Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports


Kyle Shanahan: Is the young, “cool,” and “fearless” coach’s old-school mentality holding the 49ers back?

Chris Wilson
Oct 25, 2020 at 3:48 AM0


The San Francisco 49ers describe their head coach as a "detailed wizard," and an "aggressive guru," but Kyle Shanahan's actions -- and words -- tell a different story of a man struggling to find a path to greatness.


Prior to the San Francisco 49ers' NBC Sunday Night Football matchup with the Los Angeles Rams, sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya asked each player from both teams for three words which best describe their respective head coach. The point of the exercise was to highlight the similarities between the two young coaches, which was a common theme throughout the broadcast. Four of the words provided were identical, and the remainder were relatively similar. However, Shanahan's descriptors formed the image of a "smart" and "relentless" forward-thinker, knee-deep in analytics and "always ready" for whatever lies ahead.

Over the past four years, Shanahan has demonstrated glimpses of this persona described by his players and echoed throughout the sports media -- but rarely on a consistent basis. This inconsistency has become a point of contention and a growing concern for those who observe the internal struggle between the "genius" within the 40-year-old first-time head coach and the disproven offensive strategies and game theory he first learned from his father decades ago.

Kyle Shanahan has proven he can be the NFL's top offensive coordinator, but whether he will become a great head coach remains to be seen. Shanahan understands what sets him apart from the competition: "Xs and Os," extreme passion, utilizing "multiple" players to throw out of heavy sets, using complex route combinations to rip apart pass defenses, "plays on plays," extensive use of motion to gain information and cause conflicts and mismatches, and his ability to transform a group of men into a single brotherhood prepared for battle. But like all who struggle for greatness, he lacks necessary self-awareness and the ability to recognize where he falls short and where he will never be great: scouting and personnel assessment, clock management, finishing games, identifying and taking responsibility for his failures, and most importantly, the ability to both acquire individuals who are great in these areas and then delegate these important responsibilities to them.

Although it appears negative at first glance, Shanahan doesn't have to be great in every aspect of the game, because no one is, was, or ever will be. Accepting that fact is a vital step in the process, and Shanny continues to struggle to accept responsibility or recognize how his mistakes play a vital role in each of San Francisco's defeats.

Accordingly, Shanahan has far too much on his plate to be great, and the more time he wastes on poorly-performed tasks, the less time he has to spend on what he does best. While these problems are easy to solve in theory, power is difficult to relinquish. This is particularly true for the young head coach who demands full control and is set to hold all the cards in San Francisco until at least 2025.

Although the 49er Faithful expect immediate changes and improvement, Shanahan has time to grow and make the changes necessary to achieve greatness: by confronting his fears and accepting the reality that he's not the best coach in the NFL at everything he does, he never was, and he never will be -- and that's okay.

One missing piece in Shanahan's puzzle is his use of technology, and specifically, basic analytics which were essentially nonexistent in the 20th century. The Niners' head coach isn't interested in understanding basic analytics, which, in 2020, is irresponsible. If Shanahan wants to be great, he needs to embrace this essential technology. The media has yet to recognize his indifference to analytics and the negative effects his related decisions continue to have on the team. I advise Shanahan to dedicate an hour out of his schedule to learn the basics, which will not only result in immediate improvement, but will also prevent the potential tarnishing of a coaching career before it reaches its full potential.

How do I know that the Niners' HC cares so little about the significant advances in this critical area over the past few decades? Here's how to break the secret code: Watch him coach and listen to him speak. And to prove it, let's simply break down two press conference answers from this week and a few corresponding statistics.

All excerpts of transcripts were provided by the San Francisco 49ers Communications staff, and can be found in the News area of 49ers Webzone.

Sunday's Press Conference


We'll begin with a quick question-and-answer from Sunday's press conference:

Q: You talked last week about needing your best players to play at their best. Do you feel like that happened in a lot of areas?

"Yeah, I'll see when I look on the tape, but I thought our whole team played pretty well. That was a real good team win, I thought. Our defense played their ass off, obviously. Our goal was to get more runs than the other team. I knew both teams were trying to run the ball and I think just the whole team, for us to get 37 runs there when you're not just killing them with run average, says a lot about how everybody played." - Kyle Shanahan

  • "Our goal was to get more runs than the other team." Of all the numerous goals you could have set, why choose one which has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the game? I wouldn't insult our readers by explaining the difference between correlation and causation, so I certainly know better than to explain the difference to an NFL coach. If you want to run the ball for the sake of it, I can train my dog to call running plays that won't work. The result will look similar to the 49ers' anemic second half in Week 6, just without the first-half lead. You'll finish the season with more runs than the opposing team, and a well-deserved loss in each game. All it will cost is a bag of peanut butter treats and one of your red hats; he's having a hard time finding one on the internet and he wants to look dapper for his first trip to New England.

  • "I knew both teams were trying to run the ball." The Rams were running the ball because it was working and their quarterback couldn't complete simple passes. The 49ers were running the ball because at halftime, they stopped trying to score against their opponent, and instead started playing the clock. The Niners totaled five rushing yards in the third quarter, and began the second half with four consecutive short drives and punts, which nearly cost the team the game.

  • "For us to get 37 runs there when you're not just killing them with run average, says a lot about how everybody played." Continuing to run unsuccessfully tells us the 49ers couldn't muster a respectful running game, and that the number of running plays was determined to be more important than the outcome of the plays.

Monday's Press Conference


After having a day to properly formulate answers to similar questions, what did we learn from Shanahan?

Last night you mentioned that having more runs than the opponent was one of the things you wanted to do specifically in that game. You had a lot more. You've said other similar things. I think after the Vikings playoff game, you said you wanted to get 30 runs. Is this something that's a goal of yours in every game? You mentioned kind of the totality of the game, what it shows you. Do you know or care that the analytics community hates to hear stuff like that? They say, 'Oh, you're just saying you just run the ball and you're going to win, which is not the way it works.' Again, a Matt Maiocco style question there, but have at the same way.

"Yeah, no, usually when you run the ball over 30 times, I think you do win. I think we're, I want to say we're like 11-0, I think, when we've done that. I know someone can get the stats, but I think we're undefeated when we've done that. Whenever we've had less than 20, I don't know if we've won or our record's like 5-12 or something like that. You're right, you don't just run the ball to win. If you come out and try to get all those runs right away, you're going to be pretty one dimensional and you're going to be pretty easy to stop. But, when you are running the ball that much, that usually means things are going well. It means you've converted some third downs. It means you've stayed on the field for a while. It means you're getting the ball back. It usually means they're not running the ball that well because you're getting so many opportunities with the ball and staying on the field. To get that many runs sometimes, you don't get as many explosive runs because you're going on longer drives, which also slows down the team and rests our team. I just think when you look at the number of carries, it's a very good team stat. Sometimes it seems like, 'Oh, you must have ran the ball real well. The O-Line did good. The running back did good,' and I don't always see it that way. I think it's a full commitment just to play very good complementary football. It really helps you stick with the run as a play caller. I thought we had a number of times there in the fourth quarter that we could have kind of finished them and we didn't. We came up a little bit short and it's nice when you're playing good defense and you can stick with the run that, even though we missed our opportunities to finish them, we punted the ball there. I think we had a drop on third down. I think it was third and eight, then we punted it. [P] Mitch [Wishnowsky] had an awesome punt, got on the one-yard line. Then our defense went three and out, we got it again. So, you feel you're able to run the ball again. We take our shot, just missed it. Jimmy scrambled on third down. I think we ended up kicking a field goal, but you keep doing those things to where you don't feel like every time that you have to get that big play or you're going to lose the game. You can kind of stay balanced, help your players out. It gives the O-Line confidence, the quarterback confidence and the only way you can do that, though, is if you take the whole totality of the game in. You understand how the defense is playing and stuff, and that's what's fun for a play caller when you can keep sticking with that because you've got a lot of confidence in your whole team and not just what you're doing on offense. I don't know if I answered that right, but I tried." -Kyle Shanahan

  • "Usually when you run the ball over 30 times, I think you do win. I think we're, I want to say we're like 11-0, I think, when we've done that. I know someone can get the stats, but I think we're undefeated when we've done that." I was a bit shocked to hear his extremely low estimation of 11 undefeated games, first because the numbers are obviously far off, as is Shanahan's relationship with his analytics team. The answer is 17-4.

  • "Whenever we've had less than 20, I don't know if we've won or our record's like 5-12 or something like that." For someone obsessed with rushing the ball, how can Shanahan have no idea how many times he's fallen short of that number, or what his career record (1-5) is -- and since he has absolutely no idea, why would he offer a number when no number was requested? There's obviously a disconnect between Shanahan's perspective of a game, and what actually happens on the field of play.

  • "If you come out and try to get all those runs right away, you're going to be pretty one dimensional and you're going to be pretty easy to stop. " It's just as easy to stop when you do it to start the second half -- unless you're playing the Packers.

  • "But, when you are running the ball that much, that usually means things are going well. It means you've converted some third downs. It means you've stayed on the field for a while. It means you're getting the ball back. It usually means they're not running the ball that well because you're getting so many opportunities with the ball and staying on the field. To get that many runs sometimes, you don't get as many explosive runs because you're going on longer drives, which also slows down the team and rests our team. I just think when you look at the number of carries, it's a very good team stat. Sometimes it seems like, 'Oh, you must have ran the ball real well. The O-Line did good. The running back did good,' and I don't always see it that way. I think it's a full commitment just to play very good complementary football. It really helps you stick with the run as a play caller." I don't want to beat a dead horse here. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, because this paragraph could take a month to dissect. I don't understand why he thinks committing to something the opposing team is refusing to allow you to do, while ignoring the better opportunities they provide you is a positive thing.

Final Thoughts


If these basic truths could find their way onto a chalkboard in his office, Shanahan would immediately become a better head coach, and it would drastically increase his potential for greatness in the future.

  • Passing is more efficient than rushing.
  • You win games by passing the ball efficiently, which is a sticky statistic.
  • The correlation between rushing efficiency and victory is minor.
  • A large number of rushing attempts should be a byproduct of a good game, not a goal.
  • Stop running the ball unnecessarily.
  • The pass sets up the run, not the other way around.
  • A strong running game has a very minimal effect on your play-action game.
  • Stop running the ball so often on early downs. You shouldn't be second in the NFL in percentage of rushing attempts when you pass the ball more efficiently on every down.
  • Thank your quarterback for constantly bailing you out of trouble. QB Jimmy Garoppolo was the only quarterback in the NFL who converted at least half of his third-and-long tries in 2019.
  • Finish games. Stop playing the clock.
  • This isn't your father's NFL.
  • Meet with your analytics staff on a regular basis.
  • You have what it takes to be the best head coach in the NFL. It's up to you.
  • 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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