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Why Kyle Shanahan belongs in the Coach of the Year conversation

Shanahan has had to overcome...a lot

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

One of the fundamental issues with the current state of end-of-season awards in professional sports is that the criteria has gotten so lazy to the point that many of these accolades can be predicted well beforehand based on how they are awarded each season.

For example, each of the last seven NFL MVP awards have been given to the quarterback of a team who either had or was tied for the best regular season record in the league.

While it’s not as straightforward with the coach of the year award, there still is a discernable pattern where nine of the last ten winners have coached a team that either did not win ten or more games the year prior or finished the year in question as the number one seed in their respective conference.

That leaves a clear front-runner in Philadelphia’s Nick Sirianni, who checks both those boxes while doing a phenomenal job leading a league-best 12-1 Eagles team that won just nine games a season ago.

First, this is not intended to disparage the fantastic job that Sirianni and his staff have done this season. If the Eagles continue on this torrid pace and he ultimately takes home the award, I would have no qualms about it.

The Eagles are stout on both sides of the ball, they’re winning in dominant fashion, and they have looked every bit the part of the one seed in the NFC that they are on a fast track to be at the season's end.

Again, to me, where the unfortunate reality resides is the fact that it’s almost a given it will be going to Sirianni at this point, which overshadows some of the incredible coaching jobs being done around the league, particularly the work that’s been done in San Francisco by Kyle Shanahan this season.

Let’s start with the obvious. The 49ers are sitting at 9-4 with a chance to clinch their division Tomorrow night, coming off of a game that saw them blow out the greatest quarterback of all time with their third-string quarterback making his first career start.

The road to get here was far from a smooth ride, but at every bump in the road, there was Shanahan behind the wheel, keeping this team on course despite the amount of adversity they faced from the jump.

Before the season even started, they lost starting safety Jimmie Ward for the first four games, and then to make matters worse, Ward broke his hand on his very first play of the season after returning from the injury that kept him sidelined to start the year.

Then In week one, starting running back, Elijah Mitchell is forced to leave with a knee injury and miss the first half of the season. The following week the 49ers lost their starting quarterback for the season and were forced to plug in a familiar face in Jimmy Garoppolo, but one who did not have a single rep with the team during training camp or the preseason.

That trend continued into Week 3 when the 49ers lost superstar left tackle Trent Williams to an ankle injury and starting nose tackle Javon Kinlaw. Then, the very next week, the 49ers lost one of the most important players on their defense in Arik Armstead, and the following week they lost starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley for the year.

They also were without Nick Bosa for a week and a half and likely had a far less than 100 percent version of Bosa as he dealt with the injuries that kept him sidelined. After a brutal loss at home to the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers found themselves sitting at 3-4 with the toughest stretch of their schedule yet to come.

The 49ers responded with a dominant win on the road in Los Angeles, giving themselves some much-needed momentum heading into their bye week. They came out of their week off to face the Los Angeles Chargers on primetime, winning a game that they trailed by double digits.

They followed that up with a thumping of the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City, a game which Shanahan had his team prepare for by spending the week leading up practicing in Colorado Springs with the intention of getting his team acclimated to the altitude for the 7,000 feet above sea level they would be playing at in Mexico.

Again, it really is about the little things sometimes. At Shanahan’s urging, the 49ers got out of their comfort zone to adjust to something that he felt would give them a competitive advantage. Their opponent chose not to do any kind of acclimating, and once the game got started, it became very obvious which teams conditioning was up to par to handle the environment they were in as the 49ers routed their division rival 38-10.

The team then came back and found a way to pull out a win against a tough New Orleans Saints team, who managed to stifle the 49ers' offense in a way that no other team has been able to since they acquired Christian McCaffrey. However, what matters most is they found a way to win a game against a tough opponent coming off an emotional win on a short week.

That’s what good teams do. That’s what well-coached teams do. They find a way to win ugly and move on to the following week. In this case, their next week offered arguably the biggest adversity they had faced yet.

The 8-3 first-place Miami Dolphins were coming to town, led by their high-powered offense and former Shanahan protege in Mike McDaniels. We appeared to be headed to a shootout early on before the unthinkable happened.

The 49ers lost yet another starting quarterback to a severe injury, putting the fate of this championship-caliber roster in the hands of a rookie who was picked in the seventh round just a few short months ago.

This is the moment that makes or breaks the great coaches in this league. Shanahan just lost his comfort blanket, the quarterback who had been his starter for years and was supposed to be the ultimate insurance policy for them at the position this season.

We’ve already seen what it looks like in recent years when a 49ers team loses its starting quarterback. Sure the roster was talented enough to keep them in games, but it was never good enough to keep them in any serious conversations among contenders. But as seasons change, so do the people involved with them, and this was not the Shanahan of old.

In the limited action we’ve seen with Brock Purdy as the 49ers starting quarterback, it’s become evident that Shanahan has placed a level of trust in his rookie signal caller that arguably has been lacking in recent seasons.

Rather than coaching not to lose, Shanahan has made it clear he is going to keep his foot on the accelerator despite having an inexperienced quarterback operating his offense. It has paid off early, as the 49ers have come away with points on half of the 18 drives that Purdy has been under center for since coming in cold in the first quarter against Miami.

That includes a red-hot first half against Tampa Bay that saw the 49ers jump out to a 28-0 lead at the break. Their final touchdown drive just before halftime is the most telling example of how Shanahan’s trust in Purdy and the players on this roster has kept this team firmly in a position to remain among the league’s elites.

With 1:30 remaining in the second quarter, the 49ers sat on a 21-0 lead with the ball in their possession on their own 20-yard line. It would have been more than reasonable of Shanahan to run the clock out and head into the locker room with a three-touchdown lead.

After all, imagine how disastrous it would have been if Tampa Bay was able to create a turnover, score before halftime and then double up a getting the ball coming out of the break. In past years, perhaps Shanahan would have played it safe. But not this Shanahan. Not the Coach of the Year, Shanahan.

Instead, Shanahan opted to call a double swirl concept, a play call which typically he leans on in third and long situations, and instead of running down the clock, the 49ers instead had their rookie quarterback throw a dart upfield to Brandon Aiyuk for a 25 yard gain.

Shanahan followed that up by calling five consecutive passing plays, ultimately striking pay dirt when Purdy connected with McCaffrey on a 32-yard touchdown to inconceivably put the 49ers up by four touchdowns at the break.

Let’s stop and reflect on that for a moment. The 49ers were down to their third-string quarterback, who was making his first-ever career start in the NFL, and they headed into the locker room at halftime up 28 points on a top-ten defense.

This is not normal in the world of professional football. The 49ers have beaten first-place teams by double digits in back-to-back weeks with their third-string quarterback, who has very limited experience at this level. While the players deserve credit for executing on the field, it all comes back to the top and the tone that has been set by Shanahan and the coaching staff he has put together.

A handful of times this season, the 49ers appeared left for dead. It seemed destined to be another year with a talented roster that would be squandered due to injuries and other unforeseen obstacles.

And yet here they are, sitting on a six-game win streak with a chance to wrap up a home game in the playoffs before the rest of the NFL kicks off their games in week 15. The tone and the culture this team has built under Shanahan’s leadership is a major reasons why they have been able to weather storm after storm and remain firmly in contention for a deep playoff run.

If the Eagles finish the year 15-1, by all means, recognize Sirianni with this award. Adversity is not something that is exclusive to the 49ers, and the Eagles have had to overcome their share of obstacles as well.

Even if Shanahan is not ultimately awarded the honor of being Coach of the Year, he has firmly earned the right to be at the forefront of the discussion when the time comes to deliberate on deciding who will win this prestigious accolade.