Now the fourth San Francisco 49ers head coach in as many seasons, former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan brings optimism to a struggling but proud franchise as its new head coach and play-caller.
Following a wildly successful run under Jim Harbaugh, San Fran’s fortunes drastically swayed the other direction as a pair of “one-and-dones” in Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly combined for seven wins in the two seasons following Harbaugh’s contentious departure. For those keeping score at home, Harbs’ worst season was 8-8.
A trip down memory lane
While much as been made about Shanahan’s success in Atlanta’s 2016 Super Bowl appearance, it serves fantasy owners’ best interests to understand where he came from and how his offenses have fared.
Son of former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan, the younger began as an offensive quality control coach in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After two seasons in this role, Kyle Shanahan left for a position in Houston as the wide receivers coach for one year. It was a natural fit, given he played the position during his days at the University of Texas with the Longhorns.
In Houston, working under Gary Kubiak, a disciple of his father, Shanahan quickly ascended to quarterbacks coach in 2007 and was subsequently promoted the next season to being the youngest offensive coordinator in the NFL at just 28 years old.
Serving in this position for two seasons prepared him to join his father in Washington when he accepted the same role for the 2010-13 seasons. Quarterback woes and limited talent contributed to an offense that typically struggled to generate points, ultimately clouded the prospects of a once-rocketing trajectory.
The entire coaching staff was fired after four years, and Shanahan took a play-calling position in Cleveland for the 2014 season. He survived the year but had Johnny Manziel forced upon him entering the 2015 offseason, which led to Shanahan resigning in January.
The first year of his two-season stint in Atlanta was rather pedestrian; a fast start collapsed and finished 8-8, while Matt Ryan suffered through the ugliest season of his career.
The system he brings
Shanahan is an X’s and O’s guy — sometimes to a fault. He prides himself in being the smartest football mind in most rooms, but that can get him in trouble due to overly complex terminology and playbooks that remind of ‘War and Peace.’
A modified West Coast system is the best way to describe a Shanahan offense. He requires quarterbacks to know a wealth of intricate details, and being mobile outside of the pocket is extremely helpful. Mostly, just having good footwork will suffice.
The offense generally is designed to set up the pass through play-action and rollouts after convincing an opponent that the offense will run the ball. This worked extremely well in 2016, but we’ve seen stunted versions in the past when the quarterback play wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain.
Shanahan’s 2012 Redskins offense ranked third in rushing attempts, first in yardage, second in touchdowns scored but 30th in passing attempts. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was dynamic but deployed as a necessity as Alfred Morris produced 1,613 ground gains.
Protecting the ball is imperative for this system’s success — probably more so than in other NFL offensive designs. Without a game-breaking player like Julio Jones, Shanahan offenses are not necessarily meant to come from behind or rack up voluminous point figures.
So, back to 2016’s wealth of success: Everything clicked. Ryan knew the system like the back of his hand. He protected the football extraordinarily well and drove the ball down the field with big-play weapons like the aforementioned Jones and newcomer Taylor Gabriel. All of this was possible because of a huge addition to the offensive line in center Alex Mack and a lethal one-two punch out of the backfield.
By the numbers, this was the No. 5 rushing offense (yardage), No. 3 passing offense (yardage), and best at protecting the ball. Dominant balance like that generates MVP-caliber performances and Super Bowl berths more often than not.
From the birds to the Bay
San Francisco will not offer Shanahan the horde of talent like he enjoyed in 2016. His quarterback situation is unsettled, as Colin Kaepernick has a contract option to weigh. The running game boasts talent in Carlos Hyde, but durability is a major worry. There isn’t a lot to work with at wideout, and certainly no one is even in the conversation of a Julio Jones. Tight end is suspect, as well, and the offensive line needs some work.
Frankly, it will take some time to create an NFL contender and a pool fantasy gamers are willing to wade into beyond the shallow end. According to Spotrac.com, the 49ers have $123.6 million allocated to 47 players for 2017. Kaepernick is the only quarterback under contract, and Torrey Smith will be the only receiver on the roster with more than 20 career receptions when the league calendar flips in March.
The good news: Only Cleveland has more money at its disposal than the 49ers’ $81.86 million in cap space. With that kind of financial freedom, San Fran can afford to make a run at wide receivers Alshon Jeffery, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, among others.
One name tossed around as a potential stop-gap if Kaepernick defects has been Matt Schaub. Obviously he isn’t the answer, and likely has no draftable value in fantasy, but he knows the system better than anyone who could step in on Day 1. Media reports point to Shanahan having the hots for Kirk Cousins, but prying him away from Washington seems improbable given the likelihood he is tagged without a new deal reached.
In short, keep fantasy expectations grounded for now. There isn’t a tremendous free-agent class to turn this around fast, and Shanny’s system has proven to require time to be absorbed. This makes it quite unlikely to find a rookie contributor early on, as well.
With the right personnel moves by new — and first-time — general manager John Lynch, the glory days may not be too far away, as long as all involved remain patient.
And that includes you as a gamer.