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Shanahan on letting Aiyuk return punts: We always knew we would use him there

The 49ers HC also discussed what went into the decision to have Trent Taylor inactive

Buffalo Bills v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Earlier on Thursday, in Stats and Eggs, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked if he evolved as a head coach when it came to evaluating quarterbacks:

“Yeah, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a head coach, maybe. I don’t know, but how I evaluate everything is always changing. Things change; people change. You start to see you can win football games with any type of quarterback as long as they are good enough, and you can be good enough in hundreds of different ways. So, I evaluate quarterbacks in terms of trying to find people who can have a chance to be one of those elite-type guys, and there’s lots of different ways to do it. You can see now there’s plenty of different ways, so I don’t think that’ll ever change. I don’t think you have one certain thing you’re looking for. You’re just trying to find a guy who is better than about 98-percent of the people on this planet or in this country, and when you find that, you get him, and you adjust to him.”

This is a topic that some Niners fans are tired of, but it’s a topic that isn’t going anywhere so long as San Francisco fields a backup. It feels like the writing has been on the wall as this was hypothetically a prove-it season for Jimmy Garoppolo to prove that he’s “the guy” for this franchise moving forward.

What I feel like fans who are in the camp that Jimmy G should return as the starter are missing is what if he’s injured next year, or the season after, and you’re stuck in the same situation? Why draft a quarterback and keep Garoppolo? I doubt the front office is looking at their quarterback position in the simplest terms of “what’s our win/loss record with him and without him?” It’s more likely, “can we replicate similar success with another player that’s on a rookie contract?” Or, “is it worth paying a veteran $6 million more to take the ceiling off this offense?” Those are two of hundreds of questions the team is discussing.

After Shanahan’s answer and what he’s seen this season, it’s difficult to imagine the team not wanting a quarterback who is a bit more mobile. Jimmy’s legs were something that I felt was underrated about his game, but as injuries have mounted, he’s been more hesitant to move around. If he does return this season, I’m curious to see how mobile Garoppolo is once he’s fully healthy. As much as the offensive line has pointed out the poor play, we see quarterbacks every Sunday run out of pressure or extend plays for first downs. That’s not the case in the Bay Area, which is part of the reason it’s time to move on.

Aiyuk, permanent returner?

One of the most exciting aspects about Monday night was the thought that we’d see Brandon Aiyuk as a punt returner. That was my first thought once Trent Taylor was inactive as Shanahan kept a close eye on Aiyuk as a returner during practice all week. Unfortunately, the Bills didn’t punt until three minutes left in the fourth quarter. Aiyuk made the most of his return and gave us a glimpse of what he can do when the ball is in his hands.

I asked Shanahan on Wednesday what went into the decision to let Aiyuk return punts, what was his takeaway, and how he felt about some fans saying it’s not worth the injury risk:

“I’ve been wanting to use him. We always knew we would use him there if he did as good as he did in college, and nothing’s changed, and we’ve felt that since the day we met him, but you want to wait until he’s consistently getting out there, getting a few more practices in. I told him on Wednesday when we met early in that week that he was going to have some opportunities in the game. I didn’t know exactly which ones, but that’s also what went into

Taylor going down, that we knew we had two guys, that we could go with Richie or Aiyuk. I wanted to give Aiyuk a chance, and he got one on the first punt of the game. It just happened to be really late, and he did with it what we were hoping he could do. I understand people’s philosophy on that. When you have a starting receiver like that, you’re probably not going to put him out there every single time, but I also view punt returns and kick returns as two totally different things.

Punt returns, I think, are a lot easier to protect yourself on as opposed to a kickoff return. It doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt, though. You can get hurt on anything.”

I couldn’t agree more. Football is a contact sport with the biggest and best athletes in the world running full speed into each other each play. There’s an injury risk on every play. As a punt returner, Aiyuk isn’t going to take a blindside hit as he would on a kick return. We’ve seen time and time again a punt returner casually sidestep an oncoming gunner or defender. The reward far outweighs the risk.

Kyle points out that Aiyuk may not be the main punt returner since he’s a starting receiver. We could see Richie James mixed in as well, but after Aiyuk’s lone return, I’d love to give him as many chances as possible.

Audios, Trent

We’ve probably seen the last of Trent Taylor, who is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Taylor had been phased out of the offense, and him being the starting punt returner was the only value he brought to the team. Value is used loosely here. Shanahan was asked if the injuries Taylor dealt with in previous years has factored into his play and why Taylor was inactive:

“I think that you’d have to ask Trent more. I don’t think he’s been healthy week in and week out throughout the whole year, but with [WR Brandon] Aiyuk coming back, Deebo being back, with [WR Kendrick] Bourne taking over the third role, [WR] Richie [James] being a capable punt returner and also our fourth receiver and then Aiyuk being able to do a punt returner and [WR] River Cracraft had done a good job for us on special teams and more areas than as a returner, so he just ended up being the odd man out with guys being healthy. Once you’re not that slot receiver, KB took that over, it’s going to always come down to special teams, and that’s where it’s been unfortunate for him.”

James is a better receiver than Taylor. He can separate, win at multiple levels, and I’d argue that James has been the best blocking receiver on the team. If you have a returner in Aiyuk and a special teamer who can cover kicks in Cracraft, there’s no room for Taylor.