In a year of success, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s biggest mistake

Chris Wilson
Feb 26, 2018 at 10:39 AM0


In 2017, the San Francisco 49ers may have experienced the best six-win year in team history.

Although the 49ers didn't accumulate many victories during the season, the year was full of wins for the team. The 49ers began 2017 by signing the top prospective head coach on the market -- Kyle Shanahan -- to a six-year contract, thereby officially ending the team's four-year coaching merry-go-round. The Niners also signed the inexperienced, but respected, former-safety John Lynch to a similar six-year deal as the team's new general manager. Lynch quickly demonstrated that common sense can trump experience when he signed a bevy of free agents that immediately improved the 49ers' roster -- something his predecessor, Trent Baalke, was unwilling, or unable, to do.

Lynch -- with Shanahan by his side -- continued to gain respect throughout the league by "brilliantly manipulating his first draft" when he executed two first-round trades (more on that later), before finding three rookie starters in the third day of the 2017 NFL Draft. The duo's best move of the year was the mid-season trade for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was subsequently signed to a long-term contract that established Garoppolo as the face of the 49ers' franchise for the foreseeable future.

As expected for a head coach and general manager new to the job, 2017 was far from perfect, and the Shanahan-Lynch team took their fair share of lumps throughout the year. The 49ers started the season with nine-straight losses -- a franchise record -- before righting the ship with Garoppolo under center. Shanahan and Lynch also overpaid for some players in free agency and racked up "dead money" by cutting productive players in order to keep rookies they drafted or signed.

Still, it's hard to give Shanahan and Lynch anything less than an A grade for their first year in their respective positions. They took a franchise in shambles and turned it into a preferred destination for 2018 free agents. Niner fans have hope again, and hope is the first step in filling what has become an oft-empty Levi's Stadium.

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But Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch made one monumental mistake -- perhaps, blunder -- in 2017. And it's probably not what you think.

First, let's go back to the opening round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Lynch -- along with 49ers' chief negotiator Paraag Marathe -- "brilliantly manipulated" the Chicago Bears into giving up three additional draft picks for the opportunity to move up one spot in the draft. The 49ers then used their new draft capital to trade back into the first round, and selected linebacker Reuben Foster, who was one of the most talented members of the 2017 draft class but a player with a history of injuries and off-field problems. Over the 2017 season, Foster proved to be one of the most talented members on the Niners' roster, finishing the year as Pro Football Focus' fourth highest-rated linebacker. Foster was also sidelined due to various ailments throughout the season, missing six full games, and portions of many others. Then, after the season, Foster was arrested. Less than a month later, he was arrested again, on much more serious charges.

However, drafting Foster wasn't Shanahan and Lynch's big mistake -- but he has a lot to do with it.

Foster is a talented linebacker who faced an upbringing filled with tragedy -- had run-ins with the law, and issues with drugs -- and fell in the draft due to these off-field concerns. Sound familiar?

In 2010, the San Francisco 49ers drafted a talented linebacker who faced an upbringing filled with tragedy -- had run-ins with the law, and issues with drugs -- and fell in the draft due to these off-field concerns. His name was NaVorro Bowman.

Yet, Bowman didn't get arrested multiple times during his first year in the league. The 49ers front office was never forced to call Bowman to team headquarters to discuss his off-field indiscretions. Bowman was never considered a problem child once he reached the NFL -- rather, he quickly became a leader both on and off the field; not only was he one of the best linebackers in the game, he was one of the best influences in the 49ers' locker room. So, why this amazing turn of events? How was he able to mature so quickly? Well, Bowman was drafted into the perfect situation. The 49ers drafted Bowman to play alongside the NFL's best linebacker, Patrick Willis.

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Willis knew what it was like to overcome a traumatic childhood, and he was a natural-born leader, forced to raise his younger siblings while protecting them from an abusive drug-addict father. Willis was the unquestioned leader of the 49ers' heralded defense, and he immediately took Bowman under his wing. While they worked in tandem on the field, their relationship was just as strong off the field. It wasn't long before Bowman and his rookie mentor considered each other brothers.

When Willis retired less than four years later, Bowman was ready to lead. Bowman took over Willis' role, giving the 49ers' pre-game speeches, and calling plays from the defensive huddle. Bowman missed portions of two seasons due to injury, but as soon as he returned, he resumed his leadership role; Bowman was the unquestioned leader of the 49ers' defense. Countless fans retired their "52" jersey and put on their new "53" jersey each Sunday.

Less than four years later, Lynch and Shanahan drafted Foster. Foster would play alongside Bowman, with Bowman playing the "Mike" linebacker role, just as Willis did for him -- taking on lead blocks, and allowing the younger linebacker to make plays. Bowman would mentor Foster, and help his new partner on the field mature off the field. Like Willis did for Bowman, Bowman would do for Foster -- and when it was time for Bowman to retire, Foster would be there to lead the next generation. So perfect, it sounded more like a movie script than a real-life situation; it was too good to be true.

And then the 49ers cut Bowman.

Of course, it didn't happen quite that suddenly. First came the post-draft rumors that Bowman was on the trade block, which Lynch and Shanahan quickly denied. Then, a month into the season, Shanahan started to replace Bowman with special-teamer and backup linebacker Brock Coyle on key drives, because Shanahan claimed "80 plays a game" was "a little too much for him." Bowman voiced his displeasure, both in post-game interviews and through his agent, who told Lynch that the linebacker preferred to be traded if he wasn't going to remain an every-down player. Shanahan and Lynch determined Bowman wouldn't remain an every-down player, so they shopped him around the league. The 49ers worked out a deal with the New Orleans Saints, but allowed Bowman to veto the trade, and he was released.

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While it would be unfair to blame Fosters' recent behavior on Shanahan and Lynch -- Foster is an adult who makes his own decisions, good or bad -- it is fair to criticize the 49ers for failing to provide Foster with the best situation in which to thrive. After drafting Foster -- given his history -- the 49ers needed to provide the future star with the opportunity to learn from a strong role model and leader. But Bowman's release immediately made Foster the de facto leader of the 49ers' defense, particularly because the team lacked returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. Fellow 23-year-old DeForest Buckner -- still new to the NFL -- was not the most vocal player in the locker room. Veteran Eric Reid, while vocal on social issues, was less-so on football issues -- and the safety lost his starting job, was forced to change positions temporarily, and likely won't play for the team in 2018. With Bowman gone, Foster called the defensive plays, and partially due to his infectious personality, became the player his teammates looked to for leadership during a time when he should have been learning how to lead. Foster appears to be capable of becoming a true leader, but the 49ers need to put him in the right situation if they want that to happen.

Hypothetically, if playing Bowman over Coyle would have made the 49ers a worse team in the short term, should Shanahan and Lynch have kept Bowman anyway, just for his veteran leadership and mentorship of Foster? It's debatable. Shanahan and Lynch made a conscious decision to go young in 2017, gave rookies more snaps than any other NFL team, and released established veterans in order to keep a maximum number of rookies on the roster. These decisions certainly made the team worse in the short term, but have the potential for long-term gain. If playing Bowman in 2017 would have made the 2018 and 2019 49ers better, there was a compelling argument for doing so.

It's an interesting hypothetical exercise, but let's get back to reality. Playing Coyle and fellow linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong over Bowman made the 49ers a worse team in the short term, because Bowman is a better inside linebacker than Coyle and Armstrong in every aspect of the game, and he demonstrated that in 2017. Look no further than the game immediately after Bowman's release, where the Washington Redskins beat the 49ers thanks to change-of-pace running back Chris Thompson, who torched the 49ers -- particularly Coyle and Armstrong -- for 138 total yards after Washington attacked the Niners' defense by repeatedly isolating Thompson and the Niners' linebackers in space. This defensive failure prompted Shanahan to move Reid from his normal strong-safety position to linebacker for the following game against the Dallas Cowboys, with the endorsement of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who claimed Reid could become a special linebacker thanks to his ability to match up against running backs and tight ends. After Zeke Elliott and his fellow Dallas running backs racked up over 300 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns against the 49ers' defense -- with tight end Jason Witten adding an additional 50 yards and a score -- Shanahan and Saleh put an end to Reid's short-lived linebacker experiment. Meanwhile, in Bowman's first game with the Oakland Raiders, he led his new team with 11 tackles in the Raiders' victory over the 5-1 Kansas City Chiefs.

The discrepancy between Bowman's performance and the performance of his replacements continued throughout the season, with Armstrong becoming the next member of the 49ers' linebacking corps to be released. The evidence that Bowman "lost a step" was supposedly most obvious in coverage situations, yet Bowman finished the season with a 77.3 coverage grade from PFF. After losing playing time due to repeated failures in the passing game, the 49ers eventually parted ways with Armstrong in late November. Armstrong ended 2017 with a PFF coverage grade of 37.4 -- the fifth-worst among NFL linebackers. Coyle won the Niners' second inside linebacker job by default -- and being a Shanahan-Lynch hire surely didn't hurt -- although his play was almost as abysmal. Coyle was PFF's 70th best linebacker in 2017, with an overall grade of 41.3, and was equally bad in the run game (43.5) and the pass game (43.2). Meanwhile, Bowman ended the season as PFF's 11th best linebacker, with an overall grade of 84.8 and a run defense grade of 85.4 -- with the Raiders reaping the majority of the rewards, and the 49ers paying the majority of the bill thanks to the 49ers' decision to release the linebacker. While Bowman's "dead money" made him one of the 49ers' highest-paid players in 2017, the Niners will be on the hook for less money in 2018, but Bowman could still potentially land in the team's top-10.

Releasing NaVorro Bowman is Shanahan and Lynch's biggest mistake to date, but even after releasing one of the team's best players and leaders, their first season was a huge success for the 49ers' franchise. Both men are new at their respective jobs, so mistakes will happen and should be expected. Shanahan and Lynch's future success -- and thus, the team's success -- depends on whether they can take responsibility for -- and learn from -- their mistakes. This is one of the qualities of a leader: accountability. And in Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, the San Francisco 49ers have two leaders in charge of their franchise. The future is still bright.
  • Chris Wilson
  • Written by:
    You may have seen Chris Wilson's work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis, and film breakdowns at Minute Media, FanSided, Niner Noise, Insidethe49, LockedonSports, ClutchPoints, and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.
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.


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