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Making Up for Lost Time

Feb 12, 2017 at 4:16 PM13

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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.
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.


  • Lucky Phil
    The Kap Is Back! For your next article can you write "The Future Is Lucky Phil". Just kidding Jeff! Good to see you back. Hopefully the Niners come back as strong as a Jeff Kaplan column. I'm writing myself now a days, Romance Novels. I'm writing a short book titled, "Donald Trump is sitting on the face of humanity and S@%$#@ all over the civilized world" Look for it in book stores near you.
    Feb 21, 2017 at 11:54 AM
  • Monsterniner
    Hey welcome back Jeff! I hope to see you more often here because you always nail it with your very good articles. Yes I know the other guys that write here are good (some of them more than others) but I always missed your brutally honest points of view about the present of the team. Again: welcome back.
    Feb 13, 2017 at 6:11 PM
  • ninersush
    man is it good to see an article written by you. honestly your article is just what is needed. you are 100% spot on. 22 years wasted. we weren't true to who we are. who knows where it all ends, but i can at least live with any outcome knowing we are finally who we thought we were (RIP Denny Green). i think that was truly the most frustrating part of the past 14 years for me. Not having the west coast offense. i appreciated what Harbaugh did, but it still irked me that we didn't have the west coast offense. but you're right. The Quest for Six can begin. God i even forgot that mantra its been so long. Welcome back brother. hope you stay. i understand if you don't. but if you are ever in chicago, i would be honored to buy you a beer (or your choice of drink).
    Feb 13, 2017 at 1:26 PM
  • Dallas Niner Fan
    Good article Jeff. Welcome back.
    Feb 13, 2017 at 12:13 PM
  • TM
    Feb 13, 2017 at 10:49 AM
  • AO
    Finally, the greatest writer on the Webzone has comeback!! Missed your articles. Hope you continue to write on here.
    Feb 13, 2017 at 10:11 AM
  • Mike
    Geoff I thought you quit being a 49er fan? When the quest ends, you're not invited to the party.
    Feb 13, 2017 at 7:35 AM
  • Mike Cortese
    The article is o.k., but if the team doesn't spend some money and walk away with solid draft picks then forget Kyle for the next three years. Kyle had talent to work with in Atlanta, there is nothing in San Francisco. Torey Smith is finished, and should have his contract reworked or let go. Kap should be given one more chance but he needs talent around him or he will not succeed, no one will. Defense can be had through the draft. Offense needs to be picked up through the free agency period.
    Feb 13, 2017 at 7:13 AM
  • STL Niner Fan
    I thought you were done with the Niners and that turning away from them was so liberating? I recommend you turn away again. If your a fan of the team you have the freedom to be disgusted by their actions but to completely abandon them in times of strife = fair weather fan. You seem a bit bi-polar. Might want to get that checked out.
    Feb 13, 2017 at 6:20 AM
  • Christian
    Great Read!!.
    Feb 12, 2017 at 8:25 PM
  • Chavans
    Nice article, Jeff. It was so well written that I had to come back to the beginning to see who wrote it. Glad to have you back. Although nothing is a given, it appears that the Niners are now headed in a positive direction with a good GM and HC in place, albeit lacking in experience. It appears that Jed has learned some valuable lessons from his past mistakes and is now more willing to let the football guys run the show. Let's hope so.
    Feb 12, 2017 at 8:11 PM
  • WebZone Commenter
    Well, well, well. Look whose back. If it isn't Mr. Fare Weather fan himself. I thought you weren't a Niner fan anymore? You got all butt hurt because the Niners hired Tomlusa instead of your boy Gase and you said you weren't going to be a fan anymore. So now you come crawling back just because the team hiers the latest flavor of the month offensive coordinator. Too late. This sight is for real fans. Go back to whatever hole youve been hiding in these past two years!
    Feb 12, 2017 at 6:27 PM
  • Marco
    This is really pie in the sky! Let's look at the facts: 1) The fish stinks from the head down, and Lucky Sperm Jed is an incompetent weasel and his track record speaks for itself. 2) When Bill Walsh was hired in 1979, he brought in John McVay and John Ralston, both had head coaching and front office experience. 3) Kyle Shanahan had several mediocre seasons as an OC and one great one with great talent on the roster. If he was really intelligent, he would have insisted on a seasoned GM with years of scouting experience instead of wanting "trigger" control on the 53 man roster. Please take off the rose colored glasses and realize that the Yorks are a cancer on 49er Nation!
    Feb 12, 2017 at 5:06 PM

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