The 49ers entered the season expecting to bounce back from a disastrous 2020 season, but things are going in the opposite direction just eight games into the year. San Francisco is coming off a humiliating 31-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, marking the lowest point of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s time in San Francisco. In two of the past three weeks, the Niners have been on the wrong side of embarrassing losses and now must jump four teams to reach the NFL’s expanded playoffs.
It felt like everything went wrong on Sunday for the 49ers. When that happens in the NFL, the scrutiny goes to the head coach. Shanahan has a 32-40 record as the top decisionmaker in San Francisco. His winning percentage is worse than former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, Bears coach Matt Nagy, and even Adam Gase when he was with the Miami Dolphins.
Focusing on any one thing from the Niners' loss to the Cardinals is hard to do. Fumbles by tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in the first half both proved costly. In addition, the defense was unable to stop a Cardinals offense that was missing their top quarterback (Kyler Murray) and wide receiver (DeAndre Hopkins). Yet two things, in particular, stood out as indictments of Shanahan.
49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey suffered a season-ending quad injury in the second quarter. As a result, Shanahan had to make a substitution along his offensive line. Rookie fifth-round pick Jaylon Moore seemed like the obvious choice. This preseason, he won the team’s swing tackle job and was solid when he stepped in at left tackle for Trent Williams earlier this season. But, instead, the 49ers deployed journeyman Tom Compton. In less than three quarters, Compton surrendered two sacks and several pressures.
During his postgame press conference, Shanahan explained going with the veteran over Moore because the rookie did not have enough practice on the right side of the line. If true, that’s an inexcusable lack of preparation. While Moore has filled in for left tackle Trent Williams multiple times this season, Williams has only missed one game. There is no reason Moore, who played right tackle at the Senior Bowl, should not have been prepared to enter at either tackle spot.
Beyond preparation issues, the 49ers' offensive decisions seemed to concede victory early in the second half. The Niners scored a touchdown with less than five minutes left in the third quarter, bringing the score to 31-13. Instead of making it a two-possession game by going for two, Shanahan opted to kick an extra point.
Shanahan claimed the coaching staff thought there was enough time to build three more scoring drives, but the 49ers never played with much urgency. They let the final 36 seconds of the third quarter run off the clock without running a play. They were still huddling at the start of the fourth quarter and even ran the ball on first down. When they drove into Arizona territory and were stuck in a 4th-and-long, Shanahan opted to punt.
Pundits and fans are quick to say a player quit on their team when they are going through the motions, but that same criticism is rarely there for coaches. Unfortunately, on Sunday, it sure looked like Shanahan quit on his team.
Throughout Shanahan’s tenure, injuries have been the story, but they have also overshadowed several unacceptable losses when the Niners have been healthy. In 2020, they lost to the Cardinals (who finished 8-8) despite having a healthy defense, offensive line, Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, and Raheem Mostert. When Garoppolo tore his ACL in 2018, the Niners had already lost to a mediocre Vikings team (who finished 8-7-1) despite having no notable absences on either side of the ball.
Even if you ignore his first year in charge of the franchise, when the roster was devoid of talent, his regular-season record is still 26-30 with just one playoff appearance in three (soon to be four) years. Few franchises have stomached such mediocrity without making a change, even from a coach who led a team to the Super Bowl.
If there is a case for keeping Shanahan, it cannot rely on his win-loss record. However, a closer look reveals little else to justify keeping him around.
What has Kyle Shanahan done for the 49ers' offense?
As the son of longtime Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, Kyle first joined an NFL coaching staff before his 25th birthday, when Jon Gruden hired him to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quality control coach. Shanahan quickly ascended the NFL coaching ladder, becoming the Houston Texans offensive coordinator in 2008. Over the next nine years, his reputation as an elite offensive coordinator continued to grow.
When the 49ers were searching for a new head coach in 2017, Shanahan was the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator during their run to the Super Bowl and was considered one of the hottest names on the coaching market.
Shanahan's offensive track record was a huge part of his appeal. At the very least, many thought that whoever hired Shanahan should build one of the best offenses in the NFL.
A closer look at the 49ers' performance under Shanahan, though, reveals a different story. Below is a graph of each NFL team by offensive and defensive Estimated Points Added (EPA) per play since Shanahan:
Shanahan producing just a league-average offense over his tenure is hardly anything to celebrate. In fact, the 49ers' defense has been a better overall unit. However, even that tells a deceiving story. The Niners have been on both ends of several blowouts throughout Shanahan’s tenure, making those numbers at risk of being skewed by garbage time.
The most critical moments in any game are when both teams’ win probabilities are between 30-70%. These are the moments when games swing. Here is the same graph filtering out plays where one team’s win probability is at least 70%:
The 49ers' defense has performed better in more critical situations. Shanahan’s offense, on the other hand, becomes the fourth-worst unit in the league. That placement would be unacceptable for any head coach’s tenure, especially one who has been called an offensive genius. Worst of all, the struggles have not been limited to rushing or passing. Both sides of Shanahan’s attack have struggled in big moments.
San Francisco has the seventh-least efficient passing and eight-least efficient rushing attack in the NFL with the garbage time filter since Shanahan has taken over. Of the nine teams that have been below-average in both passing and rushing, the 49ers are the only team that has not fired an offensive coordinator. Seven of the eight other teams have fired at least one head coach over the timespan, with Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers the other exception.
The 49ers' offensive struggles have coincided with obvious shortcomings at quarterback. While Jimmy Garoppolo has generated constant controversy over his ability as a starter, he has undeniably been the franchise’s best option under Shanahan. However, if Shanahan has been limited by his offensive personnel, that blame falls squarely on his shoulders as well.
Kyle Shanahan’s player personnel failures
It should have been a bigger red flag when Shanahan’s first decision with the 49ers was to make John Lynch the team’s general manager. As both have told it, neither Lynch nor Shanahan knew each other very well before teaming up. However, as David Bonilla recapped at 49ers Webzone earlier this year, they both were excited about teaming up.
One day, something compelled Lynch to call Shanahan. The offensive coordinator shared that he was trying to find the right person to work with and serve as San Francisco’s new general manager. Shanahan was having difficulty finding the right fit.
“Without hesitation, I said, ‘Well, what about me?’” Lynch commented.
That shocked Shanahan, who did not see it coming. Lynch encouraged Shanahan just to consider it. Shanahan did, and the next day, he called Lynch back and asked if that were something he would really consider. Lynch was definitely interested but acknowledged that he had a pretty comfortable life already. He needed a little more encouragement.
“When John told me that, it took a lot of stress off me,” Shanahan said, referring to phone conversation he had with Lynch while preparing for a playoff game as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator. “That’s a hell of a deal.”
Shanahan has never made an excellent case for bringing Lynch aboard as his second-in-command. While the longtime Broncos safety had a Hall of Fame playing career and seems genuinely liked around the league, he had never worked in a front office. He had no experience in scouting or player personnel.
Shanahan, though, retained the final say on the 49ers' moves. Nobody outside of any organization knows who is pounding the table for the team’s best or worst moves, but the responsibility ultimately falls on the leader. For his entire tenure in San Francisco, that has been Shanahan.
He decided on a quarterback room of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, and C.J. Beathard was better than one that included Colin Kaepernick. He determined a draft class that included Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson lacked a quarterback worthy of a top-five pick. In the years to come, he stuck by Garoppolo over potential upgrades like Kirk Cousins and Tom Brady.
Besides the quarterback room, few teams have fared worse than the 49ers at the top of the free-agent market. Shanahan inherited one of the cleanest payrolls in the league with more than $80 million in cap space. The Niners had a chance to use their financial flexibility to acquire some premium talent.
Shanahan traded a pair of second-round picks in deals for Dee Ford and Jimmy Garoppolo, who failed to live up to their contracts. Even if the 49ers move on from Ford and Garoppolo at the end of this season, the duo will have cost the team more than $151.5 million in cap space.
Yet Ford and Garoppolo have been more successful than several of the team’s biggest free-agent signings. The 49ers spent nearly $105 million in cap space on Kwon Alexander, Pierre Garcon, Weston Richburg, Malcolm Smith, and Jerrick McKinnon. Richburg was the only one of those players who appeared in more than 16 games with the team.
While the 49ers, Rams, and Seahawks have all traded multiple first-round picks under their current regimes, the Rams and Seahawks have used those picks to acquire Pro Bowl talent (Jalen Ramsey, Jamal Adams, and Matthew Stafford). The 49ers, on the other hand, traded three first-round picks for a quarterback that Shanahan has insisted he had no intentions of starting this season. Moreover, the 49ers traded one of their best players (DeForest Buckner) after reaching the Super Bowl for a first-round pick.
The draft is another monster altogether. The 49ers have received virtually no contributions from their top-four picks in 2021, but Shanahan’s drafts have been a story of extremes. There have been huge whiffs, but also some great finds. So instead of evaluating each pick, it might be more worthwhile to look at their process.
Everyone is confident in their scouting, but front offices understand how difficult it is to project amateur talent. For that very reason, teams are generally tentative to move up in the draft unless they feel like an obvious talent has fallen. Here’s the list of players the 49ers have traded up for under Shanahan: Reuben Foster, C.J. Beathard, Joe Williams, Dante Pettis, Brandon Aiyuk, Trey Lance, and Trey Sermon. That list includes some of the franchise’s biggest busts in recent years.
Beyond the biggest moves, the 49ers roster management under Shanahan has always seemed surface-level with little thought for long-term plans or solidifying depth. As a result, the 49ers have entered the past two seasons with an excellent starting lineup but questionable depth at multiple key spots, particularly cornerback.
It might be true that no team has been more affected by injuries over the past four years than the 49ers, but that is in part because they have done such a terrible job preparing for those scenarios. The Niners' reliance on cornerback Jason Verrett entering this season might be the most egregious example.
Each individual player personnel decision has a logic to it. But the reason so many of Shanahan’s moves have gone wrong traces back to one thing: hubris.
How else do you explain hiring a general manager with no personnel or scouting experience? Or not taking a good look at a draft’s quarterback prospects because Kirk Cousins will be a free agent in a year? Or trading one of your best players after you reached the Super Bowl for a mid-first-round pick? Or convincing yourself that your team is so talented and well-coached that they can compete for a Super Bowl after trading three first-round picks for someone you do not expect to play?
There is a fine line between confidence and conceit. Shanahan has acted with the latter. The 49ers have paid the price.
Despite all that has gone wrong, Shanahan and the 49ers still have elite players throughout their roster (e.g., Deebo Samuel, Trent Williams, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, and Fred Warner) and one of the best young quarterback prospects in the league (Trey Lance). So even if they do not recover this season, they could be right back in title contention if they make the right moves this offseason.
However, they will have to manage an already constrained salary cap to fit extensions for Samuel and Bosa. San Francisco will have to rely heavily on their draft classes, which do not have their first-round pick over the next two years. My colleague Jordon Elliot has argued the 49ers can only go up from here, but the franchise could fall a long way if they mismanage next offseason. Can they trust Shanahan to make those decisions?
Where can the 49ers go from here?
Ultimately, Shanahan’s future is in the hands of 49ers CEO Jed York, who seems unlikely to make a move. The Niners CEO went through four head coaches in four years after prematurely moving on from Jim Harbaugh, and he is clearly afraid to put himself in that position again.
Those in favor of keeping Shanahan might bring up Bill Belichick’s preemptive firing by the Cleveland Browns in 1996 or even Bill Walsh, who missed the playoffs in three of his first four seasons as head coach. Of course, the circumstances around both situations differ from Shanahan’s, but even if they did not, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most of the time, a great coach immediately builds a winner.
The 49ers do not need to look far to see a perfect example. The Los Angeles Rams hired Sean McVay the same offseason the Niners hired Shanahan. The Rams had not posted a winning season since 2003 and were coming off a 4-12 season. They did not have a first-round pick and had half as much cap space as the 49ers in McVay’s first offseason. Yet they reached the Super Bowl the next season and have had a winning record every year since.
LA might have had marginally more talent than the Niners, but the gap was smaller than many might recall. Were Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Rodger Saffold, and Rob Havenstein a better offensive foundation than Kaepernick, Carlos Hyde, Joe Staley, and Trent Brown? Were Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Trumaine Johnson, and Lamarcus Joyner that much better a foundation than a unit that had Buckner, Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward, and Jaquiski Tartt?
Following the 2017 season, NFL teams hired six head coaches: Kyle Shanahan (49ers), Doug Marrone (Jaguars), Anthony Lynn (Chargers), Sean McVay (Rams), Sean McDermott (Bills), Vance Joseph (Broncos)— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) November 9, 2021
Here's a table with each of their tenures. One of these is not like the others. pic.twitter.com/l6RMB8WLRu
Shanahan did sign a sizable extension last year, but York’s track record suggests that will not keep him from making a move. York fired Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly in the first year of four-year contracts and owed former coaches nearly $70 million. Whether York believes the 49ers need to find a new head coach remains to be seen, but if he does, the money will not stop him from doing so.
If the 49ers fire Shanahan and Lynch, York will need to find a strong duo atop the organization. Luckily, they would have several intriguing options. Browns' vice president of football operations, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, was the 49ers’ director of football R&D from 2013-2020 and has become one of the hottest names on the GM market. They could target a top-flight coordinator like Eric Bieniemy, Todd Bowles, or Brian Daboll and pair them with a front-office executive from their current organization.
San Francisco may not need to get so creative, though. Jim Caldwell has produced winning seasons in five of his seven years as head coach, including the only playoff runs by the Detroit Lions in the past ten seasons. Even Marvin Lewis, who rebuilt the Cincinnati Bengals into a relevant NFL franchise, could provide stability in San Francisco.
The 49ers should be in the thick of the NFC West race. Except they aren’t. They are 3-5. They have lost two humiliating games to a depleted Cardinals and mediocre Colts. Five years into Shanahan’s tenure as head coach, there are no more excuses. The 49ers are a talented mess because of Kyle Shanahan. For that reason, he has to go.