When Kyle Shanahan was hired as the new head coach in 2017, it helped give the San Francisco 49ers some credibility as a franchise. Although the team has only made it to the playoffs once during Shanahan’s short tenure, the 49ers have turned back into a destination franchise in the NFL.
Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have helped the Niners get some respect around the league. The head coach is known as one of the best offensive minds in the game, while Lynch is entering the Hall of Fame for his efforts as a player.
San Francisco is routinely mentioned as a potential landing spot for disgruntled star players or free agents. Shanahan and Lynch are always doing their homework on how to improve the team. We have heard the 49ers linked to players like Julio Jones, Tom Brady and Odell Beckham Jr. since the pair took over in 2017.
This is a far cry from how things were prior to Shanahan and Lynch being hired.
The Niners went through three miserable seasons from 2014-2016 with three different head coaches. Jim Harbaugh’s final year was marred by injuries and drama surrounding his future. Harbaugh frequently squabbled with 49ers’ owner Jed York and then general manager Trent Baalke.
Before Harbaugh arrived, San Francisco was seen as a losing organization after failing to make the playoffs for eight seasons. Harbaugh helped changed that, leading the Niners to three consecutive NFC Championship games. Once he left, we were subjected to two awful seasons that saw the team go 7-25.
The 49ers have had some brutal coaches since the Yorks took over as owners. It’s almost like they put the worst candidates’ names into a hat and drew to see who would get arguably the most critical job in the organization.
Steve Mariucci and Jim Harbaugh are excluded from this list because they actually won games during their time with the team. Shanahan is 29-35 since taking over, but his record would be better if San Francisco’s roster weren’t ravaged by injuries last season.
Here are the choices:
Overall record: 9-32
DVOA rank by season: 2003 (18th), 2004 (32nd)
Notable qualities: Had the charisma of a cardboard box. Doesn’t like John York.
Erickson was brought in after he returned to the college ranks and helped Oregon State turn its program around. But, if Erickson’s first NFL stint was any indication, his time with the Niners wasn’t going to be pretty. He had gone 31-33 over four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks when Erickson went 8-8 three separate times.
With Pro-Bowlers Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia, and Garrison Hearst on the roster when Erickson took over in 2003, the 49ers came out of the gates blazing, blowing out the Chicago Bears 49-7 in Week 1, but unfortunately, that was the only time the team was over .500 that entire season.
The Niners finished 7-9 in Erickson’s first year, with five losses coming by three points or less. San Francisco finished 18th in total DVOA in 2003.
With Owens, Garcia, and Hearst gone for various reasons after the 2003 season, 2004 turned ugly for Erickson. Rattay was the starting quarterback, and a sign of things to come came in a Week 1 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Rattay and Eric Johnson connected for a 16-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left to cut the Falcons lead to 21-19. Unfortunately, Rattay’s pass for the two-point convert went incomplete, sealing the win for Atlanta.
San Francisco went 2-14 in 2004, with both of its wins coming over the Arizona Cardinals. Erickson was fired after the season.
Overall record: 18-37
DVOA rank by season: 2005 (32nd), 2006 (27th), 2007 (31st). Fired in 2008 after 2-5 start.
Notable qualities: Actually looked kind of cool in a suit on the sidelines. Ruined Alex Smith’s confidence. Thought Smith would have a better career than Aaron Rodgers.
Erickson gave the gift of the No. 1 overall pick to Nolan. The 49ers had the chance to take their QB of the future with the top selection, which of course, Nolan messed up. He explained why the Niners decided to go with Smith over Rodgers to the NFL Network in 2016.
“The other thing as Alex at the time was a good kid — a very good person, a safe choice, always trying to please,” Nolan said. “On the other hand, Aaron was very cocky, very confident, arrogant. So you can say, ‘Why didn’t you take him to begin with?’ Because that’s really what your best quarterbacks look like. They aren’t very pleasing. They aren’t very safe.
“Basically, we thought in the long term that Alex Smith would be the better choice than Aaron,” Nolan said. “It was one of those, maybe, paralysis by analysis. We had so much time to think about it.
Not the way you want to begin your professional head coaching career. With a roster short on talent, the Niners went 4-12 in Nolan’s first year as the head coach.
Things appeared to turn around the following year. San Francisco went 7-9 in 2006, and it looked like Smith began to find his footing as an NFL QB.
But the team regressed in Nolan’s third year and went 5-11. Nolan lasted just seven games in 2008 before being fired.
Overall record 18-22
DVOA rank by season: Was assistant to Nolan and took over the head coaching job when Nolan was fired during the 2008 season. 2009 (20th), 2010 (24th) *fired before the final game of the regular season.
Notable qualities: Only wanted winners on the team. He wasn’t afraid to rip players on the sidelines.
Singletary had some highlights during his stint as the 49ers head coach. The team started the 2009 season 3-1 and appeared to turn a corner. Although the Niners finished the 2009 campaign with an 8-8 record, it looked like the franchise would be a playoff contender the following year.
Things went the complete opposite. San Francisco lost its first five games of the 2010 season, but that didn’t stop Jed from predicting that the team would make it to the playoffs. That didn’t happen. Although the Niners went 5-5 over their next 10, Singletary was fired before the final game of the schedule. He was replaced on an interim basis by the next name on the list.
Overall record: 6-11
DVOA rank by season: 2015 (32nd)
Notable qualities: (possibly) farted during a post-game press conference. Said, “ok?” after answering questions from reporters. Had a pornstar mustache. He seemed to give good hugs. He was undefeated as an NFL head coach for five years.
The first game of the 2015 season was an enigma. Carlos Hyde ran for 168 yards, and the 49ers trounced the Minnesota Vikings 20-3, helping Tomsula start his head coaching career with a 2-0 record (Tomsula led San Francisco to a win in the 2010 regular season finale). Unfortunately, the rest of the season didn’t go so smoothly.
The Niners would lose their next three games by an average of 26.3 points, and any hope from the Week 1 victory was long gone. Tomsula’s squad didn’t show any significant improvement during the rest of the season, and York let him go at the conclusion of the season. The decision only amplified the disdain of The Faithful, who were still upset that Harbaugh wasn’t brought back despite a sparkling 44-19-1 record.
Overall record: 2-14
DVOA by season: 2016 (28th)
Notable qualities: Helped ensure Trent Baalke wouldn’t be back as general manager. He also possibly opened Jed York’s eyes to the terrible way he ran the operation, so Kelly did some good.
It was like the football gods loved teasing San Francisco fans. Kelly’s first game as head coach of the Niners went about as well as you can hope for.
The 49ers obliterated the Los Angeles Rams 28-0, holding their division rival to just 185 yards on Monday Night Football. There was a reason for optimism after the Week 1 blowout, but that quickly dissipated after a few more games.
San Francisco lost its next 13 games before it beat L.A. 22-21 in Week 15, which also marked Colin Kaepernick's final victory as an NFL quarterback.
It hasn’t been pretty being a 49ers fan since the turn of the century, but the franchise is in good hands with Shanahan at the helm.
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