Jon Gruden’s recent email scandal aside, there were several people around the league already calling for his job because he was a sub-.500 head coach without his Super Bowl season with Tampa Bay. Shanahan can’t say he’s a .500 coach even with his Super Bowl season, and he didn’t win. The only edge he has over any of these guys I’ve mentioned is a narrative.
It’s not just Shanahan’s record with the 49ers that worries me either. It’s his record combined with the situation that the 49ers currently find themselves in. The 49ers are 2-3, lost both of their divisional matchups, have looked flat on offense, and don’t have any first-round draft picks in the next two seasons. How many coaches would still have jobs if their teams were in similar situations. Bill O’Brien took the Houston Texans on a very similar trip toward the end of his tenure there, and people said he was ruining the Texans. I don’t disagree, but it baffles me that nobody is willing to look at Shanahan the same way.
What’s even worse is that the 49ers have immense talent at several positions. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Trent Williams, Fred Warner, Jimmie Ward, Nick Bosa, and Arik Armstead are all very talented players, and still the 49ers are a sub-.500 team. The quarterback position was supposed to be the missing link, the one cog needed to turn the proverbial wheel of success. However, in Trey Lance’s first start, the biggest criticism of the 49ers’ performance was Kyle Shanahan’s lack of ingenuity with his dual-threat quarterback. While the 49ers’ passing attack did seem more emphasized on pushing the ball downfield than it arguably ever has since Shanahan took over, with an average depth of target of 10 yards, Lance was limited to scrambles, RPOs, and QB draws far too often for his arm, one of his greatest attributes out of college, to take center stage. It was a horrendous gameplan that Shanahan had months to prepare for.
I don’t want to put Shanahan on the same level as Matt Nagy. Shanahan is clearly better than Nagy, but the 49ers’ game on Sunday had several parallels to Nagy’s gameplan for Justin Fields in his first start during Week 3. Both plans seemed unfinished, ineffective, and reliant on the talent of their young quarterbacks to make it work. Nagy decided to give up his play-calling duties after the awful showing, a decision that paid off enormously for the Bears this past Sunday, but I guarantee Shanahan will still be calling the shots for the 49ers when they take on Indianapolis this Sunday.
The Colts just allowed Lamar Jackson to run all over them. I’m not saying Lance needs to have a similar showing, but the 49ers were handed an outline for victory. The 49ers are at home, they have the pieces, and they have a quarterback who can take advantage of the Colts’ defensive shortcomings. I know it’s early to judge Shanahan based on the team’s success after just one week with Lance as the starter, but if we don’t start seeing some of that “ingenuity” Shanahan is known for real soon, judgement should be the least of Shanahan’s concerns. Lance is the most physically gifted quarterback Shanahan has ever worked with. The tools that Lance brings to the table should give Shanahan everything he needs to build a winning football team.
So, it’s about time he actually starts, you know, winning.