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The myth of Kyle Shanahan and the reality of what he’ll be taking over with the 49ers

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NFL: San Diego Chargers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When I originally started writing this, it was supposed to be like “The Lookaround,” a brief glance at some of the major changes around the NFC West, specifically focusing on coaching and management changes in San Francisco and LA. But then when I was writing the eighth or ninth paragraph on Kyle Shanahan, I knew it had to be a post on it’s own.

What I had found was that for as good as Shanahan’s offense is with the Atlanta Falcons this season -- and make no mistake that it is great, having dropped 44 in the NFC Championship, their sixth 40-point game of the year -- there is a significant divide between the 2016 Falcons and Shanahan’s other teams, as well as a monumental difference between Atlanta’s players and the ones on the 49ers.

With San Francisco expected to hire Shanahan once the Super Bowl is over (he has another interview scheduled this week, I imagine he’ll just hand them a DVD of their game against the Green Bay Packers), only formalities seem to remain. As far as their opening at general manager, the 49ers seemed to lose out on a lot of candidates from Green Bay and Seattle, only to have their supposed favorite — George Paton, Minnesota Vikings exec — pick up an interview with a different team when the Indianapolis Colts fired Ryan Grigson.

But let’s take a not-at-all-quick look at the San Francisco 49ers, Kyle Shanahan, and a bare cupboard.

For the first time since 2011, the 49ers are actually starting over. This season was a flop not just because San Francisco went 2-14, but because they didn’t truly buy into the obvious reality that they were going to be a 2-14 team. If you hired Chip Kelly because you thought he was going to be some sort of quarterback whisperer who would turn around Colin Kaepernick and lead you to something better than four wins, you must — well, you are Jed York. Hi, Jed.

If Kelly had any chance of getting fired after one season, then Kelly should have never been hired. This is what you’re signing up for, Shanahan. I hope you have no expectations that anything you ever do will keep you safe.

What the Niners will look like next season will have a lot to do with who they hire as GM and how they establish that relationship between GM and Shanahan. It’s communication between those two positions that leads to success or failure. Look at Pete Carroll and John Schneider. Consider Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Or the fact that Bill Belichick answers to nobody. On the contrary, the disaster that was Trent Baalke with anyone, or Grigson and Chuck Pagano.

There were rumors that the 49ers might hire Shanahan’s father Mike in some sort of role with the team, perhaps as GM, but that will not be happening. It now appears that Paton is the favorite and the only other known candidate who hasn’t dropped out is Terry McDonough, an exec with the Arizona Cardinals.

Let’s say that the next head coach and GM in San Francisco is Shanahan and Paton. What do we know about them or their teams? Well, Shanahan had pretty underwhelming results as an offensive coordinator until this season with the Falcons.

Consider 2009 when he was with the Houston Texans:

Undrafted free agent running back Arian Foster was released on September 5, cleared waivers, and then was signed to the practice squad. He got limited reps as a backup to Steve Slaton, Ryan Moats, and Chris Brown before the team finally discovered he was special in the last two weeks of the season. Shanahan left for the Washington Redskins job with his father in 2010, and Foster led the NFL in rushing yards. I’d also make note of the fact that Shanahan was assigned to be quarterback Matt Schaub’s coach when he was acquired in 2007, then promoted to offensive coordinator in 2008, which is probably similar to what we’ll see with the 49ers this season. Shanahan will go out and get “his” quarterback through a trade, free agency, or the draft. Schaub is a great example of what one of the trade or free agent situations in 2017 may turn out to be.

Schaub had his moments, but was injured and inefficient during his first two seasons working with Shanahan. He was a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2009, but that took him leading the NFL in pass attempts to get there. When Shanahan left, Schaub was no worse for the wear, arguably getting better.

With his father in Washington, Shanahan coached Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman, and John Beck over the first two seasons of their tenure. (I’ll never forget that in 2011, there was a QB competition between Grossman and Beck, probably the worst “competition” I’ve ever heard of.) I’ll say that the father-son duo helped revolutionize the QB position in 2012 with Robert Griffin III, but it also didn’t do a player like RGIII any favors. They flopped to 3-13 in 2013 and both Shanahans were fired. Backup QB Kirk Cousins was terrible with Shanahan. The next season, the Redskins hired Jay Gruden and Sean McVay and Cousins became good. Sometimes great.

Now in 2014, Shanahan goes to the Falcons? Nope. Now in 2014, he goes to the Cleveland Browns. Wasteland? Maybe. But the Browns provided Shanahan with a first round pick at QB (Johnny Manziel) and Brian Hoyer. Don’t bite my head off. Manziel is talented. He’s also stupid. I’m not saying that Shanahan or anyone could have saved Manziel, but this is pretty much what you might want to see San Francisco go for this year: drafting a talented quarterback early in the draft and then watching him start just two games as a rookie, both of them going horribly. Like .... really, really horribly.

The next season, under John DeFilippo, Manziel actually had a few good starts. And Hoyer went to the Houston Texans and had a 19:7 TD:INT ratio, compared to the 12:13 he had with Cleveland. Hoyer played for the Chicago Bears this season and was legitimately kind of good for five games.

Now we can get to Shanahan and Atlanta and Matt Ryan. In 2015, before the MVP campaign, the Falcons were 21st in scoring, 23rd in passing touchdowns, 24th in interceptions, 25th in yards per carry, and Ryan averaged 7.5 yards per attempt. Ryan was fine. Shanahan was under heavy scrutiny. He was given another year to get all the parts together and it has worked out incredibly well for Atlanta.

1st in scoring, 1st in turnovers, 1st in net yards per attempt, 5th in yards per carry, 1st in DVOA, 2nd in passing touchdowns, 2nd in rushing touchdowns, and 1st in passing touchdowns.

Let’s make note of the good for Shanahan:

  • In nine seasons as an offensive coordinator, he has had a top-5 net yards per pass attempt ranking in four of them. Two with Schaub, one with Griffin, one with Ryan. He even got the Browns to a 16th overall ranking in that category, and his worst finish was 23rd with Washington in 2013 when they couldn’t figure themselves out with an injured Griffin.
  • Three times he’s had an offense that was top-5 in yards per carry. With the Redskins in 2012-2013, and with Atlanta this season. Basically, an efficient passing offense can lead to opportunities for capable running backs/athletic quarterbacks, and vice versa.
  • He is 37-years-old. He’s been training to be a head coach for 37 years. How much a coaching bloodline helps or hurts is unknown, really. Wade Phillips didn’t out-coach his father Bum. Rex and Rob Ryan are not Buddy Ryan. But Jim and John Harbaugh have certainly gained more fame, prominence, and college/pro success than their father Jack. Shanahan may not become a great head coach, but he’s ready for this moment.

But here are my issues with the idea that Shanahan is going to transform and revitalize the 49ers offense.

Three times in his career as an offensive coordinator has he had a team that was top-10 in scoring but five times they’ve been 21st or worse. In 2012 and 2016, his offenses had the fewest turnovers in the NFL. In 2008, 2011, and 2013, his offenses were 30th in turnovers. From 2009 to 2011, his rushing offenses were ranked 30th, 30th, and 25th. In 2009, they had Foster fourth on the depth chart and cut him.

This is not a very shocking statement, but Shanahan hasn’t proven that he can do anything for an offense that doesn’t have talent at the quarterback and wide receiver positions. RGIII was an extremely good player in 2012, but the model was unsustainable. So much so that they didn’t even try it in Cleveland with Shanahan and Manziel. He used the “spread the ball” mentality with some success in Washington, but those teams still had Pierre Garcon, Alfred Morris, Santana Moss, Jordan Reed.

I also find it interesting how many players get better after Shanahan leaves.

Foster, Schaub, Reed, Isaiah Crowell, Cousins, Hoyer, Gary Barnidge, Travis Benjamin. Also, the last time we saw Josh Gordon play in the NFL was for five games with Shanahan as the OC in 2014. He wasn’t good. He went from perhaps the best receiver in the NFL a year earlier to being more of a downer on offense than a weapon.

Consider the Browns 2014 offense again, in retrospect:

Hoyer, Crowell, Terrance West, Gordon (for five), Barnidge, Jordan Cameron, Benjamin, Taylor Gabriel (now playing again for Shanahan in Atlanta), Andrew Hawkins, Alex Mack (five games), Joe Thomas, Mitchell Schwartz, Joel Bitonio. The Browns threw the fewest touchdowns in the league. They were 28th in yards per carry. Hoyer and Manziel may not be good, but I thought we were being sold on the idea that Shanahan — much like Chip Kelly — can make below-average quarterbacks look good, good quarterbacks look great, and great quarterbacks look like MVPs.

Well, what kind of quarterback will Shanahan be working with in San Francisco next season anyway? Because if it’s a good one or a great one, it doesn’t really matter what I say about Shanahan working with a bad one, right? I mean, Shanahan has proven himself as a capable mentor and leader of great quarterbacks ... kind of ... mostly.

It’s not going to be Kaepernick. Despite a pretty fair season in 2016, Kaepernick isn’t good for the organization anymore and the organization isn’t good for Kaepernick anymore. They’re going to release him and he’s going to sign with another team to compete for a starting position, and he’ll probably win it. Not because he’s great, but because there aren’t many great quarterbacks and there are a few desperate teams.

The most sought after quarterback who is likely to be available is Mike Glennon, which is just another shining example of the pointlessness of trying to find your next franchise quarterback on the free agent market. It happens maybe once or twice a decade. Glennon has been touted as a Cousins-type, an underrated QB who was held back for much of his career simply because he was behind a phenom QB. As a free agent though, he’s more of a Brock Osweiler-type. An overrated QB because of how many people called him underrated. Sometimes you’re not “held back” by a better QB. Sometimes all your faults are just being masqueraded by the fact that the starter is so good. If Osweiler had been drafted by Seattle in 2012, for example, his faults would’ve been exposed immediately, and he probably wouldn’t have even made it through all four seasons of his rookie deal.

Glennon might be good. But the value of “might” is not the $72 million that Osweiler got. Perhaps the 49ers show interest, Shanahan probably has a lot of NFC South intel on him, but Glennon is no obvious solution. The only smart thing to do would be to sign him to compete with another player of equal interest. A team will probably still fall into the pit of signing him with the full intention of starting from day one. We’ll see if it’s San Francisco.

Other free agents include Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Hoyer, Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez, and the 49ers’ own Blaine Gabbert. None of them would be good signings, including a reunion of Shanahan and Hoyer, as we saw how that worked out the first time.

Now, there are new rumors that the Niners will go hard after Cousins. He is technically set to be a free agent, but there are only two real possibilities: Washington gives him the franchise tag or signs him to a long-term extension. The only way San Francisco could acquire him would be if it’s a non-exclusive franchise tag, meaning they’d give up two first round picks, or they’d trade for him, meaning they might have to give up two first round picks.

Yes, please do this, Niners.

Cousins might be fine. Good even. (He wasn’t good with Shanahan though.) But the prospect of San Francisco giving up high draft picks (they have the second overall pick this year) and $120+ million for Cousins seems almost too good to be true. And it’s not like the Redskins are going to give the 49ers some sweetheart deal. They don’t have a quarterback who is “waiting in the wings.” They would only trade Cousins in those circumstances with the idea that with cap relief, and the second overall pick, and more picks, they’d better the team and risk Cousins continuing to be good while not getting a QB of equal value in the draft.

But there is a significant problem in San Francisco: The team sucks.

Right now, Cousins plays with Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Reed, Jamison Crowder, Vernon Davis, and an improved ground game with Chris Thompson, Robert Kelley, and Matt Jones.

The 49ers weapons as of today: Carlos Hyde, Torrey Smith, Bruce Ellington, Vance McDonald, Chris Harper, Aaron Burbridge, DeAndre Smelter, Garrett Celek, Blake Bell, Je’Ron Hamm, Mike Davis, Raheem Mostert. These are the skill players under contract for next season. Jeremy Kerley, Quinton Patton, Rod Streater are all free agents, not that they are losses or would be key re-signings. The offensive line might have a couple of good players, like Joe Staley and Josh Garnett, and maybe a couple of bad ones. But what will the new GM do to upgrade the skill positions?

First of all, let’s talk about the draft. There’s no receiver worth taking second overall. Most likely, if they really fell for Clemson’s Mike Williams, they could trade down, get some extra picks, and still acquire him. That might actually be a smart move. Or not. But you wouldn’t think that any receiver goes near that high. And in this case, we’d have to assume that the 49ers acquired a QB that they know will start, like Cousins, Tony Romo, Tyrod Taylor, or if we’re really lucky, Glennon. The only skill player that could possibly go this high is Leonard Fournette, and given the play of so many great running backs this season, I think you could make a good argument that Fournette is the right pick here. Take pressure off whatever QB it is, maybe even wait until the right QB comes along and build a solid team around the position, like Seattle did with Russell Wilson. Even though Hyde is a good running back, he’s also been banged up throughout his career and is entering the final year of his deal. Hyde does absolutely nothing to make me second-guess drafting Fournette.

There will be a myriad of options in the second and third rounds, which is where they’ll probably add skill players if they don’t do so with Fournette. What about free agent wide receivers?

Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Terrelle Pryor, Garcon, Michael Floyd, Kenny Stills, Kendall Wright, Kenny Britt, Terrance Williams, Robert Woods, Cordarrelle Patterson, Vincent Jackson, Anquan Boldin, Ted Ginn, Brian Quick, Marquise Goodwin, Markus Wheaton, and so on.

If the Bears let Jeffery go, certainly San Francisco has the cap space ($81 million and a lot more coming) to overpay him to whatever extent he wants. Jeffery didn’t have an inspiring season playing on the franchise tag this year (68.4 yards per game, two touchdowns over 12 starts), but he’d be Shanahan’s cornerstone receiver, like Julio Jones is in Atlanta. If the Niners can’t get Jeffery, Pryor is a solid second option. And I think it ends there.

Re-thinking San Francisco’s potential weapons next season, maybe it looks more like: Pryor, McDonald, 2nd round WR, Torrey (he wasn’t helpful this season but saving cap room isn’t a necessity), Wheaton. That’s better, but it’s still not that good. And we still don’t know who the quarterback would be.

Acquiring Romo may come at the cost of a second round pick in 2017 (if we’re talking about the Niners, because they wouldn’t give up the 2nd overall pick, but maybe a team would give up a late first) and a future early pick. Despite fans who doth protest too much, Romo is really good and could turn a lot of teams into playoff contenders next season. He couldn’t turn the 49ers into playoff contenders in one season, they’re just far too bad for that, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t try.

At this point, I think the best case scenario for San Francisco is that the Bills release Tyrod Taylor and they lock him into a deal that is heavily player-friendly in the first two seasons and heavily team-friendly/incentivized in the final three seasons. They would have little reason to not pay him $18 million in 2017 with a nice bonus. Again, they’re about to be $100 million under the cap when they release Kaepernick.

Now, what do we see?

Maybe Paton at GM, Shanahan at head coach, Taylor at quarterback, and Pryor or Jeffery as the number one receiver. This move could also allow them to not use the second overall pick on a quarterback, though if we find out that teams are really clamoring for Mitch Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, or other, then maybe that is the right thing to do. A rookie franchise quarterback would be better than an older, much more expensive franchise quarterback. If they don’t have to draft a QB though, they could then use the number two pick on Fournette, or Solomon Thomas, Jonathan Allen, Malik Hooker, someone else, or trade down.

Imagine Taylor, Fournette, Hyde, Pryor, Wheaton, McDonald, Smith for starters. Okay, that’s kind of intriguing. Maybe Shanahan can make that into a top-20 offense next year. Still not a 5-win team with such an awful defense to remake, but certainly a start. Speaking of the defense, let’s speak briefly on Paton.

What could we expect from a GM who has spent the last decade with the Vikings? Well, they’re best know right now for assembling a very talented defense. Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph. Paton was also there when they drafted Adrian Peterson (Fournette?), when they drafted Barr (a pass-rushing linebacker?), and when they traded a first round pick for Sam Bradford (maybe they trade a first round pick for Sam Bradford?) (But seriously, maybe this foreshadowing a similar trade for the Niners.)

Minnesota has also done some really odd and bad moves, which is why they finished 8-8 after a 5-0 start. Like taking Laquon Treadwell in the first round last year. Not that Treadwell wasn’t getting first round grades, but he also might have been the worst rookie out of the first round last year, catching one pass for 15 yards and being a healthy scratch many times. Their entire rookie class was pretty bad in 2016. A year earlier, they took Trae Waynes 11th overall, and he’s shown very little through two seasons. And the highest pick the Vikings had during his tenure has been Matt Kalil, fourth overall in 2012. Not an unusual pick, but one that has turned out to be a significant disappointment.

It seems like in Jed’s head, he might be thinking that pairing a GM from a defensive organization and an offensive mind at head coach, he’s getting the best of both worlds. But worlds like this can also clash. It’s not hard to see: When you have the second overall pick in a draft that is loaded with immense defensive talent at the top, and a head coach who just orchestrated an MVP season for a QB and now looks around his new team and sees no QB, you start to notice that there could be a problem. Will they force a move for Mitch Trubisky or Deshaun Watson, bypass Soloman Thomas (this seems like the pick that makes the most sense to me from a San Francisco — Stanford standpoint) or another great defensive prospect, and miss an opportunity? Would a rookie QB be setup for failure in the same way that Alex Smith was in 2005?

These are among the questions that can’t really be answered yet and still I’ve decided to write thousands of words on it.

In the best case scenario, I could see Shanahan putting together a 6-10 season for San Francisco. This is if they do something like trade for Romo (without giving up too much), sign Jeffery, draft Thomas, and get two wins over the Rams, three wins over the AFC South, and top the Bears. (Other last place teams they have to face, Panthers and Eagles, aren’t that bad.)

In the worst case scenario, the 49ers go 0-16. This is more probable than them making the playoffs.

In the likely scenario, Shanahan starts out with a 4-12 season. In the interest of not having four coaches in four seasons, he’ll be safe, but because it’s this team and this owner, the rumors will begin. How they do in 2018 will be the most telling season of all for Shanahan’s future with the 49ers and as a head coach, but I’ll be more impressed if he’s put together an above-average offense by 2018 than I was by him having an all-time great season with Ryan, Freeman, Jones, Coleman, and co. in 2016.

San Francisco is not Atlanta. It’s not even 2014 Cleveland. This will be interesting.