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Is Kyle Shanahan evolving as a coach?

Shanahan has been forced to evolve with all of the moving parts. But has it been enough?

Miami Dolphins v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

This season has seen many anti-Kyle Shanahan narratives fall. When you include his playoff record, Shanahan is over .500. One down. The discussion surrounding aggressiveness on fourth down and the ability to close out games remain. Until Shanahan closes out the biggest game, these narratives will persist. Can the 49ers win games without their starting QB? Have we seen an evolution in Shanahan in 2022? Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Shanahan’s teams are run first

The crux of the Shanahan philosophy is running the football. In Shanahan’s most successful seasons, his teams ran the ball far more than they passed. During Atlanta’s Super Bowl run, the Falcons were near the bottom of the league in pass attempts. However, finishing third in passing yards per game is a testament to Matt Ryan’s efficiency and Julio Jones.

Look at the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2019. Finishing second in rushing yards per game behind a historic season from Lamar Jackson and the Ravens while ending 13th in passing yards per game furthers the point.

Passing attempts can be a fluky stat as they can inflate due to the game script. However, a great run defense on the other side will force your hand to pass more.

This season has seen a shift in the plan for Shanahan. With Trey Lance under center, the idea was to run the ball more using Lance’s legs as a threat to open things up for his running backs. Week 1 was a literal monsoon and only played into this idea even more. Twenty-eight passing attempts to 37 rushes is par for the course considering the weather.

Unfortunately, Lance broke his ankle in Week 2 against Seattle. The run-to-pass ratio continued as Garoppolo was back in action with 24 passing attempts to 45 rushes.

In Garoppolo’s first week as a starter, he faced an imposing Denver Broncos defense. Having little success on the ground during the game led the 49ers to throw more. The ratio ended up being 29 passing attempts to 19 attempts.

The following eight games would see the 49ers have more passing attempts in seven of those contests.

When your team is trailing, you are inclined to throw more. Such is the case with the Atlanta and Kansas City games.

Every win during this stretch except facing the Chargers (29th in rushing yards allowed) saw Shanahan call more pass plays than runs.

What has forced the change? You could argue teams are hyper-focused on containing the run. You can argue Shanahan is taking what the defenses are giving him. Finally, you can argue the 49ers have so much star power that it’s foolish not to feature them in the passing game.

However you view it, the 49ers sit at 386 passing attempts to 344 rushes. Context about defenses faced or the game script aside, this has been a change in philosophy.

In my opinion, these numbers show that Shanahan is trusting his QBs more. Also, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. If the defense is daring you to throw, then take what they are giving you.

The fourth-down discussion

One of my main criticisms of Shanahan has been his lack of aggressiveness on fourth down. Now, I’ve never advocated for Brandon Staley’s level of attempts. There is analytics to help guide decisions. While I believe they are helpful, analytics can’t be the end-all-be-all.

There has to be a feel for the flow of the game. If your team has struggled to gain tough yards, then a fourth-and-one call boils down to your gut.

If your team has been dominating in every facet of offense, but the book says not to go for it, you have to override that if it can end a game.

In the past five games, there has been an increase in fourth-down attempts. But, again, game situations affect when or if you should go for it.

The 49ers went for it on fourth down six times in their first seven games. The 49ers were 3-4 during that stretch. The 49ers went for it six times during the five-game win streak while converting three times.

Coincidence? Possibly, but Shanahan certainly feels much more aggressive. When it works, you look like a genius. When it doesn’t, you’ll be second-guessed.

There is something to the idea that going for it on fourth instills confidence in your offense. Five straight victories would only add to that thought. Keep going, Kyle.

The starting QB conundrum

Let’s get this out of the way. Trey Lance was the unquestioned starter. His season ended in Week 2. While I believe Jimmy Garoppolo is a starter in the NFL, the fact remains he was the backup.

Pivoting to a starter who is the backup is sure to help change the narrative around winning games with a backup QB. It’s a luxury no team has.

Now, Shanahan is tasked with winning games with a third-string QB. Not just a third-string QB but the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Brock Purdy entered the Week 13 game and was money considering the circumstances. Miami attacked him with all they had, and Purdy stood tall, leading the 49ers to victory.

It’s fair to be encouraged and skeptical about Purdy’s long-term success. Given his draft capital, there isn’t a track record of success for QBs.

Bill Barnwell of ESPN wrote about it:

The track record of seventh-round picks playing during their rookie season is pretty scary, frankly. Pro-ready passers don’t fall to the seventh round, which means the quarterbacks who do come off the board during the final round of the draft are usually long-term projects with slim chances of succeeding.

Tom Brady famously turned into the greatest player in league history as a sixth-round pick, but the most notable seventh-round passers in recent memory might be Matt Cassel, who barely played during his time at USC, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played at a lower level at Harvard. Purdy put plenty on tape as a four-year starter at Iowa State.

Brady, Fitzpatrick, and Kurt Warner obviously matured into much more than what their draft status would have projected at the professional level, but it took time. Brady was in his second season when he launched onto the national stage. Warner, an undrafted free agent, was a 28-year-old with years of experience in NFL Europe before his stunning breakout in his second season. Fitzpatrick didn’t post an above-average passer rating as a starter until his 10th season.

Since the turn of the century, quarterbacks who were drafted in the seventh round have gone a combined 1-14 in their starts in their first active seasons. The one win came in 2004 from a 49ers quarterback in Ken Dorsey, who is better known now as the offensive coordinator and chief tablet destroyer for the Bills. Collectively, these passers have completed 53% of their passes, averaged 5.5 yards per attempt, and thrown 15 touchdown passes against 32 picks. Even allowing for how passing levels have risen over that time, these quarterbacks have been sub-replacement options when forced into duty.

There is some good information here. The past is a good reference but not an indicator of the future, especially with the 49ers being in a different situation.

This defense is elite. Kyle Shanahan has shown he can elevate “lesser” quarterbacks. See: Mullens, Nick. Shanahan has shown he can create offense with his scheme. Joe Staley alluded to this in a recent interview. Stating the quarterback isn’t the star of the offense.

Mullens performed well enough to spark a discussion that he should be the long-term starter. There’s that notorious graphic about Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck, and Mullens having the most passing yards through their first few games.

This particular narrative is yet to be disproven. Purdy is saying all the right things, his teammates echo the confidence he exudes, and the defense will keep this team within striking distance of victories each week.

In a year of busting narratives for Shanahan. This last narrative will be the most intriguing. The fact that the discussion about a deep playoff run with a third-string QB speaks to the depth of the roster built by this front office and Shanahan.

If nothing else, the rest of the season will be interesting. Such is life for the San Francisco 49ers and Kyle Shanahan.