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The 49ers ‘Elegant Tank’ rolls on

What exactly is this famous “Elegant Tank” I keep hearing about, and how is Shanalynch doing it?

Mark Saltveit

The Elegant Tank rolls on, crushing everything in its path! (Except maybe the Cleveland Browns’ tar pit of dysfunction.)

It’s more than just a strategy, or a shining example of coaching virtuosity. It’s a philosophy, a lifestyle, a movement! Join us now, or forever be branded a bandwagon fan when the second great Niners dynasty starts its winning ways next year.

What exactly are you saying, Mark? Is Kyle Shanahan such a masterful coach that he is losing every game by precisely three or fewer points just to show his complete control of the game, even as he locks up the top draft pick?

Probably not, since he couldn’t hold onto a 25-point lead for the last 14 minutes of the Super Bowl. Footballs take weird bounces, and no coach has that much control. But Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are redefining the rebuilding year in a new and amazing way.

The Browns and Patriots aside, NFL teams win and lose in cycles — ideally creating a Super Bowl window for a few years followed by some suckitude rebuilding. Without Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and cheating, you can’t just keep winning for decades.

So the goal is to shorten your bad stretches with lots of losses in a short time, so you can get good draft picks and give yourself the latitude to make those difficult moves that bring short term losses but long time success.

The problem is that losing is contagious. It affects morale and makes veteran free agents want to avoid your team. It demoralizes fans and coaches, and leaves owners with less profit to spend on building the team. Vanilla tanking is a kick in the nuts to loyal fans and season ticket holders.

You also need a certain amount of competence to install and teach new schemes. No one thought Hoyer would become a franchise quarterback, but given his success with Shanahan’s offense at Cleveland, he was expected to execute the scheme competently. Young receivers and running backs can’t learn when bad quarterbacking leads to lots of three-and-outs, so he had to sit down.

I don’t believe that the Elegant Tank is designed explicitly to lose. In fact, my guess is that it will include one or two blowout wins, where the team just GOES OFF on a team and crushes them by 30 (probably once the defensive line figures out how to convert more of these QB pressures into sacks). Once it looks like they’ll win a game, everyone will want to pour it on and take out their frustrations.

What I see Shanalynch doing is replacing the goal of winning with the goal of being competitive and exciting. Most coaches do everything possible to avoid losses; instead, Shanahan is trying to avoid blowouts, boring games and demotivated players. It’s tanking without diving; a submarine strategy, just below the surface with the periscope peaking out.

Every leap forward becomes an opportunity to make another hard choice to help the team in the long run. Knowing that Shanahan was ready to switch to C.J. Breathard, who looked great in practice, Lynch could try to deal (and eventually cut) Navorro Bowman. Get the pain out as quickly as possibly without crumbling.

Other Elegant Tanking strategies include:

  • Develop rookies quickly.

Under the CBA, salary cap is as important as winning, and Seattle set the paradigm for a rookie-heavy Super Bowl window, using a few big stars on their initial contracts to sign more talent than other teams can afford.

The Niners have five rookie starters (Thomas, Foster, Kittle, Taylor — as punt returner — and Beathard), plus another six playing significant rotation roles, with Cole “Dirty ‘Tini” Hikutini likely to join them soon. Another nine starters are second or third year players.

But those rookie contracts create a four-year window at best, so you need to move fast and get them enough playing time on Sundays to reach their potential ASAP.

It’s not easy as “throw them all into the game so they learn quickly,” because players can get their confidence (or bodies) broken when they are rushed into major roles too early. This is especially true for quarterbacks and CBs, which is why it was wise to start the year with Hoyer.

Arguably, Rashard Robinson was started prematurely this year. The team didn’t have a good alternative, but getting roasted can damage the mindset of a young player for good. Luckily, he seems to have weathered the storm.

  • Focus on your base offense and defense.

An Elegant Tank is no time to get cute on offense, or run a lot of defensive stunts. Stick to the bread and butter and get it into muscle memory with all those young players. Both Shanny’s complex offense and Saleh’s Cover 3 are intricate schemes, and it’s just going to take some time (and losing) to get it all down. If that makes it easier for opponents to squeak out a win, then oh well.

  • Test the full range of players’ abilities.

This is a great time to plumb the potential of talented young players. Otherwise puzzling moves, such as using Arik Armstead at LEO and Solomon Thomas at strong side DE, make more sense as attempts to explore their potential for future injury replacements and possible trick plays, which you won’t want to show on tape this year. But you need to know what they’re capable of doing from real game play.

  • Be careful with injuries.

If you’re sprinting for a playoff berth, you’ll probably push that player to return on the early side and play a little dinged up. When Tanking Elegantly, though, you let a potential superstar like Reuben Foster have that extra week to recover fully and run away from guys with AK-47s.

None of these strategies requires playing poorly or being boring. If anything, it encourages experimentation and trying out rookies, giving them the green light to try high-risk, high-reward strategies (like passing deep a lot).

So hop aboard the Elegant Tank and enjoy the ride! If nothing else, you have to admit that no 0-6 team has ever been this much fun to watch.