Rising from the depths of irrelevancy, the 49ers’ return to glory can be attributed to many factors, most having to do with Kyle Shanahan.
The third-year head coach of the 49ers is one win away from a Super Bowl championship. After bottom-feeding seasons in 2017 and 2018, the 49ers continued to play hard for their young head coach, despite the lack of immediate success.
Kyle’s coaching career has been well-documented since taking the reins of the 49ers three years ago. Learning from many former head coaches including his father Mike Shanahan, current Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, and others, Shanahan’s honesty towards himself and his team, paired with a humble attitude and plenty of accountability, has molded him into one of the best coaches in the NFL.
In a press conference Tuesday in Miami, Shanahan’s ego was immediately tested when a reporter asked him if he considers himself an “offensive guru.” Shanahan of course, disagreed, giving the credit to the rest of his coaching staff:
“No I don’t consider myself an offensive guru. I consider myself a coach who tries as hard as he can, and I definitely don’t do it all well. Our coaches, from Mike McDaniel, Mike LaFleur, they put in the majority of the game plan with myself. I get help from all of the coaches, and when you have good players around you and you have good coaches around you, it helps a lot.”
Some would argue that the one blemish on Shanahan’s coaching resume is the Falcons’ devasting loss in Super Bowl 51, when he was offensive coordinator. The Falcons would famously blow a 28-3 lead in a loss to the New England Patriots, a game in which Shanahan was the one calling plays.
If Shanahan could go back in time, he says he wouldn’t do anything different. Kyle believes that he called the right plays at the time, but unfortunately for the Falcons, their pass-first game plan may have allowed the Patriots to climb back into that game. Shanahan wishes there was an easy answer:
“Everyone asks what I’ve learned from that Super Bowl, and I wish I could say that there was some easy answer that would have fixed us not blowing that lead. … You realize that when you play against good teams, good quarterbacks, that you can never relax. No matter what situation I’ve been in since then, you can ask our players, you can ask our coaches, I freaked out at [Robert] Saleh when he took the starters out against Green Bay … or was it Minnesota? Yeah it was Minnesota. We were up like two scores with three minutes to go and I freaked out and then I did the math and we were alright, but you get some of the scars from that. The guys messed with me about that.”
Fast-forward to this week, Shanahan is tasked with facing 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. When Shanahan joined the 49ers in 2017, the team held the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Mahomes was famously drafted as the tenth overall pick in that draft. That year, the 49ers were searching for their franchise quarterback. Why did Kyle Shanahan pass on drafting Mahomes? He said:
“I didn’t look into him obviously as much as I should have. We definitely looked into him, studied all of his tape. He was just a freak, he could make any throw. He had the ability to do anything. I thought that [2017 NFL Draft] was a little bit different situation for us, we had the second pick in the draft, and did not feel like from all of the intel you get that he was going to go that high.”
Okay, so Shanahan, John Lynch, and the 49ers passed on drafting Mahomes. So who did they have in mind? It’s no secret that Shanahan has had his fair share of player crushes throughout his coaching career, and Kirk Cousins is a prime example.
“It was a little bit of a different situation because it was well-documented that the relationship I had with Kirk [Cousins] in Washington and everything. I felt very confident that he wasn’t going to stay there. Any time you go into a season knowing that a franchise quarterback is going to be available next year, it made me a lot more picky with what we were looking at. You saw a bunch of talented guys in that draft, but it’s very tough when you watch college systems and stuff, you don’t really know until you get someone in the building where you can see talent.”
Waiting in the weeds for their chance to pounce at signing Cousins, Shanahan and the 49ers decided to go another route. Trading for Jimmy Garoppolo later that season, Shanahan eventually got his guy.
Shanahan’s honesty, straight-shooter mentality, and self-discipline have allowed him to grow into one of the leagues rising stars as a head coach. After the 49ers 2019 season, the rest of the NFL is starting to recognize Shanahan for the offensive guru he is. Even with the added attention, Shanahan will always be his own biggest critic.