Why it’s silly to blame Kyle Shanahan for 49ers’ 2018 struggles

San Francisco 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
San Francisco 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images) /

With the San Francisco 49ers off to a depressing 2-8 start in 2018, it has become relatively easy to blame head coach Kyle Shanahan. Foolishly so.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan deserves a good chunk of the blame for the San Francisco 49ers‘ issues over the vast majority of 2018.

The Niners are 2-8 this season, have suffered ugly losses to bad teams like the New York Giants in Week 10 and two defeats to the lowly Arizona Cardinals this year, Arizona’s only two wins of the year.

Even more concerning, Shanahan’s 49ers are having trouble closing out games, as KNBR 680’s Ryan Covay pointed out:

Following the Monday Night Football 27-23 loss to New York, Shanahan’s blame-carrying has probably reached new heights. It doesn’t take a deep search around #49ersTwitter to see some of the vitriol the head coach is getting.

In fairness, all this has happened on his watch. And head coaches are supposed to be able to navigate through these kinds of storms regardless of the circumstances.

But to expand the blame all the way to the “fire Shanahan” takes is about as ridiculous as it gets.

Shanahan isn’t going anywhere anytime soon anyway, but let’s understand some of the things with which he has had to contend. Starting off with that depleted roster by injury.

49ers Starting Roster: Then & Now

  • Quarterback: Jimmy GaroppoloC.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens
  • Running Back: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, Alfred Morris, Raheem Mostert, Kyle Juszczyk
  • Wide Receiver: Marquise Goodwin, Pierre Garçon, Trent Taylor, Richie James
  • Tight End: George Kittle
  • Offensive Line: Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Weston Richburg, Mike Person, Mike McGlinchey
  • Defensive Line: Earl Mitchell, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas
  • Linebacker: Reuben Foster, Fred Warner, Malcolm Smith
  • Cornerback: Ahkello Witherspoon, Richard Sherman, K’Waun Williams
  • Safety: Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, Jimmie Ward

Note the strike-throughs. Losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo made the season awash, and not having running Jerick McKinnon is nearly as bad.

Take away the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Kareem Hunt, the New Orleans’ Saints Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara or the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon, and it’s highly unlikely any of those teams could overcome such a quarterback-running back-loss setback.

Despite all this, the Niners still have 230 points scored — 18th best in the NFL, which isn’t bad considering the context. And an average of 5.6 yards per play, 16th in the league, tells you one thing: Even the injuries to Garoppolo and McKinnon haven’t kept Shanahan’s offense falling from out of the middle of the pack.

That’s impressive, all told.

Shanahan is now on his third quarterback, Nick Mullens, which typically spells disaster for any other offense. Remember the 2014 Arizona Cardinals who fell apart, offensively, after being forced to start three different quarterbacks that year?

Underachievement & Lack of Depth on Defense

Despite the injuries, Shanahan’s offense still remains in about the middle of NFL ranks. Defensively, however, it’s another story.

The 49ers rank 27th in points allowed (266), and all four of San Francisco’s fourth-quarter blown losses have showcased a defense not capable of protecting the lead. Week 10 was yet another example.

If you want, place blame on defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. He too is learning his role, although he doesn’t have the same pedigree of play calling Shanahan has. And, arguably, it’s shown.

But what has also been an ugly reality is the pure lack of talent and depth. It doesn’t help, as KNBR 680’s Brad Almquist pointed out, a number of second-year players have largely regressed since their rookie 2017 campaigns.

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All four players Almquist listed were on defense.

Go back to the above starting lineups from Week 1. Many, such as safety Jaquiski Tartt, have been absent for elongated periods of time. Tartt’s absence has forced relatively unknown players like Antone Exum and Tyvis Powell into prominent starting roles. Same with linebackers Reuben Foster and Malcolm Smith, which meant a lot of depth linebacker Mark Nzeocha.

Exum, Powell and Nzeocha are all third-string-caliber players, at best. Each started at various points this season.

That speaks more to a lack of depth than anything Shanahan has done or hasn’t done.

The point being, Shanahan has done a lot more with what he’s got than many other head coaches would have. And despite the 2-8 record 10 weeks deep into 2018, you’re not hearing the infighting and locker-room dysfunction so prevalent among other scuffling squads. There’s nothing like the Oakland Raiders’ issues or the quarterbacking criticism the Giants are facing with Eli Manning.

Next. Giants vs. 49ers: Full Week 10 position grades for San Francisco. dark

None of this is intended to give Shanahan a free pass. He bears a good deal of responsibility.

Just not the vast majority of it.