About 15,000 days ago, a boy was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 13,572 days after that, the San Francisco 49ers hired that man to be the 20th head coach in the organization’s history. In honor of Kyle Shanahan’s 41st birthday yesterday, we decided to look back at what he’s accomplished as head coach, identify some strengths and weaknesses, and see if he’s delivered on the promises made about 1,400 days ago.
(In fact, Niner Nate Nelson and Sports Illustrated’s Leo Luna dedicated a whole episode of their podcast to Shanahan, which you can find below, iTunes, Spotify, and more!)
First, the raw data:
Regular Season Record: 28-33
Winning Percentage: .459
Playoff Record: 2-1
1 Super Bowl appearance
1 NFC Championship appearance
As with all things, context is key, so please allow me to explain why I think Shanahan’s accomplishments are better than they appear at face value.
First, while the regular season record may not impress at first, keep in mind that Shanahan was taking over a team that had won seven games in its last two years combined. The talent in the organization eroded after Jim Harbaugh left, and what remained was the rotting carcass of the Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly years.
The team was 27th in points scored and dead last in points allowed. By year three under Shanahan, the 49ers had transformed into the second highest scoring team in the league and featured a defense which gave up fewer passing yardage than the fabled Legion of Boom Seahawks defense in any year of their existence.
The roster was so deep, and the coach staff was so good that despite losing multiple Pro Bowl players to injury, the 49ers captured the top seed in the NFC and steamrolled their way to a Super Bowl. In the process, Kyle became the second-youngest coach in the 100 year history of the league to reach the big game.
That said, there have been some missteps. The biggest of those errors has come at the quarterback position, where Kyle’s tendency to get tunnel-visioned on a particular course of action blinds him to other possibilities - mainly Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. As much as the Bears get ripped for taking Mitchell Trubisky, San Francisco deserves just as much derision for drafting Solomon Thomas. This quote at the Super Bowl last year says it all.
“I didn’t look into [Mahomes] obviously as much as I should have. We definitely looked into him, studied all of his tape. Was just a freak, could make any throw, had the ability to do anything... I felt very confident that [Kirk Cousins] wasn’t gonna stay there, so anytime you go into a season knowing that a franchise quarterback was going to be available the next year, it made me a lot more picky with what we were looking at.”
Oof. The stain of that mistake will be on Kyle’s record forever, and it should be. Especially when the quarterback you passed on is that guy that beat you in the Super Bowl. While there are other lesser weaknesses like being too conservative in 4th down situations and exiling players to the doghouse never to return again, the inability to identify, acquire, and develop a true franchise quarterback remains the biggest black mark on Shanahan’s record.
Despite those missteps however, it is clear to anyone watching that the 49ers have a coach who excels at both the managerial and tactical aspects of the job. He has turned San Francisco into a destination for free agents and has built formidable units on both sides of the football. Had the team not been riddled with simultaneous injuries to key players this year, they may very well have been in contention for the top seed in the NFC once again.
There is no other head coach I would want leading this team.