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Steve Wilks wasn’t a 49ers scapegoat, just a poor fit from the start

Feb 15, 2024 at 9:45 AM--

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Steve Wilks' defense held Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense to three points well into the third quarter of Super Bowl 58. After the gut-wrenching defeat, as some fans clamored for the San Francisco 49ers to move on from Wilks, most believed the defensive coordinator would return in 2024 after he failed to land a vacant head coaching job elsewhere.

Despite Wilks' defense allowing the third-fewest points this past season, behind only the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs, many felt the unit underachieved. The team produced 48 sacks, tying for the seventh-most in the league. DeMeco Ryans' defenses never surpassed that mark but matched it in 2021. However, Ryans' 2022 defense was the top-ranked unit in the league. Under Wilks, Ryans' successor, the defense dropped to eighth in the league, its lowest ranking since 2018. It also struggled to stop the run in the playoffs.

The concerns surrounding Wilks stemmed from the high expectations placed on the bolstered defensive front, a group that added defensive tackle Javon Hargrave last offseason and traded for defensive end Chase Young. The 49ers wanted the unit to cause havoc in offensive backfields, and we didn't really see that in the postseason until the Super Bowl, where the team recorded 34 pressures against the Kansas City Chiefs and sacked quarterback Patrick Mahomes three times.

Was Wilks the scapegoat for another disappointing season that saw head coach Kyle Shanahan advance deep into the playoffs only to come away empty-handed? Christian D'Andrea of For the Win certainly believes so.

In reality, Wilks was simply a poor fit from the outset. While his resume was impressive, the 49ers seemed determined to force a square peg into a round hole. This wasn't the defensive scheme with which Wilks was most familiar. However, Shanahan was adamant about building upon what Ryans and his predecessor, Robert Saleh, had established, thus limiting Wilks from the start.

Shanahan didn't want to fire Wilks, but after careful consideration, he concluded it was best to end the experiment and seek someone better suited to run his defense.

"A really tough decision because it really says nothing about Steve as a man or as a football coach," Shanahan said via a conference call on Wednesday. "He's exactly what we wanted as a man. He is a great football coach. But just where we're going and where we're at with our team from a scheme standpoint and things like that, looking through it all throughout the year, through these last few days, I felt pretty strongly that this was a decision that was best for our organization.

"And even though it was one I didn't want to make, it was something that once I realized that I think a different direction is what's best for our organization, then it's something that I have to do."

Shanahan affirmed his commitment to finding someone who offers the 49ers the best chance to succeed next season, suggesting that Wilks hindered the team's performance this past season. While Shanahan claims he's open to adopting a different scheme if it benefits the 49ers, such a move seems unlikely given how the Wilks situation turned out.

"I'll look into every possibility," Shanahan insisted.

The 49ers' veteran defensive players understood the challenges Wilks faced in taking over a top-ranked defense while attempting not to disrupt the cohesion of the star-studded group.

"People are obviously going to be critical just because when you go from having the number one defense one year and then a guy comes in and you're not the number one defense again, it's like, 'Oh, well, what happened?'" linebacker Fred Warner stated on Tuesday, before Wilks was dismissed. "I mean, there's a lot more that goes into it, and it was a hard job for him all along because he was coming into a system where it was something that he didn't run. He had to come and learn what we did.

"We were the number one defense a year ago and it's hard to sustain that type of play, but we still were a top defense in this league, and I think we played our best ball when it was needed."

Shanahan appreciated Wilks' efforts to adapt to the constraints imposed on him. Ultimately, firing Wilks after the 49ers reached the Super Bowl is as bad a look as acknowledging his hiring was a misstep. However, like some costly decisions in Sunday's game, it's something Shanahan and the 49ers must live with.

"It just ended up not being the right fit," Shanahan admitted. "And it hurt for me to do this, but that's exactly why I had to. ... But it was just for his background and how it ended up with us, it was harder than it needed to be, and I felt it would improve us going a different direction."
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • John Dixon.
    No he lead a top 5 defense that had injuries and dealt with an offense and QB who had them on the field to long in many games. He is the definition of scapegoat right now. While Kyle is the poster boy for an overhyped genius who always fails when it counts the most. At best , they screwed him over. Besides the fact,they knew exactly who he was when they hired him. This is a HC who can't accept his own deficiencies.
    Feb 15, 2024 at 2:58 PM

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