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How aggressive will Kyle Shanahan be on fourth down in 2023?

The 49ers head coach’s 2022 decision-making belied his conservative reputation.

San Francisco 49ers Offseason Workout Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Log on to Twitter every Sunday during the NFL season, and it’s guaranteed that at some point over the course of their 17 games – and the two or three postseason matchups the 49ers now regularly contest – you will find plenty airing their frustrations at Kyle Shanahan’s fourth-down decision-making.

It is somewhat eyebrow-raising, therefore, to look at some fourth-down numbers from the 2022 season and see the 49ers not only among the most aggressive, but the most successful teams in the NFL in such situations inside the opposition’s 35-yard line.

Warren Sharp of SharpFootball published an analysis of every team’s aggressiveness on third and fourth down within the opponent’s 35-yard line, and it reflected very well on Shanahan and the 49ers.

Indeed, the Niners went for it on fourth down inside the 35 a total of 12 times last season. That represented 29 percent of their total fourth downs within that yard line, with that ratio the 10th-highest in the NFL.

On top of that, the Niners were the ninth-most successful team in those situations. Converting seven of the 12 fourth downs.

The hope would be that the level of success the 49ers enjoyed going for it on fourth down in that area of the field would encourage a coach often regarded as being overly conservative to grow more ambitious on high-leverage downs.

But is that a realistic expectation? Looking back at the Niners’ successful fourth-down attempts from last season helps provide an insight.

No more sneak attacks?

Of those conversions, three were quarterback runs from Jimmy Garoppolo. One was a quarterback run from Brock Purdy. There was a one-yard run from Christian McCaffrey versus the Saints, a garbage time pass from Josh Johnson to Danny Gray in the blowout of the Bucs. And, finally, a 10-yard pass from Purdy to George Kittle in the red zone.

The most significant change that could influence Shanahan’s approach on fourth down is that from Garoppolo to Purdy at quarterback.

Garoppolo is a master of the QB sneak, while Purdy’s aptitude in that area of the game is still open for debate.

But that is not to say Shanahan will definitely get less aggressive on fourth down because of doubts about his quarterback’s ability to sneak. However, given the mobility Purdy has displayed in making plays with his legs, he could alter his play selection to feature more designed quarterback runs and zone reads.

Elite weaponry and Purdy’s poise

Perhaps the most compelling case for Shanahan keeping his foot on the gas on fourth down is the dynamism of McCaffrey. The running back who transformed the 49er offense down the stretch last season is adept in between the tackles on short yardage and also offers an outlet for easy completions on checkdowns out of the backfield.

McCaffrey forms part of arguably the deepest skill-position group in the NFL, and much of Shanahan’s confidence in continuing to go for it on fourth down will hinge on Purdy’s ability to continue to develop his rapport with that group.

It is no surprise his sole fourth-down completion of last season was one to Kittle. Purdy developed an outstanding connection with the Pro Bowl tight end across his five regular-season starts. Their hookup on fourth down against the Commanders was illustrative of the understanding between the two.

Faced with a six-man pressure from the Commanders front, Purdy demonstrated his quick release to deliver the ball with a defender in his face. He releases the ball just as Kittle breaks inside having been given a two-way go by the defender. The throw is behind Kittle, but it matters not as he does an excellent job of adjusting to it to reel it in and put the 49ers on the one-yard line.

That was far from the only example of Purdy delivering under heavy fire. Throughout his time on the field in his rookie year, Purdy stood in the pocket and delivered throws into tight windows to the likes of Kittle, Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.

Many may expect Purdy’s poise under pressure would help facilitate further aggressiveness from Shanahan on fourth down.

Yet, there was one major offseason move that could lead him to go in the opposite direction, the selection of Jake Moody in the third round.

The Moody variable

San Francisco drafted Moody in part because of a massive leg that was demonstrated by him connecting on a 59-yard field goal during his time in college with Michigan.

Settling for a field goal from the 35-yard line would make it a 52-yard attempt. With Moody clearly having the power to make such long-range efforts, will Shanahan revert to what is considered to be his type and kick on fourth down more often in 2023?

Other aspects, such as analytics, a coach’s assessment of the situation and even gut feeling can influence decision-making on fourth down.

But, even with Moody taking over field-goal duties and despite the loss of Garoppolo’s quarterback sneaks, the hope among most will be that Shanahan looks at his fearless young quarterback and the talent at his disposal and sees scope for more aggressiveness on fourth, not less.