It happens to most new head coaches, particularly when they're brought in as bright, young up-and-comers. The sheen can dull quickly.
The 49ers don't have to look far to see what I mean. Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was the toast of the league in 2018 while leading his team to a Super Bowl appearance. McVay was young, charismatic and was thought to have the play-calling chops needed to become the next coaching dynasty.
But McVay was badly outschemed when Bill Belichick reminded him of what a first rodeo can be like. Belichick's New England Patriots humbled McVay in the Super Bowl to the tune of a 13-3 throttling. McVay's once-powerful offense managed just 260 total yards and the Rams fell back to the pack with a 9-7 finish to miss the playoffs in 2019.
That's the flashpoint Kyle Shanahan finds himself following up on. He can either cement himself as a coaching institution, an opportunity McVay may have missed, or he can join his NFC West counterpart as a once up-and-comer who could steer into an excellent regular season before losing the Super Bowl.
"Kyle understands, I think he was taught this from his dad (former NFL coach Mike Shanahan) and his own experience, it's something Bill Walsh used to always talk about. The best coaches are great teachers and the best coaches also have to be able to adapt and react and be proactive on their feet," general manager John Lynch said. "And I think Kyle is as good as I've seen in doing that. And they quickly made a plan once we started to understand that a traditional offseason wasn't going to be possible. They adjusted, and those meetings, I sat in on a lot of them this offseason, it was a great opportunity for myself and our scouts, but most of all, for the players."
This season is going to be all about coaching, perhaps more than any other year. Training camp preparation, which was down to just 14 padded practices before the first game, means coaches had to get creative to ensure their teams have the right plan, which was both simple enough to learn, yet expansive enough to avoid being predictable.
Additionally, whatever juice players lack in empty stadiums can be remedied by the stereotypical coaching stuff. A good pregame speech, getting a franchise legend to give a Saturday night pep talk – like Steve Young did in 2019 – or get guys going by getting them open with surprise play calls.
Shanahan is capable of all that. His players rave about his schematic genius. He coaches offense by telling them what each defender's responsibilities are on each play. Then, how to exploit them. His pre-snap motions and play-action concepts are the stylistic envy of many teams in the league.
"It's a cool thing that I don't think everybody else in the league is exposed to because of his ability to just speak through and connect with everybody," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "His ability to break it down and as smart as he is, to make it as simple for everybody as possible. I don't think there's anybody better in the game at doing that and it's really, really cool to be a part of those meetings and see how all 11 guys tie together at different times."
From a relatability standpoint, Shanahan and his players listen to a lot of the same music and wear similar clothes. Emmanuel Sanders last year, when asked about his first impressions of his new coach, lit up about Shanahan's "Yeezy" sneakers (Shanahan was an Air Max 90 guy before switching to team shoes for practice). And players backed Shanahan's strong words against racism and social injustice from June.
The smudge, of course, is Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta team that melted and gave away a 25-point lead to, ahem, Belichick's Patriots. Which means there are plenty of people outside the Bay Area who believe Shanahan's sheen had already been dusted – and that thought was just reinforced by his 49ers giving away another lead in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs.
Which is ultimately what makes this season important for Shanahan's status among the league's elite coaches. He has continuity and plenty of talent. The team is returning 18 of 22 starters and has more than a handful of high-level players still on rookie contracts (Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Deebo Samuel, McGlinchey) and a stable of quality veterans (George Kittle, Richard Sherman, Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, Kyle Juszczyk).
Shanahan's quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, is entering his second full season as the starter, though it's his fourth year with the team. His grasp of the offense should be entering the second-nature phase, though he still has just 24 starts with the 49ers.
Shanahan hand-picked Garoppolo in 2017 and felt good enough about him to give him a $137.5 million contract. His first season was a wash because of his Week 3 ACL tear, and last season was good to very good for most it. He was the only quarterback in the league to rank in the top five in passing touchdowns, yards per attempt and completion rate.
Garoppolo made strong arguments against his critics with his comeback performance in New Orleans, which included 349 yards and four touchdown passes. And there was the biggest game of the regular season, Week 17 against the Seahawks, when Garoppolo had a blistering season-high 12.95 yards per attempt while completing 18 of 22 in Seattle, helping the 49ers get their first win there in nearly a decade.
But the playoffs were a different story. The 49ers simply pushed the Vikings and Packers around to the tune of 471 combined rushing yards (that's a real number). One could argue it would be completely irresponsible not to run the ball while it was so effective. On the other hand, there was a clear demarcation point for when Shanahan decided to go so run-heavy.
Garoppolo threw an interception in 49ers territory just before halftime of the Divisional Round, giving the Vikings a field goal in a win-or-go-home scenario. It reminded Shanahan that Garoppolo threw 13 interceptions during the regular season and had a number of other poor decisions clang off defenders' hands.
Garoppolo's pick was a gift of a throw to linebacker Eric Kendricks. After halftime, Garoppolo threw six passes and completed three. Shanahan called eight (eight!) passes in the NFC title game.
Garoppolo is a direct reflection of Shanahan. He's the on-field proxy. The 49ers are entering a season with one of the best rosters in the league, a strong running game and a defense with a generational cornerback, Sherman, playing behind a favorite candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in Bosa.
It's time for Shanahan to get Garoppolo to take the next step: alleviate the fear of Garoppolo turning the ball over, and be so balanced offensively that there's no doubt the 49ers could win a playoff game when they aren't just running over their opponents. No more one-interception-and-done.
Shanahan's been around long enough and the roster is in place. This season should be his masterpiece if he's the elite coach we think he can be.
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