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That one time the 49ers pursued Josh McDaniels as head coach

Then McDaniels pulled out of the coaching search.

Las Vegas Raiders v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

If you haven’t been following the league lately because of the bye (yes, all one of you), the first domino in NFL head coaching vacancies fell when the Las Vegas Raiders fired Josh McDaniels. The product you saw on TV was pretty much the only reason you needed, but when you heard about everything going behind the scenes, the only thing more shocking would have been if this didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing, long before McDaniels went to the Raiders, he was a part of another coaching search. No, not that one. The one in 2017 where the San Francisco 49ers were looking to replace then-fired head coach Chip Kelly. And McDaniels could have had the job if he wanted it. In 2017, he was the 49ers’ top choice for their head coaching vacancy.

Given what has been reported in the Raiders, his history with the Denver Broncos, not to mention leaving the Indianapolis Colts at the alter, a train wreck may have ran smoother than this coaching tenure.

And in a sick way, it almost would have been fascinating to watch given the circumstances. If you thought the Raiders fiasco was nuclear, that would have been nothing compared to the drama fans would be subjected to in Santa Clara.

Why fascinating? The 49ers moved off mutually parted ways with Jim Harbaugh, then hired Jim Tomsula at the last minute as his replacement (well, it was going to be Adam Gase but that didn’t happen). Tomsula turned out to be a disaster and was fired at the end of the season. That prompted a second search settling on Chip Kelly, which went even worse. So worse, Kelly was fired at the end of his first season. That’s now three head coach openings in as many seasons and two of the three that had just one year at the helm.

Trying to sell an up and coming coordinator while caught in a mess of all that was going to be difficult. The roster was subpar when the 2017 search began and given there were back-to-back one and dones, there wasn’t much job security. With Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers gave him and John Lynch six-year contracts with no offset language. That means if the 49ers were to fire either of them only for them to go elsewhere, they got paid by the 49ers the full amount. Most contracts usually have the former team paying the difference. In this case, Shanahan could double dip. That was one way to show they were in for the long haul.

Obviously, Raiders owner Mark Davis is on the hook for a lot of money. He’s paid Jon Gruden, who resigned in 2021, $40 million out of a settlement. He owes McDaniels approximately $85 million. But let’s not forget Gruden’s product on the field wasn’t the reason he was fired.

Now, think: Jed York and the 49ers. Three coaches, and that third hire can double dip. That’s bad for ownership’s bank account, But let’s say the 49ers gave McDaniels two years and they start hiring again. Forget the money (oh, that definitely would hurt), what assurance of time and patience could an organization offer someone after all of that? The six-year, double dipping contracts were meant to show the organization wouldn’t do that.

Who knows if the 49ers could rectify anything with their third head coach. While the 49ers were an attractive destination in 2017 due to the salary cap space and draft picks, it still was a question mark on if there would be patience, especially for a splash hire. If McDaniels got the job instead of Kyle Shanahan, where would the 49ers be now? How long would the 49ers keep him just to save face?

As for his GM? Well it might not have been John Lynch. There were reports the 49ers were interested in then-New England Patriots executive, now-Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio, but he turned down the interview. After that it was ESPN analyst Louis Riddick (he was Director of Pro Personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles prior to ESPN)?

One has to wonder how long this would have lasted and just what state the 49ers would be in if things went the same was as with Las Vegas. It’s doubtful George Kittle is drafted by the team, but it might also be doubtful Reuben Foster is, so who knows what the roster would look like.

Given all the bad luck and cynicism some of us can have, this is one of those things the 49ers got very lucky on. McDaniels rescinded his candidacy, thankfully not at the last minute, and the 49ers honed in on Shanahan as their new head coach.

Then again, they were also interviewing Tom Cable for the job and he was the other favorite. In any case, the dysfunction that may have happened to the 49ers while McDaniels was head coach happened to the Raiders instead.