After abysmal back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016, the San Francisco 49ers secured their head coach of the future when they hired Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan’s arrival marked the end of the uncertainty the franchise faced once Jim Harbaugh’s contract wasn’t renewed following the 2014 campaign. In 2015, Jim Tomsula was over his head and was let go after leading the team to a 5-11 finish.
Things got even worse in 2016. The 49ers hired Chip Kelly and finished the season with a disastrous 2-14 record.
Shanahan’s arrival brought some credibility to the franchise. However, everyone knew it would be a difficult task for Shanahan since departing general manager Trent Baalke left the cupboard almost completely bare of talent.
The 49ers went 6-10 in Shanahan’s first year, 4-12 in Year 2 (QB Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in Week 3), went 13-3 in 2019 and made it all the way to the Super Bowl before stumbling to a 6-10 finish during an injury-plagued 2020 season.
Even though they finished dead-last in the NFC West last season, the 49ers are expected to be among the Super Bowl contenders in 2021. With a core of George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Trent Williams, the Niners have the building blocks in place to compete for a championship.
Shanahan is known for his prowess as a play designer, and his offensive system is among the most respected in the NFL.
CBS Sports released its NFL head coaching rankings and has Shanahan just outside the top 10.
11. Kyle Shanahan (49ers)
Season: 5th with 49ers and as HC
Career record: 29-35 (.453)
Playoff record: 2-1 (0-1 in Super Bowl)
You might be shocked to see that record, but here’s how his 49ers tenure has gone thus far: 6-10, 4-12, 13-3, 6-10. Contrary to popular belief, he’s not invincible, and his scheme can’t cover every hole. But the 13-3 finish doesn’t feel like an anomaly because his offense, when thriving, is one of the cleanest in the game. Gambling on a promising long-term QB in Trey Lance is a 2021 bonus.
The 49ers were 1-10 in 2017 before Garoppolo’s arrival. The QB led the Niners on a five-game winning streak to close out the season, which led to heightened expectations for the 2018 campaign.
However, those expectations were short-lived. Any hope of a playoff spot were dashed once Garoppolo went down late in the Week 3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Despite injuries to Kittle and offensive lineman Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, everything broke the 49ers’ way in 2019. Other than the injuries to the trio of offensive players, the Niners remained mostly healthy, and we saw what Shanahan could do with a full stable of players.
The 49ers would likely have been back in the postseason last year if it wasn’t for the ridiculous amount of injuries they suffered. By the end of their Week 2 win over the lowly New York Jets, the 49ers were without Kittle, Bosa, Garoppolo, Richard Sherman and Raheem Mostert.
Despite the poor play of backup QB Nick Mullens, Shanahan helped keep the 49ers in the playoff picture throughout most of last season. With many of the best offensive players out due to injury, the defense stepped up and helped the team remain competitive in most games.
It’s a testament to Shanahan that the locker room remained close, and the team’s culture stayed sturdy given last year's struggles. The 49ers even had to play the final weeks of the season based out of Arizona due to tightened COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County.
The 10 coaches CBS Sports has ranked ahead of Shanahan are:
1) Andy Reid (Chiefs)
2) Bill Belichick (New England Patriots)
3) John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens)
4) Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints)
5) Sean McDermott (Buffalo Bills)
6) Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams)
7) Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks)
8) Bruce Arians (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
9) Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers)
10) Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Seven of the 10 head coaches ranked above Shanahan have Super Bowl victories under their belts. Critics point to Shanahan’s Super Bowl losses (with the 49ers (2019) and as OC with the Atlanta Falcons (2016) as reasons why he doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of head coaches. His teams blew fourth quarter leads in both games, and his offenses sputtered with the stakes at their highest.
The three non-Super Bowl winners ranked ahead of Shanahan (McDermott, McVay and LaFleur) have better winning percentages than Shanahan. Each also has made at least one conference championship appearance.
Shanahan needs to string together some winning seasons for him to climb up the NFL head coach rankings. Given the lack of talent on the roster, he and general manager John Lynch were given a pass for the first two years, but expectations changed once the 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2019.
Shanahan gets another mulligan for the 2020 campaign, but with a championship nucleus in place and a shiny new toy at QB, the pressure is on Shanahan to deliver in the coming seasons.
What do you think of CBS Sports’ rankings? Where do you put Shanahan among all NFL coaches?