Kyle Shanahan Deserves to Shed the Weight of His Infamous Losses

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How soon can we forgive the coach, who, in a streak of brilliance, broke professional football, but on certain nights, can’t seem to get it all together?

Following the San Francisco 49ers’ heart-thumping, 24–21 playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, Kyle Shanahan is one step closer to shaking the most complicated distinction in professional football. He’s not in poor company, of course. Into Andy Reid’s fifth decade on this planet he was less a football savant and more a tragically flawed coaching speed bump known more for his situational clock management than his ability to craft an offense better than almost any other human on planet Earth. It’s ridiculous how one game (or the inheritance of a generational talent at quarterback) can shift a narrative. I’m more impressed with consistent competitiveness, but I don’t make the rules.

Now, we have the 44-year-old in his seventh season leading the 49ers. In four of those years, Shanahan has reached the playoffs. In each of the last three years, he has reached the conference title game (losing both previous trips). In Shanahan’s third season in San Francisco, the 49ers lost the Super Bowl.

Shanahan boasts a remarkable résumé, but has also developed a reputation for coming up short in the playoffs.

Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

The Super Bowl loss—ironically to Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs—came after Shanahan held a 10-point lead. Defensive breakdowns, some adverse officiating and a quarterback meltdown eviscerated that slender advantage. The timing was especially poor given that just a year prior, Shanahan was the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons and blamed for letting his foot off the gas after Atlanta amassed a 28–3 lead in the Super Bowl.

And so, we’re always left to wrestle with this complicated juxtaposition. Because the truth is that Shanahan built one of the most maddening offenses in NFL history. He pipelined the players, many of whom weren’t selected in the first two rounds of the draft. He streamlined the family offense. He got to know something so intimately, so perfectly, so deeply, that he could manipulate it at will.

Shanahan changed the way we think about blocking, the way we think about running and the expectation that pass and run concepts are tied together. He made an offense that could be everything, all at once, all the time.

Related: The Ravens Let John Harbaugh Evolve, Not Expire, and Are Better for It

So, is this the year he makes his Reid-ian pivot, or is he doomed to spend another year as football’s Hemmingway, Picasso, Hendrix or Beethoven (insert your tortured genius trope here)?

For a while, it seemed like 2024 would begin for San Francisco like a rake handle to the nose. Deebo Samuel was ruled out with a shoulder injury in the first quarter. Brock Purdy appeared lost, nearly tossing a pair of critical pick-sixes. Defensive players slipped as wide open touchdowns soared over their heads. The Packers got Aaron Jones moving on crack tosses, and it was raining harder than the end of Blade Runner.

Shanahan’s machine was just barely effective enough, with all the downregulation of its component parts, to grind out a victory. You’re reading this correctly: it was the first time a Shanahan coached team trailed by five or more points heading into the fourth quarter and won.

Christian McCaffrey proved to be one of the most effective parts of Shanahan’s offensive machine in Saturday’s tight game.

Dan Powers/USA TODAY Sports

While losing next week in the conference title game makes this argument moot, it is worth wondering what kind of erasure Shanahan can do to his past if he keeps going; if he keeps surviving on his way to another Super Bowl swing.

How soon can he become what we’ve made him out to be? How soon can we accept that Shanahan is so much more than his most amplified defeats?

He could, with two more wins, challenge the very question of fairness when it comes to the construction of his legacy. Like we said, defensive breakdowns cost the 49ers just as much as offensive ineptitude in the team’s Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. A defensive-minded head coach should also be on the hook for a 25-point swing in the Super Bowl, as much as, if not way more than, his offensive coordinator. Last year, in the NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the team literally ran out of quarterbacks.

This is the kind of historical spray paint wielded by holders of the Lombardi Trophy. It’s a wonderful thing, in that moment, to be able to declare all detractors wrong. It’s the privilege of a select few. An invitation to a lifetime of earned hubris.

The 49ers could not have looked farther away from that achievement for large chunks of Saturday’s game, but perhaps that is the point. Maybe this is the year that mounting errors, late deficits, injuries and panic don’t thwart the 49ers’ path to a title. Maybe this is the year Shanahan leaves his past behind for good. 


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