Coach learned from his mistakes
Kyle Shanahan came to the 49ers with a reputation for arrogance and subpar people skills, suggesting his media dealings would feature awkwardness mixed with a typical NFL-coach brew of condescension and paranoia.
But he sure has wrecked that reputation over the past 11 months.
Plenty can be learned about a coach through his news conferences, some of which occur moments after agonizing losses that inspire second-guessing questions. And Shanahan, throughout nearly 100 media sessions, consistently offered evidence that reports of his
ego were greatly exaggerated.
Shanahan not only displayed humility, but candor, humanity and normalcy, even as his first season began with the first 0-9 start in franchise history.
It’s debatable how much professionalism with the media matters in Shanahan’s role. The NFL’s most decorated coach, New England’s Bill Belichick, has turned winning and withering news-conference stares into art forms.
However, what Shanahan displayed in public offered a window into how he dealt with others privately. And the coach who was hired for his playcalling amid questions about his personality proved, to borrow a football phrase, he could handle both X’s and O’s and Jimmies and Joes.
During the upswing of their 6-10 season, many players looked back and credited Shanahan for keeping the team intact through two winless months. Center Daniel Kilgore, the team’s second-longest tenured player, termed it the closest locker room of his seven-year NFL career.
On Jan. 2, when asked about what he’d learned about Shanahan in their first season together, general manager John Lynch highlighted his once-questioned people skills.
“I knew the offensive acumen and the mind that I thought was unique and special in Kyle,” Lynch said. “What I had never seen in him is him in front of a team, and how he could capture a team and lead a team, which is a big part of being a head coach. I couldn’t be more impressed.” Those who maintained a certain perception of Shanahan were probably stunned by a nugget in the recent ESPN story that detailed tension within the Patriots’ organization.
The story noted that Shanahan, then weeks removed from serving as a scapegoat for his decisions as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator in their crushing Super Bowl loss to New England, met with Belichick for hours at the NFL combine in February to learn from the defeat.
The act of humility is telling: The supposed know-it-all son of Mike Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl winner, knew he still had plenty to learn.
It was something Kyle Shanahan, at age 38 the league’s second-youngest head coach, often acknowledged while serving as a rookie in his role.
Before his first game, the preseason opener at Kansas City on Aug. 11, he said he had to be reminded to select captains before kickoff. In the weeks that followed, he conceded he was adjusting to his new juggling act: Calling offensive plays and handling head-coach duties.
In fact, three days after his debut, he told reporters he’d messed up by not calling a timeout in a certain situation. And he knew the error would inspire a text message from his dad.
“I usually call him,” Shanahan said at another point in training camp, “once I’ve already messed something up.” For Shanahan, it was part of an offseason in which he displayed humility along with a human touch.
In August, when first asked about players kneeling during the national anthem, Shanahan said he understood why they wanted to draw attention to racial inequality. He spoke shortly after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., had turned violent.
“I think anybody who sees that stuff and doesn’t get the feeling that they’d like to do something about it,” he said, “… I think something’s wrong with you.”
Shanahan also advocated for assistant Katie Sowers, an offseason intern whom he made the first LGBT coach in NFL history, along with the second full-time female coach.
In more subtle ways, Shanahan was decent.
During a training-camp practice, when fans were far reformation moved from the field where the team was working, he had them escorted to the sideline for an up-close view.
In mid-August, during a conference call the day after a preseason game, he was gracious with a first-timer on the line while other reporters gritted their teeth. The calls are designed for game-related questions, but the new addition dominated the session with off-topic questions, including queries on what was by then an already well-worn topic: Shanahan’s relationship with his dad.
In response, however, Shanahan answered at length, making the reporter feel at ease instead of ostracized.
Still, it was fair to wonder if Shanahan’s summer disposition would change when the regular season brought increased pressure and scrutiny.
However, Shanahan set the tone the day after a seasonopening 23-3 loss to the Panthers.
The defeat was marked by the first two major decisions of Shanahan’s head-coaching career: He twice went for it on fourth down and each attempt backfired. Shanahan said he regretted one of his fourthdown decisions and also copped to another mistake — a tonguelashing he gave an official.
“If he was here, I would apologize to him now,” Shanahan said. “He's trying to do his best just like I am. I was just frustrated.” Shanahan was not a quote machine with go-to one-liners. His language wasn’t particularly colorful, but it was notable in that it lacked the secretiveness and paranoia often marked by NFL-coach-and-reporter exchanges.
Unlike one of his predecessors, Jim Harbaugh, whose standard response to injury questions was that a player was “working through something,” Shanahan provided specifics. Many reporters might have done double takes when, the day after the season opener, Shanahan freely offered inoversize typically shrouded in secrecy: Inside linebacker Reuben Foster had sustained a high ankle sprain that would sideline him for at least a month.
Similarly, Shanahan didn’t hesitate to explain the specifics of plays, which also came as a shock to those accustomed to Harbaugh (“We don’t talk about scheme”) or Chip Kelly, who insisted he wasn’t running a hurry-up offense in 2016 despite strong visual evidence to the contrary.
After a 41-39 loss to the Rams in Week 3, Shanahan was asked about a failed two-point conversion and answered with a 254-word response: “That twopointer we’re trying to get it to Marquise (Goodwin) first who runs a shallow, he’s covered and then we go to Pierre (Garcon) second and now …”
Shanahan did have limits on what he could share, but he didn’t revel in shutting down reporters. Once, while giving a non-answer, he memorably offered an R-rated apology: “I don’t mean to be a d—,” he said.
He then covered the microphone, turned to a member of the PR staff, and sheepishly returned his gaze to the audience: “That was bad,” he said. “Shows my immaturity.”
It also serves as a light-hearted example of a serious takeaway from a debut season that included a humbling meeting with Belichick: The supposedly arrogant young coach could acknowledge his mistakes.
First-year head coach Kyle Shanahan kept the 49ers focused despite an 0-9 start.