Being a successful head coach in the NFL requires numerous skills not every coach possesses. That’s why there are only a handful of coaches that have been A: consistent winning games and B: employed by one franchise for a long tenure.
The position requires extensive knowledge of at least one side of the game (offense or defense), leadership skills to lead a locker room of players when the road gets rough, ability to develop young prospects into stars for the team, and fend off media, fans and a city in the face of high expectations.
Since the firing of Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have hired and fired Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly — two coaches who did not bear at least one of the qualities listed above. The franchise is in their fourth coach in six seasons and seem to have finally found someone capable of leading the 49ers to a place that the franchise hasn’t been in 25 years.
Although Kyle Shanahan had not won a lot of games in his first two seasons, it was clear that the locker room continued believing in his ability to coach the team and multiple young players have emerged as stars. The winning narrative changed in his third season, as the team currently sits at 8-1, first in the NFC, boasts a top-two defense in the NFL, and employs a running attack that can wear opposing defenses out.
“I think at the end of the day Kyle’s doing a phenomenal job keeping the ship steady,” 49ers corner Richard Sherman said, following a 2-7 start to the 2018 season “Guys are just playing for each other, caring about one another and playing for their coach.” The outspoken corner is not one to dish out compliments, but it was eye-opening how vocal he was in his praise for the head coach.
Not only were Shanahan’s leadership skills praised, but so was his deep understanding of X’s and O’s on offense. Just ask newly acquired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders: “Kyle Shanahan, from a play-calling standpoint, is definitely one of the best offensive-minded guys that I’ve been around.”
The 49ers are a 47-yard field goal attempt miss from Chase McLaughlin away from being undefeated, the locker room seems to be unequivocally behind their leader, so what’s the problem?
One of the more under-spoken storylines this season has been the odd play of wide receiver Dante Pettis — who was supposed to blossom into of the team’s best receivers after a promising finish to last season.
Pettis finished 2018 with 27 catches, 467 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 17.3 yards per reception. This was done where he was injured part of the time as well.
This season? The former Washington Husky receiver is on pace to finish the season with 20 catches, 194 yards and 4 touchdowns, with an average of 9.9 yards per reception.
John Lynch and the 49ers traded a second and third-round pick in exchange for for Pettis and a fifth-rounder in 2018, but here’s where Pettis ranks among the six 49ers’ receivers in important categories, per Pro Football Focus:
Snaps: 304 (2nd)
Targets: 23 (3rd)
Receptions: 11 (T-4th)
Yards: 109 (5th)
Passer Rating when targeted: 54.4 (6th)
While Pettis continues to get the opportunities on the field, the return on the investment is not showing up for San Francisco — especially when the 49ers needed a playmaker to step up against Seattle on Monday Night Football. A game where Pettis finished with zero catches on three targets.
Right about now, You’re probably wondering why I’m choosing to criticize Shanahan instead of Pettis.
It goes back to training camp, when Shanahan implored the receiver group to perform better, but most of his frustrations were directed at Pettis, “He’s still trying to earn a role on this team and show what he’s capable of doing, consistently,” Shanahan commented after a preseason win in Kansas City.
Those were odd comments coming from the head coach. Remember, this is a wide receiver with a solid finish to his rookie season and was supposed to emerge as the No. 1 receiver on the team. Pettis wasn’t really trying to earn a role on the team, was he?
The 49ers finished off the preseason and Pettis seemed to be missing from the team’s offensive plan the first few weeks of the season, netting just one total target.
“I’ve been real excited with Dante his last few weeks. I mean, everyone knows that I put a little bit of pressure on him going through training camp, and it wasn’t going exactly how my expectations were, which are extremely high,” Shanahan said on KNBR following the 49ers’ by week. “It’s more of a credit to Dante, because I just believe in him a lot and he wasn’t totally there, where I wanted him to be … He really took the challenge.”
Weeks 3-7 were promising for Pettis. He averaged 45.8 snaps per game in that time span, but returned to the dog house these past three weeks, averaging 24.3 snaps per game.
The weirdest part of the entire situation came after the 49ers’ only loss thus far this season, where Shanahan dropped all of his frustrations.
“He’s had a number of opportunities,” Shanahan said Tuesday, via The Athletic. “And I’m one of the guys who believe in him the most. That’s why he’s here. He’s had his opportunities. The more he doesn’t take advantage of his opportunities, the less opportunities he gets.”
The entire 49ers’ receiving corps had a poor performance this past Monday. Despite that, Shanahan had positive reinforcement for Samuel and Bourne, but criticized Pettis through the media?
With injuries to tight end George Kittle and wideout Emmanuel Sanders, San Francisco desperately need one of their young pass catchers to step up, but the handling of Pettis’ snaps and criticism of Pettis in the media give me zero belief that Pettis will make a valuable contribution for this team this season — or ever.
While Shanahan tried to apply some tough love for his former second-round pick this past offseason, it seems to be backfiring, as one of San Francisco’s assets seems to be performing poorly and coming up short when the team needs the most from Pettis. If the former Husky receiver isn’t able to contribute as expected for the 49ers, a lion’s share of the blame will land squarely on the shoulders of the 49ers’ head coach.