Why 49ers gaffed by hiring Steve Wilks in the first place

The 49ers fired Steve Wilks after one season as the team's defensive coordinator. The team's decision to fire him reveals that it was a mistake to hire him in the first place.

Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers
Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

Head coach Kyle Shanahan decided to fire defensive coordinator Steve Wilks after one season with the 49ers on Wednesday.

This decision reveals that Shanahan never had all of his faith in him.

49ers gaffed by firing Steve Wilks after one season

No one seriously began to question Wilks and his ability to lead the Niners defense until the team's three-game losing streak after a 5-0 start. The defense looked tired, slower, and had too many missed tackles.

One fairly egregious moment occurred when Wilks called an all-out blitz at the end of the first half against the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings had no timeouts at the time, and if the 49ers had been playing a prevent defense where they simply sought to get the receiver down in bounds, they likely could have melted the clock away without Minnesota even getting so much as a field-goal attempt.

Instead, cornerback Charvarius Ward was one-on-one with his receiver and made an aggressive play on the ball. Ward had no help behind him, so once the receiver wrestled the ball from him, the wideout was able to score a touchdown easily.

That was a key turning point in that loss.

The struggles led to Shanahan conducting a defensive audit during the bye week, which led to him asking Wilks to come down from the box and coach on the sidelines as Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans, Wilks' predecessors, did.

The team's defense seemed to improve as they held the Jacksonville Jaguars to just three points after the bye week and proceeded to win six straight games. But the rush defense began to be a bigger and bigger issue as the season went on.

Part of this certainly had to do with the fact that San Francisco's best interior defensive lineman, Arik Armstead, was injured for most of the second half of the season. But even when he returned in the playoffs, the 49ers gave up big rushing games to both the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

To give credit to Wilks, his experience as a defensive backs coach helped the secondary. Cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Deomodore Lenoir both made strides, and Ward made his first All-Pro team. Ji'Ayir Brown also stepped in and did a good job at safety after Talanoa Hufanga went down with an injury.

But there was a sense that the defensive line did not play up to its potential, especially coming down the stretch. The Niners built their defense around their defensive line, so it seems likely that they want to make that a strength going into next season.

This is also the first time Shanahan has had to dismiss a coordinator. In the past, his coordinators have left to go on to bigger and better things. Saleh went to coach the New York Jets, offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel left to coach the Miami Dolphins, and Ryans went to coach the Houston Texans.

All of this reflected well on Shanahan as a head coach and showed that he was developing his own "Shanahan tree."

But the hiring of Wilks, an outside guy who had his own way of doing things throughout his career, seemed to run against the typical modus operandi for the team.

Traditionally the Niners have promoted from within. I would expect them to hire their next coordinator internally. Perhaps defensive line coach Kris Kocurek would make sense if the team wants to get back to their front seven being the focal point of their defense.

In short, Wilks is a good coach who did not do anything egregious to get fired, but he was not the perfect fit for the team and with the team's championship window still open (but quickly closing), they cannot afford to have another season with a defensive coordinator they do not fully trust.

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