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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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Bumps in the Road: 49ers Endure the Rocky Results of the Patient Approach

Jan 21, 2017 at 2:30 PM3

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Humans are fickle, nervous beings. We don't do well with patience, and we rarely assess value objectively. It makes sense, then that what may very well wind up as a widely successful hiring process by the 49ers has frequently been characterized as a directionless, bumbling effort. As soon as candidates withdraw from consideration, fans instinctively feel a sense of loss and diminished possibilities. While the truth has always been that only one person would fill each available position, it's certainly more reassuring when the team has all of its options available, without having to endure the stigma of watching some those options electing to remove themselves from the process. Everyone wants to be wanted, and public rejection seems humiliating.

Let's be clear, the candidates' decisions to bow out have been as much about timing as they have any other factor. It was always going to be that way, ever since the 49ers chose both to hire the general manager and head coach together and to wait to interview their top targets. By casting as wide a net as the 49ers have while asking candidates to wait for weeks until everyone under consideration can complete the interview process, it was a certainty that some candidates would feel left out by the process and withdraw. In the case of two of the three Seattle candidates, they simply got the sense that the 49ers were not as serious about hiring them, so they bowed out. In other cases, numerous factors could play into the decision to exit the hiring process, but all of those factors are exacerbated by time. Looking at the circumstances surrounding the self-removal of the candidates that were most coveted by many 49ers fans, we can assess the role timing played in each decision.


Josh McDaniels was assumed to be the 49ers' priority hire from the outset of the head coaching vacancy. When he interviewed with the 49ers on the 7th of January, it was widely reported that the 49ers were his preferred landing spot. By the time he announced his decision to return to the Patriots on January 16th, several reports indicated ranging concerns he had for removing himself from consideration. Sources indicated that he was uncomfortable with the role of analytics in the 49ers' decision-making processes, Paraag Marathe's influence on Jed York, the uncertainty of a head coach getting sufficient time to turn around a program in San Francisco, and the 49ers apparent focus upon GM candidates who he was less familiar with than his (reportedly) preferred candidate, Louis Riddick. Some reports indicated that he was turned off by the 49ers' increased interest in Kyle Shanahan as a candidate. For his part, McDaniels stated that he was simply determined to focus on his job with the Patriots, which immediately smacked of a politically-neutral, universally safe explanation.

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Whatever McDaniels doubts were, it is clear that it took time for those doubts to fester into a large enough concern that he felt more secure returning to his current job. He was clearly interested in becoming a head coach this offseason, as he interviewed with three separate teams. He was universally reported to favor the 49ers. York and Marathe were both present during his interview, an interview that he emerged from still favoring the 49ers as his top choice. I think it's possible that each concern listed above played into McDaniels' decision not to pursue employment with the 49ers, it's most likely that all of those concerns were fed by his experience with the Denver Broncos. Reportedly, the Broncos made the same promises of patience that the 49ers made to him, and the Broncos fired him after less than two seasons. The 49ers recent history of quickly firing coaches certainly make that dynamic more concerning. In the ten days between his interview and his exit from the job search, those doubts had time to overcome his excitement for another head coaching opportunity, and his interest in building a team to his design from the ground up.



Eliot Wolf was one of the most exciting names in this process. His father, Ron Wolf, built the Packers into a perennial contender, and his GM tree is impressive. The younger Wolf is regarded for his intelligence and intrinsic feel for the game. He interviewed with the 49ers for their vacant GM position on the 5th of January, and he didn't withdraw his name from consideration until January 19th. The 14 days between his interview and his withdrawal left plenty of time for doubts to form and fester. At the time, media reports indicated that his decision primarily focused on two factors: a pay raise and promotion from the Packers and the presumption that his colleague, Brian Gutekunst, was favored to be the next GM for the 49ers. While it's possible that Wolf was discouraged by McDaniel's withdrawal from consideration as the 49ers' next head coach, it's more likely that he was extended a time-sensitive offer from the Packers that promised him an increase in title and pay if he withdrew from the GM search before taking his 2nd interview. Already perceived to be looking outside-in at the 49ers' GM position, the certainty of the Packers' offer had to be appealing, and the 49ers were in no position to promise him a job until he could interview with Kyle Shanahan.


It was certainly more surprising when Brian Gutekunst chose to remove himself from the 49ers' GM search. As the widely-reported favorite to succeed Trent Baalke as the 49ers' next GM, it certainly seemed like a more solid blow to the 49ers' image that he chose to discontinue his candidacy. With the hiring of Gutekunst seeming certain, 49er fans began to familiarize themselves with his league perception, and his image as a gifted talent evaluator with ample experience learning the ropes in Green Bay's GM farm was exciting. His decision to accept a promotion and pay increase from the Packers was shocking and inspired more pointed reactions of loss and concern from 49ers fans. Time is a factor here again. Like Wolf, Gutekunst interviewed on the 5th of January. He agreed to a new deal with the Packers on the 20th. It's unlikely that anything off-putting about the 49ers as an organization prompted Gutekunst's withdrawal, as his decision came 15 days after his interview with the team. He had every opportunity to be scared off in the days immediately following the interview, but he remained a candidate for over two weeks. As the favored candidate, it seems more likely that some development surrounding the 49ers job scared him off. He could have balked at the 49ers need to promise concessions to Shanahan, in order to land their only remaining head coaching candidate. If the 49ers explained to Gutekunst over the phone that they were willing to give Shanahan control of the 53-man roster in order to ensure that they weren't stuck without a candidate on January 23rd, Gutekunst could have balked and withdrew. By waiting for Shanahan (and McDaniels) the 49ers allowed the candidate pool to thin so dramatically that the one remaining candidate had tremendous leverage upon them. While waiting was the only means by which they could secure a playoff candidate, doing so put the team in a difficult spot when McDaniels pulled out.

GM hirings are nearly always a leap of faith. NFL personnel departments are secretive, and members of the personnel department who rank below GM rarely emerge to express their philosophies on team building and talent acquisition. Draft picks are always attributed to the GM and HC, and it's never truly known to what extent lower level personnel executives influence those decisions. One of the attractive aspects of Louis Riddick's candidacy (to fans, at least) was that his attitudes and philosophies were known quantities, due to his widely viewed work on ESPN. With so much uncertainty surrounding the decision to hire a new GM, the successful track record of GMs hired away from Green Bay provided a boost of confidence in the 49ers hiring process. Having both of those candidates opt out certainly plunged the search further into the unknown, as there have been far fewer successful general managers hired out of the personnel departments of the Vikings and Cardinals.


Wade Phillips was the big prize and the best fit. As an experienced, wildly successful defensive coordinator with experience as a head coach, he would have been a tremendous resource for a young, first-time head coach. His attacking 3-4 scheme would have fit well with the young talent on the 49ers roster. The 49ers simply had no opportunity to pursue Phillips, as he was in such great demand that he was hired by the Rams soon after new head coach Sean McVay. Although Phillips didn't sign his contract until January 19th, he had reportedly committed to work with McVay as soon as the Broncos indicated that they would not renew his contract. Phillips' son worked as the tight ends coach under McVay in Washington.

Gus Bradley was a surprise candidate for the 49ers DC position. While it's easy to imagine that Dan Quinn, Shanahan's head coach with the Falcons and former Seahawk DC, could connect Shanahan with Bradley, also a former DC in Seattle, he was reportedly only interested in coming to San Francisco to work with Tom Cable, and he had already had an offer on the table to coordinate the Chargers defense. The 49ers elected to pursue Bradley, who was no doubt one of the preferred assistants indicated by Shanahan in his initial interview, but their persistent efforts couldn't keep him from signing with the Chargers. Had Shanahan been hired earlier, which was obviously impossible, he could have personally made his case to Bradley, which may have swayed his decision.

Mike Vrabel was never really an option. While he interviewed with the 49ers during the 2016 offseason, the Texans moved quickly to promote him this offseason, securing his role with a productive and tremendously talented defense.


The 49ers patient approach certainly did not leave the cupboards bare. While waiting for the playoffs picture to develop may have allowed the talent pools at head coach, general manager, and defensive coordinator to thin out, the remaining talent is still impressive, particularly at HC and GM.

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Kyle Shanahan is regarded as one of the best offensive minds in football, and his ability to lean upon the experiences and advice of his father Mike, a Super Bowl winning head coach, certainly offers him an advantage that isn't enjoyed by most first-time head coaches. Shanahan has gotten peak production from nearly every quarterback he has worked with, and those QBs have ranged widely in their levels of talent and their particular skill sets. He is regarded as intelligent, meticulous, focused, and has been compared favorably with Bill Belichick by a QB who has been coached by both men. While Josh McDaniels entered the coaching search as the clear favorite, there is no question that Shanahan would (will?) be an inspiring choice, and the most coveted candidate hired by any team this offseason. The patient approach seems to have paid off so far for the 49ers, as they are the only remaining team with an opening at HC, placing them in an ideal position to land Shanahan.

Shanahan seems like a done deal to the 49ers, but the recent news that the Colts are looking for a new GM could work complicate the hiring. Colts' owner Jim Irsay was reported to have been courting Jon Gruden as a HC and Peyton Manning as a GM, even while those roles were still filled by Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson. I'd take the news of Grigson's firing as an indicator that Irsay likely already has a new GM lined up. The new GM could possibly fire Pagano and court Shanahan as one of the HC candidates. Since the Colts can present Andrew Luck as their franchise quarterback, and the 49ers QB meeting room is a smoking crater, Shanahan could become tough to hold onto if the search lasts longer than the next few days.

George Paton has been a coveted GM candidate for years, and he has turned down interview requests from at least three teams in the last few years. He has helped build a Vikings roster that always features a fast, talented, attacking defense. Minnesota has historically been willing to spend draft capital on acquiring talented skill players. He is the widely reported favorite to land the position with the 49ers, and his 2nd interview is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday. Paton has a connection to Shanahan, as Dan Quinn and Paton were rumored to be a HC/GM package deal before Quinn was hired as the HC in Atlanta. Quinn could easily have spoken to both Paton and Shanahan to ensure both of their compatibilities and shared football philosophies. Paton's willingness to interview with the 49ers speaks well of the organization, and hiring him would be an impressive move back towards NFL relevance.


Terry McDonough has reportedly not been scheduled for a 2nd interview with the 49ers yet, but he is the only remaining GM candidate, besides Paton, that hasn't been removed from consideration for the job. McDonough was enthusiastic in his preference for Shanahan as a HC choice, and he is well-regarded as a talent evaluator and determined worker. His younger brother Ryan is the GM of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, and the two brothers function as advisors for each other.


Ed Donatell coaches defensive backs for Vic Fangio in Chicago, and would likely utilize a similar system if he returned to the 49ers. He has previous DC experience and always appears to get the most out of his DB units. Donatell has experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, but all of his recent experience has been in a 3-4 defense.

Marquand Manuel coaches defensive backs in Atlanta, where Shanahan is the OC. He has never been a coordinator before, but successful DCs often get their start as DB coaches, as DBs are required to see the whole picture of a defense and adjust their run fits to make the defense sound. He seems under experienced, as he has only been a lead position coach for the last two seasons, but his eight-year playing career could help him identify with 49ers players. Manuel played and coached in 4-3 defenses.

Raheem Morris is one of Kyle Shanahan's close friends in the NFL, and he is a near-certainty to follow Shanahan to the 49ers, either as a coordinator or a position coach. While he has never been a DC in the NFL, he had a brief stint coordinating a collegiate defense. Most of his coaching experience has been with defensive backs, though his brief tenure as the HC in Tampa Bay could allow him to serve as an advisor and sounding board for Shanahan. He is currently employed coaching wide receivers with Atlanta. Although his time in Atlanta has been his only experience as an offensive position coach, the Atlanta receivers have produced an impressively low drop rate this year. Morris would be likely to employ a 4-3 defense.

Jason Tarver is already under contract to the 49ers, coaching outside linebackers. He served as a defensive coordinator with the Raiders, and he managed to coax middling performances out of a roster that was less talented than the 2016 49ers defense. He has a degree in Biochemistry and his football mind is universally held in high esteem. Tarver has already interviewed with Washington to coordinate their defense. If Greg Manusky, a former 49ers DC, is hired for that same job, he may attempt to bring Tarver aboard to coach linebackers.
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.


  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Why in the hell are the niners waiting till Friday to interview Their GM candidates. They should be interviewing today. They may be gone to the Colts before Friday.
    Jan 23, 2017 at 8:52 AM
    Response: That's a fair concern. The 49ers are determined to hire a GM and HC who will work well together, and it's likely they want them to interview each other to see if they can synergize on compatible philosophies for winning football and building a roster.
  • Beachie
    Wow! What a very reasonable and well thought out article. When I go on Twitter and read a couple of the local reporters, I get the impression the sky is falling and that Jed and the Niners are bumbling fools. How refreshing to read a well researched article. Thanks.
    Jan 22, 2017 at 8:46 AM
  • NinerGM
    I want one link that said "McDaniels bowed out because he was uncomfortable with Paraag Marathe's role." If anything what I've been reading is that coaches and GMs are pulling out because the 49ers OR Shanahan has indicated a preference. When those candidates realized they weren't choice 1 or 2, they're pulling out not this "time" or some mysterious cloud around the organization. Only ONE candidate was connected to that rumor and that was Nick Caserio. If you're going to lean on sources, post the primary link or link the article, don't Kawakami a really well organized and thought article with rumor, smoke and mirrors.
    Jan 21, 2017 at 4:46 PM
    Response: I am sorry if you felt any part of this article was intentionally misleading. I'm not looking to deceive anyone. I think it's odd that there are confirming reports about Marathe: that's he's regarded as a huge asset to the 49ers as a contract genius, and that his influence on the owner is intimidating/concerning to outside candidates. I don't know if either or both of those are true, but it seemed just as biased for me to completely omit a talking point that seems to linger, just because I have my own doubts as to the truth of it. In my experience, we often don't ever hear the full story about what happens in these job searches.

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