Has Kyle Shanahan fixed his historically bad red-zone woes?

Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

For years, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan hasn’t had much success in the red zone despite prolific offenses, but recent trends suggest an improvement.

As big as an offensive genius many claim him to be, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has had one area in which his teams have historically struggled.

Inside the red zone.

None of this occurs in a vacuum, so it’s not necessarily fair to put any of the Niners’ red-zone issues — or any of Shanahan’s previous offenses, for that matter — squarely on the head coach and nothing else. Case in point, Shanahan’s 2018 San Francisco squad ranked dead last in red-zone touchdown efficiency that year, but it’s crucial to admit both he and general manager John Lynch were in year two of a complete roster rebuild and had lost their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, to a season-ending injury early in the year.

That said, Shanahan’s innovative offenses haven’t always found the ideal solution for success inside opponents’ 20-yard lines.

It’s something Niner Noise has addressed before, but perhaps the best historical explanation comes from former KNBR 680 insider Brad Almquist laid out in early 2019, a few months before Shanahan and the 49ers engineered a Super Bowl-caliber offense that finished seventh overall in scoring:

"Kyle Shanahan has had trouble finding the right formula. Despite his reputation as one of the NFL’s most talented play-callers, he has historically struggled in the red zone.His two 49ers teams have finished No. 27 and No. 32 in red-zone offense. In 11 years calling NFL offenses, Shanahan’s units have twice finished in the top-10 in red-zone efficiency. His best team, the 2012 Washington Redskins, finished fourth with a 61.8 percent success rate. One year later, they sunk to No. 21.Perhaps it’s a product of preference. Shanahan would rather outsmart you than overpower you. He emphasizes finesse and versatility, which is easily seen with the players he has drafted and signed in free agency throughout the past two years."

But what about Shanahan’s 2019 efforts? The second-best scoring offense in the league had to be great in the red zone, too, right?

Well, not exactly.

The Niners ranked 20th in red-zone touchdown efficiency that year, scoring touchdowns 55.6 percent of the time. That was a mere shade of a mark above the lowly New York Jets (55.5 percent), who owned the second-worst scoring offense in the league that year.

While we’re at it, here are the Niners’ red-zone percentages since 2017:

  • 2017: 47.1 percent — 27th
  • 2018: 41.2 percent — 32nd
  • 2019: 55.6 percent — 20th
  • 2020: 67.3 percent — seventh

Is Kyle Shanahan trying to buck the trend in the red zone?

As Almquist pointed out, Shanahan used to want to “outsmart” instead of “overpower,” which could partially explain why the 2017 San Francisco squad, his first year as head coach, boasted the league’s shortest crop of wide receivers to start the season.

“Finesse over versatility” and strength.

In recent years, though, Shanahan has made something of a shift to feature bigger, stronger red-zone weapons. Wide receiver Jalen Hurd, drafted in Round 3 back in 2019, is a possible example even though injuries have prevented him from seeing the field the last two years.

At 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds, Hurd stands in stark contrast, literally, to the smaller and shiftier receivers Shanahan had previously deployed.

The same argument could be applied to fellow wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who doesn’t necessarily have the height at 5-foot-11 but possesses the elusiveness Shanahan prefers yet the strength Shanahan needs.

Related Story: 3 stats in which 49ers may regress in 2021

Perhaps the best example, though, is running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who led the 49ers with 10 touchdowns last year. Wilson, known more for his bruising than his finesse, was quite the red-zone weapon. Too bad for the 2021 squad he’ll be out for four to six months with a meniscus tear.

Yet that partially explains why Shanahan selected Ohio State running back Trey Sermon in Round 3 of this year’s NFL Draft.

Sermon, 6-foot-0 and 213 pounds, isn’t the speediest of rushers but is a bruiser, bell cow-type runner also capable of bucking the preconceived notion Shanahan emphasizes speed over brute strength and power.

Was 2020 a sign of things to come for Kyle Shanahan, 49ers?

Scroll back up to the red-zone figures for the Niners over the last four years. 2020 is quite the outlier despite Garoppolo missing all but six games, tight end George Kittle missing half the season and nearly every starting offensive player being off the field for a number of games at one point or another.

Despite owning the league’s 21st scoring offense, San Francisco getting into the top 10 of red-zone offenses is a notable development.

Perhaps it’s an anomaly, one of those weird situations where the 49ers didn’t have too many scoring opportunities as they’d like, but they made the most of them when they were there.

Yet bringing Wilson back into the equation, his 10 touchdowns suggest Shanahan had to rely on his simple strengths (quite literally) rather than asking a cast predominantly made up of backups and reserves to fully execute his intricate offense down within the 20-yard line.

At least in this area of the field, it worked.

Maybe that’ll be the lesson Shanahan learns. And while it’s fully possible the Niners’ red-zone offense in 2021 is not quite as good as it was last year, getting out of the bottom third tier of offenses, where Shanahan has historically been, would be an awfully good sign of things to come.

Next. Ranking 49ers' 10 worst draft picks under Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch. dark