It all began with Shanahan.
He'd just finished directing one of the greatest offenses in the history of the game, taking it all the way to the Super Bowl. More importantly, he'd done so by taking the West Coast Offense—the Niners' glorious identity—to heights that Bill Walsh would've never imagined. He thus was the perfect choice to lead the Niners into the future. He'd stand on the shoulders of his predecessors, but with the innovative vision he'd need to surpass them.
He was the perfect choice to lead the Niners.
But Shanahan got away, and the Niners were never the same again.
With all due respect to head coach George Seifert, it was Shanahan who'd led the Niners to their fifth Super Bowl title, a league record to that point. Shanahan's offensive chops had been proven long before; the Niners had led the league in points and yards in each of his first two seasons. But it was in '94 that the offense reached historic heights. The Niners scored 505 points, another league record to that point. But the stats don't reflect their dominance, or the style with which they dominated. Building on the concepts established by Walsh and refined by Mike Holmgren, Shanahan reinvented the West Coast Offense.
Contrary to popular belief, Walsh didn't invent the pass-first offense; Sid Gillman had done that 20 years earlier. What Walsh invented was the pass-first, ball-control offense. Whereas Gillman had stretched the field vertically with a high-risk, high-reward passing game, Walsh stretched it horizontally, replacing "safe" runs with passes that were equally safe, but more effective. He wasn't wholly averse to downfield passing—especially once he acquired Jerry Rice—but under Walsh, and then under Holmgren, the West Coast Offense largely remained what Walsh had originally designed it to be. Effective—and marvelously so—but nevertheless, safe.
It was Shanahan who made it lethal.
Quite simply, what Shanahan did was start with Walsh and add some Gillman, stretching the field in both directions. His "base" offense was still the famous WCO, that quick, efficient passing game. But for the first time, the vertical pass was a genuine staple. And the result was certifiably deadly.
Shanahan, without a doubt, was the greatest offensive mind in the game, and he was certainly ready to be a head coach. So Niners president Carmen Policy faced a choice: push Seifert into retirement, or let Shanahan go. He didn't have the heart for Option A, but he saw disaster in Option B. So he tried to find a third way, offering Shanahan a raise now and Seifert's job by '97. But the Broncos would make him their head coach now, and Shanahan had no reason to wait.
Shanahan got away, and the Niners were never the same again.
The Niners were never again what they'd always been: the cutting edge of the West Coast Offense. In '95, in '96, and once again in '97, they lost NFC playoff games to Holmgren, who'd taken the scheme to Green Bay. Meanwhile, in the AFC, Shanahan expanded on it even further, adding a zone rushing attack and building a mini-dynasty. Holmgren won the Super Bowl in '96, and Shanahan won the next two, including one over Holmgren.
The West Coast Offense was more dominant than ever. But it wasn't the Niners who were dominating.
Over the next two decades, the Niners had good teams and bad ones, mostly bad ones. They had good offenses and bad ones, mostly bad ones. They even had good West Coast offenses and bad ones, mostly bad ones. But they never again were its cutting edge. They never again assumed the mantle of their glorious identity.
Never again, that is, until now.
Now, at last, the Niners have hired Shanahan.
The parallels are downright spooky. He just finished directing one of the greatest offenses in the history of the game; the Falcons scored 540 points, seventh-most all-time. More importantly, he did so with the most innovative WCO since Walsh's original. He's kept the vertical stretch and zone rushing attack, but he's added a dizzying assortment of formations and alignments, none of which provides the slightest hint as to whether the play is run or pass. It's the WCO, but make no mistake: this is the scheme in its highest form yet.
Of course, the parallels would've been even spookier if he'd finished the job at the Super Bowl. And there isn't much doubt: his playcalling there was unduly aggressive. But on the other hand, I'll just say this. If a 40-yard field goal were automatic, the Patriots wouldn't have missed a PAT; and anyone who thinks that nothing can go wrong with a running play should have a chat with Roger Craig.
The fact remains: Shanahan is the cutting edge of the West Coast Offense. And now, at last, the Niners are too.
That's not to say they'll look like it, at least right away. Thanks to years of managerial neglect, the Niners are basically an expansion team. But they were just as bad when Walsh arrived. They were bad in Year One, only slightly better in Year Two…and, well, you know the rest.
But the point is this: since their season ended, the Niners have described themselves as "cleaning the slate," and it's true in more ways than one. Sure, they've hired a new coach and a new GM. But they've also swept away all the waste of 22 years, during which—good or bad—the Niners simply weren't themselves.
Norv Turner's Air Coryell. Jim Hostler's mystery meat. Mike Martz's mad-scientist routine. Jimmy Raye's prehistoric ground-and-pound. Greg Roman's "run-first WCO," an outright oxymoron. And we needn't speak of these last two years, which the Niners threw away completely.
All those years have one thing in common: the Niners simply weren't themselves. Oh, sure, there were coaches and players in red and gold, but they weren't the Niners. They were merely imposters, chasing after the ghosts of the past, and slipping ever farther behind.
Now, though, the slate is clean. All the imposters can be forgotten. After 22 years of trying to win with someone else's identity—and, in fairness, getting awfully close to doing so—the Niners have rediscovered their own. They've picked up now where they left off then, and the Quest for Six can begin for real. And when it ends, we can all look back and remember this:
It all began with Shanahan.