Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
What lies beyond the record
“Progress, or lack thereof, in sports can be measured in a variety of ways, some much more subtle than others” was how Bill Walsh described, in his book The Score Takes Care Of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership, the process of evaluating where both he and the franchise stood following his second season as coach of the 49ers. Coming off of a 6-10 season, Walsh wanted to mine the 1980 season for all the information he could because he knew that the record did not and would not tell the entire story. The same holds true for the 2018 49ers.
When Kyle Shanahan was hired, he received a six-year contract, which, is a year or two longer than most head coaches receive, especially first-time coaches. The length of the contract was a not-so-subtle wink and nod from Jed York that he understood the enormity of the rebuild that was needed in San Francisco. A 6-10 first season that was an outlier in many ways, was followed by a 4-12 record this season, but what lies beyond the record? Looking back at the 2018 season, how has Shanahan handled the various aspects of his job?
The company line out of Santa Clara is that general manager John Lynch has final say over all player personnel matters except for the final 53-man roster, which belongs to Shanahan. I have my suspicions that the arrangement is much more 50/50, so for the purpose of evaluating Shanahan I will include draft and free agent decisions.
The 49ers had money to spend in free agency and spend they did. Weston Richburg was signed to be the starting center, a position that Shanahan places a high value on. Richburg was graded rather poorly by Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranking 32nd among 38 qualified centers. In his defense, Richburg played on an injured knee for most of the season and the 49ers managed one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL. Upgrading the run game was clearly on the to do list for the 49ers because they also made Jerick McKinnon the sixth-highest paid running back in football. Kyle Shanahan had big plans for McKinnon this season, but a season-ending injury in the last practice of the off-season means those plans will stay under wraps until 2019. One free agent signing that has been well worth the money thus far is Richard Sherman. Both parties took a bit of a gamble that Sherman would return to form following an Achilles injury and it paid off for the 49ers. Sherman provided stability on the field and leadership off it. Outside of Sherman, the 49ers have not made any sexy free agent signings, instead opting to fill holes on the offensive line and add depth and competition through smaller signings knowing that if those signings don’t work, there is not a large sunk cost to move on from (see Jeremiah Attaochu and Jonathan Cooper).
When it comes to assessing a draft, the conventional wisdom is that you should wait three years (see RG III), but this article is due before then, so here goes:
After the first year, the 2018 draft class looks as though it has provided the 49ers with a solid foundation to build on. Mike McGlinchey (first round, 9th overall) and Fred Warner (third round, 70th overall) were day-one starters and Dante Pettis (second round, 44th overall) battled some minor injuries but showed number-one wide receiver ability towards the end of the season. Marcell Harris (sixth round, 184th overall) missed most of the season with an injury but recovered in time to start the last five games at strong safety; Harris made his presence felt and put himself squarely in the competition to start in 2019. Other members of the draft class, like cornerback Tarvarius Moore (third round, 95th overall), cornerback D.J. Reed (fifth round, 142nd overall), defensive lineman Jullian Taylor (seventh round, 223rd overall) and wide receiver Richie James (seventh round, 240th overall) logged meaningful snaps this season. The only member of the class who did not see the field was defensive lineman Kentavius Street (fourth round, 128th overall), who spent this season recovering from an injury suffered during a pre-draft workout. The approach that the 49ers took regarding this draft mirrors the approach used in free agency in that it lacks the glamour that would come with taking an edge rusher or wide receiver with the first pick, but they had a plan going in (see the McGlinchey selection) and worked that plan.
Being adept at personnel management is all well and good, but in-game management and keeping 53 players working as a cohesive unit is where a coach earns his paycheck and there were questions about Shanahan’s ability to manage those aspects of the job. When you lose your starting running back the week before the regular season starts followed by the loss of your starting quarterback in Week 3, and it’s easy to see a scenario where the entire season derails and the players quit on the coach and turn on each other. Through everything, Shanahan has kept the team together, focused and fighting despite being out-manned most weeks.
In-game management was not as big of an issue, in my opinion, as some felt it might be for Shanahan (at least for this season). Week 6 against the Green Bay Packers is the one time this season when the end of game play calling could have proved costly on offense. Tied at 30-30 with 1:13 left in the fourth quarter, third-and-3 on Green Bay’s 46-yard line, and the Packers out of time outs, Shanahan calls a pass that is intercepted; the turnover gave Aaron Rodgers a chance to do Aaron Rodgers things, which he did. Shanahan, the son of a coach, has no-doubt heard the old football axiom “You play for a tie at home, and a win on the road,” so perhaps that was his thinking against the Packers on the road with a backup quarterback.
The time is now for the 49ers to be more aggressively prudent in free agency and the draft. So much of what plagued the team this year (aside from injuries) could be fixed by adding some high impact players to the roster, an idea that is not lost on Shanahan. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone was a problem for the 49ers again this year, finishing dead last in the NFL. Shanahan’s preference for smaller, quicker running backs and wide receivers causes problems for opponents between the 20s but creates problems for the 49ers in the red zone. There were games this year where there wasn’t a running back that weighed 200 pounds that was active on game day and not having a running back that can get tough yards near the goal line was costly. With Carlos Hyde, the 49ers scored touchdowns on 6 percent more of their red zone opportunities last year (yes, Shanahan did scheme up some nice side-arm throws by Garoppolo last year as well). Without a size advantage in the backfield, the team was forced to throw in the red zone to a group of generally smaller receivers, not even George Kittle could crack the code in the red zone. The team will continue to struggle if Kendrick Bourne is the top receiving threat in the red zone.
Short on draft picks this year, the team should be extra aggressive in free agency to land starters at every level of the defense (defensive line, linebacker and secondary), guys that will cause more than seven turnovers next season and provide more leadership and championship experience. Being aggressive in free agency will clarify things come draft time when, again, the focus needs to be on high impact players, primarily on defense. Offensively, in the draft, Shanahan needs to consider adapting his philosophy on receivers and get someone who can be more of a red zone threat. This is the off-season is when the team needs to start putting pieces on top of the foundation that is two years in the making.
The parallels between the first two seasons of Bill Walsh’s tenure with the 49ers and those of Kyle Shanahan are remarkable. After eight wins in his first two seasons, Walsh learned some valuable lessons that propelled the team to a championship in his third season. There are plenty of lessons for Shanahan to learn from his first two seasons, if he is willing, because as Bill Walsh wrote, “In planning for a successful future, the past can show you how to get there.”
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