John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports


The immeasurable value of Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh

Dec 1, 2020 at 3:07 PM


In a year that the entire world has been flipped upside down, the San Francisco 49ers are certainly no strangers to uncertainty as they navigate through an unprecedented NFL season being played amidst a global pandemic. As the 49ers flew to Los Angeles to take on the Rams, they were notified they would not be allowed to play or practice at their Santa Clara facilities for the foreseeable future due to a Santa Clara County mandate. This threw yet another wrench into a season that has already seen the 49ers pace the league by a wide margin with injured reserve designations as they've lost 187 games to the injury/COVID lists to this point.

Yet, as the obstacles the 49ers face have increased, so has the performance of head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Through 12 weeks of the season, the 49ers have played the majority of their games without the help of star players like George Kittle and Nick Bosa, while missing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for four games (with him exiting with an injury in an additional two). The 49ers have gone through an unparalleled amount of in-season roster turnover and despite the challenges they have faced with a decimated squad, they are somehow still within striking distance of a playoff spot in a year that is seeing the debut of a 7th playoff spot for each conference. The players deserve a great deal of credit for continuing to display the grit to gut out multiple games they theoretically had no business winning. However, the lion's share of the recognition should be directed at the coaching staff, led by Shanahan and Saleh who have continually put the team in a position to succeed.

The 49ers' defensive unit is no stranger to praise as it was well known as the driving force behind the 49ers' Super Bowl run in 2019. Nevertheless, it feels like Saleh never got the credit he deserved for directing the defense due to the number of playmakers at his disposal. In 2020, there is no question Saleh should be given an enormous deal of kudos for the results he has produced while leading a defense that has been obliterated by injuries. Saleh has commanded a unit that sits at 6th in total defense while boasting a top-10 ranking in both passing and rushing yards, while currently ranking 11th in points per game allowed.

With the avalanche of injuries this defense has dealt with, it is remarkable that Saleh has managed to field a top-10 defense while missing the services of defensive line stalwarts in Bosa and Dee Ford, in addition to spending a large portion of the year with a makeshift secondary with the injured reserve stints of Richard Sherman, K'Waun Williams, and most recently Jaquiski Tartt. Saleh's ability to maintain an elite defense with the revolving door of roster moves, while squeezing the most out of the players at his disposal has been possibly the most impressive feat through 12 weeks of 49ers football. It's no secret Saleh was a finalist for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job that ultimately went to Kevin Stefanski, but the odds of a team with a coaching vacancy passing on Saleh during this upcoming coaching carousel seem slim, as he has clearly demonstrated tremendous value and has likely gained the respect of front offices around the league as a result. The 49ers should be making contingency plans for his departure as it is clear he is destined for a well-deserved promotion in the coming offseason.

Luckily for the 49ers and fans alike, it's extremely unlikely Shanahan will be leaving the Bay Area anytime soon. During a season that has seen a roller coaster of injuries and COVID-related roadblocks (the most recent of which has essentially left the 49ers without a home for the foreseeable future), Shanahan and his staff have somehow been able to maintain a culture that exudes the grit you'd see on a championship-caliber team, despite the 5-6 record they currently possess. The offense clearly isn't the juggernaut it was last season, but given the circumstances it's been admirable to see the way Shanahan and the offense have continued to grind out wins while being without their best players on that side of the ball.

It's no secret Shanahan is one of the most respected offensive minds in the league, yet the job he has done managing personnel and personalities has arguably been more impressive than his performance directing the offense this season. Many within the organization clearly have an affinity for Shanahan and respect his ability as a play caller/designer, but his true value goes well beyond the Xs and Os as there is a clear mutual respect that permeates between the players and the coaching staff. That trust and belief in one and other has made treading water in a rocky season a much more feasible task. Shanahan's greatest strength should easily be his offensive acumen and overall football IQ, but I would argue his ability to cultivate a culture that players not only buy into, but are eager to be a part of has been his greatest accomplishment as head coach of the 49ers.

Even with the looming possibility of ending 2020 with its 3rd losing season out of the four that Shanahan has been in charge, there isn't the sense of despair that would normally accompany a regime that's produced winning seasons at a 25% clip. The record points to a team under .500, but everything about the way the Shanahan-led 49ers conduct themselves FEELS like a winning organization, which had been a rare occurrence in the previous 20+ years of the storied franchise. The future remains bright as the roster features young talent that gives the organization the building blocks to compete for the immediate future. As long as Shanahan is running the show you have to feel confident that the 49ers and the culture they have established are here to stay for the long haul as they look to get over the hump and secure that ever-elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy.
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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