If you were to hold a hypothetical “fantasy draft” for the coaches in the NFL, you wouldn’t get past pick No. 5 before Kyle Shanahan’s name would be called. From preparation to play-calling, Shanahan is as good as it gets. Some fans wish they could have the same complaints San Francisco 49ers had about their head coach in 2019.
You can count on someone reading the title and commenting, “run the ball more,” ignoring the mistakes the quarterback, offensive line, and receivers made in the Super Bowl. That doesn’t absolve Kyle of his mistakes. He can improve. He has to improve. Here are three areas where Shanahan must improve in 2020.
End of half/fourth down aggression
Week 2 against the Bengals, the 49ers are up 21-10 with the ball on their 33-yard line; there’s 1:14 to go in the half. Ten plays later, the offense gets a field goal, and there are six seconds left on the clock.
On a rainy day in Baltimore in Week 13, the 49ers have the ball with 1:58 remaining before the half. It takes nine plays to get into scoring position, but Robbie Gould’s 51-yard field goal is blocked.
There were a few other games, including the Super Bowl, where the Niners had plenty of time to get into scoring position before the half was over, but, instead, they sat on the ball. I could probably find ten 4th & short conversions that mathematically made sense to go for it. Kyle’s response was either “we didn’t want to give the ball back to the offense” or “we have confidence in our defense to pin it back.”
A great defense should have the opposite effect on your decision making. How often do we see a team punt the ball inside their opponents’ territory and the offense drive the ball back where the punt happened? Too often. Going for in on these short-yardage situations signals confidence in both your offense and defense. It’s a way to build confidence in your team and show them you believe in them. Teams will have a difficult time driving the ball 40 yards against the 49ers defense no matter where they start. Shanahan needs to coach aggressively and do so consistently in 2020. Doing so will unlock a level of confidence in this team as they’ll have no choice to rise to the occasion in these situations they’re put in. There are quite a few advantages to coaching aggressive.
Execution in the red zone
San Francisco had some unbelievably bad breaks in the red zone last year. Fumbled exchanges, poorly timed penalties, and George Kittle having 298 touchdowns called back. The 49ers must be more efficient in the red zone, and it starts with execution. Shanahan tended to get “too cute” near the goal-line, whether it’s some sort of wildcat formation or even more pre-snap motion than the Niners usually use as opposed to turning around and handing it off to the running back, that got you down there in the first place.
The Patriots backup running back, James White, had more targets in the red zone than George Kittle in 2019. Rams TE Tyler Higbee had more targets inside the 10-yard line than Kittle. I don’t it’s any secret that Shanahan has been searching for his next “Julio or Andre (Johnson), but there’s a superstar on the roster that should be near the top of the league in targets and touchdowns in the red zone. Especially with the youth at wide receiver, 2020 will be a great opportunity to lean on Kittle down in the red zone.
Shanahan did a great job of calling screens down in the red area. Having a back that can do it all can help. Finding a go-to back that can catch, break tackles, and get the hard-earned yards will keep defenses off balance. Whether that’s Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, or Jeff Wilson, establishing who that is early in the season should lead to better execution as the season goes on.
Having a better feel for the game
This point coincides with the other two a bit, but, especially with the roster now, I’d argue Kyle’s biggest weakness in 2019 was his feel for the game. Shanahan is the best in the NFL at running plays back-to-back when they work, or coming back to a play a few series later that didn’t work due to execution. Aggression, execution, and riding the hot hand were all issues last year.
This year, giving Jimmy Garoppolo easy throws early in the game to help build confidence is a good way to start. That way, when it comes to an end of the half situation, the only decision will be which play to call, not if you’re going to try and score. If the defense has shut the opponent down all game, and it’s 4th & 2 on their 42-yard line, go for it. These are no-brainer decisions that Shanahan struggled with a year ago. In his fourth year as a head coach, reading the flow of the game will be Kyle’s biggest area of improvement. Shanahan has grown a lot as a head coach, and by 2020 will be putting it all together.