It feels like a foregone conclusion that this will be Robert Saleh’s last season as the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator. Saleh has been nothing short of outstanding this season, and his gameplan against Washington was further proof that the Niners DC is ready for bigger responsibilities.
Washington entered Week 10, trending in the right direction on offense, and were top-10 in most statistical categories that are relevant, including explosive plays. After Sunday’s matchup against the 49ers, you’d have no idea that was the case. Washington averaged 3.1 yards per play and 2.8 yards per pass. They failed to score a touchdown on the afternoon while settling for field goals on both red zone attempts. Washington turned the ball over once and went 3-for-15 on third down.
For this article, we’re going to assume that Saleh will be a head coach in 2021. More than likely, in his home state of Michigan. Which begs the question, who replaces Saleh? Let’s take a look at six of potential candidates and a reason for or against each coach.
The obvious options
Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is an easy connection as Kyle Shanahan was an offensive coordinator under Quinn during his time in Atlanta for two seasons. Quinn spent his first four seasons in the NFL as a defensive quality control coach in San Francisco, making him the most obvious candidate to replace Saleh.
Reason against: Despite Quinn’s defensive background, the Falcons have finished 17th, 30th, 17th, 19th, and 18th in defensive DVOA in each of the past five years. Atlanta’s weighted defensive DVOA, which puts more emphasis on recent games, is No. 11.
The 49ers' defense will look a lot different next year than it does this year, but with stars like Nick Bosa and Fred Warner and a defensive line with Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw, the next coordinator won’t be hurting for talent. Instead of going with a familiar face who we’ve seen fail to motivate his team and elevate the talent on the roster, I’d pass on Quinn.
Staying with the “Seattle coordinators,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley isn’t available yet, but if Los Angeles cleans house, Bradley is likely on his way out. Bradley recommended Saleh to Pete Carroll, where Bradley said, “I’ve got a guy, one of the best QC coaches I’ve ever been around. He was fast and detailed,” speaking about Saleh.
Saleh worked with Bradley for three seasons as the Jaguars linebacker coach, and it would be fitting if Saleh returned the favor by recommending Bradley.
Reason against: It seems like the only time we hear good things about Bradley is when he’s against the Chiefs, and that’s just because Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa get pressure. The Chargers are 22nd in defensive DVOA this season. Bradley has not fully evolved past that Seattle coverage scheme where offenses comprise their defense by going into trips, which would be an easy no for me.
According to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Phillips wants to coach in the NFL next year. Phillips is supposedly interested in the Raiders defensive coordinator position. Before this season, Phillips served as the Rams defensive coordinator for the previous three seasons. He’s 73-years-old, but a living legend. There aren’t any ties to Shanahan that I know if, but he shouldn’t need any.
Reason for: Phillips’ aggressive, simplistic philosophy allows for defenses to play fast. It hasn’t been often, but when the 49ers have made mistakes on defense this season, it’s because they’ve made mental mistakes. You know what you’re getting with Wade, and that’s probably blitzing and man coverage. The 49ers would have to invest in the cornerback position—a novel concept, I know—but Phillips would be a great fit.
There was a rumor a little over a week ago that the Broncos may fire Vic Fangio. Why? I’m not sure as he’s been dealt a bad hand thanks to his general manager, but Fangio and his defense have remained competitive. Before you get stuck on shifting to a 3-4, remember that 75% of the time, the team would likely be in sub-packages, and Fangio would let Bosa and Armstead rush with their hand on the ground.
Reason for: You couldn’t pay me to say anything bad about Fangio, the defensive coordinator. If Fangio would have been able to get out of his contract with Chicago, he’d be in San Francisco. In 2017, Shanahan told reporters, “Vic was under contract, and I wasn’t allowed to get him.” If that changes this year, I will welcome Fangio back to the Bay Area with open arms.
Two ‘players’ coaches
It didn’t take long to realize Ryans had a future as a defensive coordinator. That was one of my first thoughts after training camp in 2019.
DeMeco Ryans=future DC. I don’t think he’ll be a position coach for long.— KP (@KP_Show) August 14, 2019
A year later, and we’ve seen Fred Warner transform into an elite linebacker. We saw Dre Greenlaw look like a budding star his rookie season. Ryans’ produces results.
You can tell by the way Ryans interacts with the players and how he commands their attention that he’s a good coach. He’s not much of a “rah-rah” guy, but that doesn’t mean Ryans isn’t a motivator. The only thing Ryans lacks is experience.
Reason against: It might be a year or two early for Ryans to call plays. It’s going to happen, and it may not be in San Francisco, but Ryans will be a defensive coordinator. Where the 49ers are now, and with the pieces in place, you’d probably want someone who has play-calling experience.
Atlanta’s defense since Quinn has been fired ranks 11th in defensive DVOA. That tells me Morris can motivate and Quinn cannot. In a business where people get jobs because they’re friends with somebody in the know, Morris is buddies with Shanahan. They’ve coached together in Tampa Bay, Washington, and Atlanta. Coming from that same coaching tree, there wouldn’t be much turnover scheme-wise in the defense if Morris was hired.
Reason for: You can see in the press conferences that Morris knows when to take the blame without throwing his players under the bus, but he also holds his team accountable. We’ve never heard anything bad come from a player's mouth in regards to Morris.
I’d take Phillips or Fangio over Morris, but he’d be a heck of a consolation prize, and he has a defensive back background, so perhaps that would mean more investments in the 49ers secondary.