CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love isn’t happy about the circulation of a video that has some saying he was asleep on the bench in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s 52-21 loss at Pittsburgh.
“He’s actually pretty pissed, ’cause he wasn’t asleep,” fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short said Tuesday as the team returned from a four-day break. “It’s just one of those things where the camera hit him on the spot when his head was down.”
Love expressed his displeasure with the video with a post on Instagram.
The 6-foot-1, 315-pound player hasn’t gotten the attention deserved for his play this season even though defensive coordinator Eric Washington cited the 31-year-old for his performance in the two games before Thursday’s loss.
“From where we stand, he’s not underrated or underappreciated,” Washington recently said. “There’s a reason why he’s here. From an outside perspective, he might not get much attention. But we know exactly what he brings to the table. And we’re excited to have those things.
“He brings a lot of energy to the table. He keeps showing up.”
Love was perhaps best known before Thursday for dealing with his diabetes while he was earning a spot on the Carolina roster in 2014. He was re-signed to a two-year, $2.2 million deal in March 2017 to be the second wave of Carolina’s four-man rotation at tackle.
The three-time Pro Bowl lineman has a tendon injury to his right foot.
Long was hurt in the closing minutes of the Bears’ 24-10 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday. Tight end Dion Sims rolled into him while the two were blocking for Jordan Howard on a run.
The injury to Long leaves the NFC North-leading Bears (4-3) in a painful and familiar spot with him as they get ready to visit the Buffalo Bills (2-6). Chicago also could be without star pass-rusher Khalil Mack (right ankle) and No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson (groin) again. The two missed the win over the Jets.
The 29-year-old Long made the Pro Bowl his first three seasons after being drafted in the first round in 2013. But he missed eight games in 2016 and six last season, after playing in 47 of a possible 48 from 2013 to 2015.
The Bears could move Eric Kush or rookie James Daniels from left guard, where they have shared time. Kush missed the game against the Jets because of a neck injury, but he is expected to play against Buffalo.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Chicago Bears right guard Kyle Long has a tendon injury in his right foot, and the team is deciding whether to put him on injured reserve.
Coach Matt Nagy said Wednesday the three-time Pro Bowl lineman has a boot on his foot and is “week to week.” The Bears are still trying to figure out the “complete extent” of the injury.
Asked if Long has any broken bones, Nagy said, “I’m not going to get into the details of it.” But he added there are “some issues” with a tendon.
The Bears could place Long on IR with the intent to return in eight weeks if they don’t think he could be back sooner.
“Those are decisions we’re going through,” Nagy said. “We’re not there yet. We don’t need to be. Once we get to that point, then we’ll decide what we want to do.”
Long was hurt in the closing minutes of the Bears’ 24-10 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday. Tight end Dion Sims rolled into him while the two were blocking for Jordan Howard on a run.
The injury to Long leaves the NFC North-leading Bears (4-3) in a painful and familiar spot with him as they get ready to visit the Buffalo Bills (2-6). Chicago could also be without star pass rusher Khalil Mack (right ankle) and No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson (groin) again. The two missed the win over the Jets.
The 29-year-old Long made the Pro Bowl his first three seasons after being drafted in the first round in 2013. But he missed eight games in 2016 and six last season after playing in 47 of a possible 48 from 2013 to 2015.
Nagy again said the latest injury was not the same as the severe one to his right ankle in 2016 that required surgery. Long also had operations on his shoulder, elbow and neck after he was shut down last year.
“It’s tough to hear news like that — one of our brothers and other family going down,” quarterback Mitchell Trubisky said. “We’re going to support him all the way and back him up and then it’s next-man-up mentality. We’ve got a lot of depth at the O-line. I feel really comfortable with where we’re at and who’s stepping in there.”
The Bears could move Eric Kush or rookie James Daniels from left guard, where they have shared time. Kush missed the game against the Jets because of a neck injury but is expected to play against Buffalo.
Another option at right guard is Bryan Witzmann. He signed with Chicago three weeks ago and made 13 starts last season for Kansas City while Nagy was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator.
One scenario that can apparently be ruled out is moving Cody Whitehair from center to guard, a position he has played. Nagy said the Bears haven’t considered that.
“It’s tough to see (Long) go down with the passion that he plays with,” Whitehair said. “We hope for the best for him. I know we’ve got the right guys that will step in for him and give their best.”
With Long out, the line loses not only one of its best blockers, but a team leader.
“He helps me a lot with technique stuff,” Daniels said. “He also (tells me) if there’s a certain look, just be alert for things like that. Both ways, it’s nice to have him around.”
Game notes: Nagy said the Bears will take a similar approach with Mack and Robinson, after both were held out of practice last week on Wednesday and Thursday and limited on Friday.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A few days into this year’s training camp, San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk and running back Jerick McKinnon were sitting in a meeting room with run-game coach Mike McDaniel going over some plays when another coach came tearing around the corner yelling.
“Bro, did you see on Twitter they said I threw an interception during install?” the coach exclaimed in exasperation.
Juszczyk, McKinnon and McDaniel shook their heads and burst out laughing.
“I just hit Jet [McKinnon] on the leg like, ‘That’s our head coach,'” Juszczyk said.
In his second season in that role after entering the league as an assistant in 2004, Kyle Shanahan is clearly more comfortable now being the man in charge.
To reach that point, he has struck a balance between being relatable, never short on swagger and “one of the guys” and being the forward-thinking X’s and O’s expert who never hesitates to tell his team exactly what’s on his mind.
For a 38-year-old first-time head coach, that can be a fine line to walk, but so far, at least, it has worked, perhaps because he’s remained 100 percent true to his personality from the day he arrived in the Bay Area.
“I think there’s more than one way to coach a team, and he has a very unique way of doing it, and it really appeals to a lot of guys,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Guys understand that he shows his human side. He makes mistakes just like everybody else. He’s the first to admit it, but he also coaches guys. He’ll show a guy a mistake. When somebody’s technique is off, he’ll coach from every angle, so I think everybody respects him and understands and appreciates that.”
Going deep on the details
Long before Shanahan arrived in San Francisco, he had established a reputation for his creative offensive schemes. There was little question that he would bring something new to a Niners offense that had grown stale before his arrival.
Almost from the moment Shanahan arrived, his players were taken aback by the level of detail Shanahan provides and demands.
During organized team activities in the spring, when there’s more time to teach, Shanahan met with his tight ends and quarterbacks to break down some film. Normally, a coach will take around 30 seconds to break down a play.
On that day, Shanahan selected one third-down play and picked it apart from every possible angle for the next 45 minutes. He showed each player what to do against man coverage, then Cover 3, then Cover 4, then Cover 2. The group watched the play approximately 100 times, with Shanahan offering tips to each tight end on what his stance should look like, how his release off the line should look and how to attack the defender if he’s playing under, over or outside the tight end in each of those coverages. He also broke down how to attack the defender if he’s flat-footed or if he opens his hips.
“I’ve definitely had some great coaches in the past, but I’ve never seen somebody break down one little play the way that Kyle does,” receiver Trent Taylor said. “It’s pretty special.”
“Special” was the word multiple 49ers players used to describe Shanahan’s ability to break down film. Shanahan’s coaching points aren’t limited to offense, either. He can just as easily transition to showing a cornerback a small detail about footwork while playing outside leverage as he can teach a receiver how to run a route.
“He’s incredible,” Sherman said. “He’s a savant in that regard. He has a great understanding of his scheme, how to manipulate scheme and how to help other people understand how the scheme is being manipulated and where the holes are and when somebody makes an adjustment, where the new hole is, etc., etc. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever seen at that.”
‘Street cred’ goes a long way
At the beginning of each Niners practice, Shanahan can be found on the sideline playing catch with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, general manager John Lynch or another member of the staff. Shanahan isn’t just playing catch, though. He’s warming up. He’s getting ready for his other job as all-time, walk-through scout-team QB.
“It’s the best thing about being a head coach,” Shanahan said, laughing. “It’s also fun to try things you try to coach the quarterback on and do stuff. … It’s fun to be over there with the guys and talk about stuff and what you see. I think it helps both sides.”
That isn’t the only thing from practice with Shanahan’s fingerprints on it. Nick Kray, Shanahan’s assistant, who also goes by DJ Kray, handles the playlist. The musical selection is meant to cater not just to Shanahan’s players’ tastes but also his own.
Just before the start of training camp, Shanahan received a care package from Lil Wayne, one of his favorite rappers. In May, former NFL quarterback Chris Simms let it slip that Shanahan named his son Carter after the New Orleans-based rapper. Simms and Shanahan are close friends from their days together at the University of Texas, though Shanahan said his affinity for Wayne wasn’t the only reason for his son’s name.
When word of that got back to Lil Wayne (given name Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.), he got in touch with Shanahan via receiver Pierre Garcon. Wayne sent along an autographed poster and copy of the album “The Carter IV” for Shanahan and a signed poster and copy of “The Carter III” for his 8-year-old son.
“I enjoy the hell out of that,” Juszczyk said. “He’s just very relatable. We have a young team, and to have a coach who has street cred like that, it’s just — I don’t know — it’s just easier to take things from him because you feel like he knows where you’re coming from.”
Keeping it real
In the opening days of training camp, Sherman was working his way back from an Achilles injury. In his first padded practice, he lined up to take a one-on-one rep against receiver Marquise Goodwin, who is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the league. Goodwin blew past Sherman and caught a long pass. Video of the play soon hit social media and went viral.
The next day, Shanahan used the play as a coaching point, not to call out Sherman for being beaten but to laud him for his willingness to step into a difficult spot so soon after his return to the field.
The message was clear: It’s OK to fail. Work on your craft, ignore the noise, and get better. Along with that message, Shanahan tells his players to “overcome coaching,” a phrase he said he picked up in his time as an assistant with the Houston Texans. On the surface, that might sound like he’s telling his players to freestyle and go out on their own. That’s not the case.
It’s Shanahan’s way of telling them, “Don’t be a robot.” The thinking is that there’s only so much coaching someone can do, and occasionally it’s on the players to make something happen when things aren’t perfect.
“You got to know how to talk to your players,” tight end Garrett Celek said. “You got to know who you’re dealing with. And I think he does a really good job of talking to us like men. He expects a lot out of us, but he also gives us respect. We give him respect back.”
Much of that respect comes from Shanahan’s refusal to sugarcoat things. He gives honest evaluations to the media, just like he does to his players’ faces. He wants players who are willing and able to handle the unvarnished truth as he sees it.
After the Week 1 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in which he had his worst game as a Niner, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Shanahan went through the film. Just like he would with any player on the roster, Shanahan provided unfiltered feedback, which has become a hallmark of the coach-quarterback relationship.
“He’s very honest,” Garoppolo said. “As a player, you love to see your coach like that. He’s not giving you any B.S. or anything. He’s going to tell you exactly. If you mess something up, he’s going to tell you you messed something up. You’ve got to appreciate that part of it.”
Resetting a broken 49ers culture undoubtedly hasn’t been as easy as Shanahan has made it look. A year ago, Shanahan was still getting his bearings, figuring out how to delegate responsibility and manage his time. Now, the locker room has reached a point where it polices itself, and players understand what is expected of them.
Of course, creating such an atmosphere won’t mean much if winning doesn’t soon follow.
“Team meetings are always very entertaining,” Juszczyk said. “When he gets into his football mode and gets into the X’s and O’s and breaking down a play, just as a football nut and a guy who loves football, you just drink it in because it’s like, ‘Wow, this is incredible the knowledge he has.’ At the same time, he definitely keeps things light and fun. I think he does a great job of balancing the two.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — After losing his top two running backs to injuries in the span of a few days, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is turning to a familiar face to provide some much-needed depth.
Shanahan said Monday that the Niners intend to sign veteran running back Alfred Morris in the next couple of days, pending Morris’ ability to pass a physical. Morris is slated to meet the Niners in Houston, where the team will have joint practices this week against the Texans before Saturday’s preseason game.
Morris’ familiarity with Shanahan dates to the two years they spent together with the Washington Redskins when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator there in 2012 and 2013. Those were also Morris’ two most productive NFL seasons, rushing for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012 and 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.
From a scheme standpoint, Morris shouldn’t have too much of an adjustment to the zone-heavy philosophy Shanahan prefers.
“Alf did a great job for us for the two years I was with him,” Shanahan said. “It’s not flashy but he runs extremely hard, he’s very reliable, he’s a hard-nosed runner you can keep handing the ball off to.”
The need for help at running back was created by recent injuries to starter Jerick McKinnon and top backup Matt Breida. McKinnon suffered a calf strain in Sunday’s practice and will sit out this week before being re-evaluated next week. Breida sustained a separated shoulder in Thursday’s preseason game and will miss the rest of the preseason. He’s expected to be ready to go for the season opener Sept. 9 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Joe Williams, who missed Sunday and Monday practices to attend to a death in the family, is expected to rejoin the team in Houston. If Morris’ signing goes through, the Niners would have a group of Williams, Morris, Raheem Mostert, Jeremy McNichols and Jeff Wilson Jr. to participate in the joint practices and preseason game against the Texans.
Morris, 29, is a six-year veteran who spent the past two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Shanahan said he had previously considered bringing Morris on board but didn’t want to make the move until he thought Morris would be in a position where he’d have a legitimate chance to make the 53-man roster.
“I just told him I waited so long to invite him because I wouldn’t invite him unless I believed he had the chance to make the team,” Shanahan said. “I do believe he has a chance to make the team here. And that’s all Alf wants. He wants a chance to compete.
“I think with some of these injuries that we’ve had now, he does have a chance to compete. He’s getting in late, but we’ll see how he does over these next few weeks, and if he’s running the same way he always has, he’ll have a chance.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan can’t fully admit that he named his son Carter after rapper Lil’ Wayne, but the evidence continues to accumulate.
As the 49ers opened their 2018 training camp, Shanahan heard from wide receiver Pierre Garcon that Lil’ Wayne and his management team had become aware of the notion that Shanahan had named his son after the rapper — Lil’ Wayne’s given name is Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. — and wanted to send some memorabilia to Shanahan and his son.
When Garcon arrived for the start of camp, he had a package for Shanahan that included an autographed poster and copy of the album “The Carter IV” for Shanahan and a signed poster and copy of “The Carter III” for his 8-year-old son.
On the inscription to Carter Shanahan, Lil’ Wayne signed it “To Lil’ Carter.”
“Mine has the cuss words, the one he gave to my son was edited,” Shanahan said. “That was very thoughtful, so I can actually play it for my son. It was pretty neat. He was pumped. I showed him when I got home. He still doesn’t know how cool it actually is.”
Word that Carter Shanahan was named after the New Orleans-based rapper first leaked in May, courtesy of former NFL quarterback Chris Simms. Simms and Shanahan are close friends from their days together at the University of Texas, though Shanahan declined to call his friend out for leaking the news after Friday’s practice.
“Someone on a podcast let that out a while ago. It was pretty messed up,” Shanahan said. “He let that out and so people heard, and I think it got to [Lil’ Wayne].”
Shanahan said that Lil’ Wayne became a mainstay on his work music rotation when he first started as an offensive quality control coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004. “The Carter I,” which was Lil’ Wayne’s fourth mainstream solo album, dropped on June 29, 2004, and became the soundtrack to hours and hours of tape study for Shanahan as he began his NFL coaching career.
“I just always had to sit in rooms and break down film and draw up plays, and it started when I was in Tampa with [Jon] Gruden,” Shanahan said. “The only thing that gets you through is just sitting there and listening to music. I started out when I was doing that. … It was ‘The Carter I.'”
In the time since, Lil’ Wayne has released three sequels to that album, though Shanahan clearly is itching for another one.
“He’s got four of them, five if [rapper and Cash Money records executive] Birdman ever lets it out,” Shanahan said, laughing.
As for the actual process of naming his son, Shanahan said he liked the idea, though out of deference to his wife, Mandy, he would never call it the entire reason that they went with Carter.
“If I told you it was 100 percent that, my wife would kill me,” Shanahan said. “So, ‘The Carter I’ started it, and I was just always into that. And when my wife told me she liked the name Carter, it was easy for me because I was pretty obsessed at the time.”
Since becoming 49ers coach in January 2017, Shanahan has never shied away from his love for rap music. At the team’s fan event last offseason, he revealed his favorite Drake songs to the assembled crowd. Hip hop and rap also are staples of the team’s in-practice playlist, which is produced daily by DJ Kray, also known as Nick Kray, who’s alternative title is administrative assistant to the head coach.
Suffice to say, Shanahan’s musical taste and new ties to Lil’ Wayne are a hit in the locker room.
“It’s awesome,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “I enjoy the hell out of it. He’s just very relatable. We have a young team, and to have a coach who has street cred like that, it’s just — I don’t know — it’s just easier to take things from him because you feel like he knows where you’re coming from.”
Sources tell ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the Bears countered the Packers’ offer by giving Fuller a new four-year deal that has a total value of $56 million, with a $14 million average per year. Fuller will effectively be guaranteed $29 million at signing.
After Fuller looked all but done with the Bears before the start of the 2017 season, he turned in arguably his best season with 67 tackles, 2 interceptions and 22 pass breakups. Chicago brought in multiple cornerbacks last spring, in essence to replace Fuller after the 2014 first-round draft pick suspiciously missed the entire 2016 season following a routine knee scope, causing the team to decline his fifth-year option.
Fuller started 46 games for the Bears over four seasons. As a rookie in 2014, he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after getting two interceptions against San Francisco in Week 2.
ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson and Rob Demovsky contributed to this report.
Former Carolina Panthers’ DT Star Lotulelei intends to sign a five-year deal with the Buffalo Bills when free agency opens, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The Bills also re-signed longtime defensive tackle Kyle Williams to a one-year deal, the team announced Tuesday.
Williams, 34, will enter his 13th season in Buffalo after being selected in the fifth round of the 2006 draft.
Lotulelei, the 14th overall selection in the 2013 draft, spent most of the past five seasons being overshadowed by Panthers teammate Kawann Short, who made the Pro Bowl in 2015.
Defensive tackle was one of the Bills’ biggest needs entering free agency, with only three players — Adolphus Washington, Marquavius Lewis and Rickey Hatley — under contract at the position for next season.
The Bills allowed a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns and an AFC-worst 1,487 rush yards after trading Marcell Dareus in Week 8 last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Of those yards, 1,105 were inside the tackles, and opponents’ 4.8 yards per rush inside the tackles was tied for worst in the NFL.
Williams is the Bills’ all-time leader among defensive tackles in sacks, with 43.5. He has been named to five Pro Bowls and started 162 of the 167 games in Buffalo, where he frequently was voted as a team captain.
After the Bills’ wild-card playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Williams said he would take time this offseason before deciding his playing future.
Lotulelei played under Bills coach Sean McDermott from 2013 through 2016 when McDermott was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator.
The 28-year-old Lotulelei, known primarily as a run-stuffer who can take up multiple blockers, had 11.5 sacks in five seasons. Meanwhile, Short, a 2013 second-round pick, accumulated 24.5 sacks over the past three seasons and parlayed that into a five-year, $80.5 million extension before last season.
Former general manager Dave Gettleman, who was fired in July, picked defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round of the 2016 draft, knowing it would be tough to give big contracts to both Short and Lotulelei.
The Bills also tendered exclusive-rights contracts to tight end Nick O’Leary, defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, tight end Logan Thomas and cornerback Lafayette Pitts, a source told ESPN.
O’Leary caught a career-high 22 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns last season in 15 games, including five starts. Yarbrough appeared in all 16 games, making six starts and recording 34 tackles and one sack.
ESPN’s David Newton and Mike Rodak contributed to this report.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Considering the success Jimmy Garoppolo enjoyed as the San Francisco 49ers‘ starting quarterback in the final five games of the 2017 season, it’s easy to forget just how little experience with and knowledge of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense he had at the time.
Still, after arriving in an Oct. 31 trade with the New England Patriots, Garoppolo was held out of the starting lineup for a few weeks before he replaced rookie C.J. Beathard for the season’s final five games. Then Garoppolo guided the 1-10 Niners to five consecutive victories while posting more passing yards in his first five starts with the team than any quarterback in franchise history.
That was enough to land Garoppolo a five-year, $137.5 million contract from the 49ers last week and solidify his place as the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. That contract came, in part, because of what Garoppolo has done for the 49ers. But more than that, the record-setting deal was made with an eye toward what he can do in the future.
“I think if we take it day-by-day, one year at a time, and we’ve got a big offseason ahead of us, I think getting in the playbook and fully understanding that this offseason with Kyle will really help me going into next season, and we’ll take it small steps at a time,” Garoppolo said.
Garoppolo and the Niners are well aware of those who question giving him such a massive contract despite the small sample. Some argue that if the league’s defensive coordinators have a chance to study Garoppolo in the offseason, they will find weaknesses and ways to expose him. Of course, Garoppolo isn’t running some sort of gimmick offense with which it’s just a matter of time before defenses catch up to him. He’s a pocket passer with a lightning-quick release and the ability to process coverages and get through progressions in short order.
One of the many reasons the 49ers believe so strongly in Garoppolo is they think he is just scratching the surface of his potential. Beyond using free-agent and draft resources to bolster his supporting cast, Garoppolo is about to get his first offseason diving fully into Shanahan’s offense.
Garoppolo spent three-and-a-half years learning New England’s offense, a scheme with few similarities to what he is doing in San Francisco. Upon arrival in the Bay Area with two months to go, there was no time for Garoppolo to learn the intricacies of Shanahan’s playbook.
Instead, the Niners gave him bits and pieces of the overall philosophy while he learned game plans specific to each week’s opponent. In a radio interview last week, Garoppolo said he hadn’t so much as seen the entire Shanahan playbook yet, let alone studied it.
When the 49ers begin their offseason program in April, Garoppolo and Shanahan can really dig in for the first time.
“It’s nice to start from scratch and to go at a slower process,” Shanahan said. “He got a crash course, and he did a helluva job picking it up, but some things he’s out there and he’s just going, but he doesn’t truly understand why and things like that. But he did a great job of getting through the week to where he had a chance to do it on Sunday, and now where the rush isn’t quite the same, I think you start from the beginning, start on the first page, not the 50th page, and you get a better foundation.”
Indeed, Shanahan has earned a reputation for building an offense in which one play often sets up the next and can set something up for much later in the game. It’s a complicated scheme that can take some time to fully grasp. For example, Shanahan and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a rough first season together as Ryan adjusted to Shanahan’s offense.
In 2015, Ryan finished with a still-impressive 4,591 passing yards but had a career-high 16 interceptions, a passer rating of 89 and a 64.1 QBR. Aside from the yards, those numbers represented a drop-off from his previous four seasons and led to rumored friction between Ryan and Shanahan.
But after a full season together and another offseason to keep working through it, Ryan had his best season with Shanahan in 2016. He threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions, for a passer rating of 117.1 and a 79.4 QBR on his way to NFL Most Valuable Player honors.
Garoppolo had no such growing pains despite little time in the offense, but he does have plenty of work ahead of him to learn Shanahan’s offense in full.
“Everything will kind of be new for me, just like the season was,” Garoppolo said. “But I think getting into phase one, phase two and really being able to talk through the offense to some of the finer things that I didn’t get to get involved into during the season, I think it’ll really help me take steps forward in learning this.”
When that time comes, Shanahan believes it will only make Garoppolo better and validate the team’s investment in its franchise signal-caller.
“When you have a better foundation of where you’re coming from when you’re learning, I think it gives you a chance to play at a higher level,” Shanahan said. “You know the whys and things like that. Obviously, I think everyone knows he played very well in the games he’s played for us. But I think when he goes out there, it’ll give him a chance over a longer time to be more consistent and just really understand it better.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The night before the San Francisco 49ers wrapped up their first season under Kyle Shanahan, the first-year head coach stood up in front of his team and took the assembled players and coaches on a short walk down memory lane.
Shanahan talked about his team’s 0-9 start, the work it took to get that long-awaited first win, against the New York Giants, and the four-game winning streak the 49ers took into the season finale against the Los Angeles Rams. The next day, the Niners would wallop the resting Rams, allowing them to finish the season as the NFL’s hottest team and post a 6-10 record.
In a way, the roller-coaster of a season was a logical conclusion to the wild ride that was the first year of the Shanahan era.
“One of the main things that I wanted to find out this year was really who we were,” Shanahan said. “Who the coaches were, who the players were. I always say I don’t think you can find out about people until you can see how they handle adversity. To start 0-9, that was a lot of adversity for us, and I think it’s not a coincidence that not many teams have finished after that with more than three wins. That’s adversity, and it usually tears people apart, but we’ve got a bunch of good people in our locker room and they stayed together.”
While the old cliché says that a football season is a marathon, not a sprint, one could easily make an exception for the Niners’ first season under Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
It was exactly one year ago Tuesday that the 49ers officially announced Shanahan was taking over. That came after a lengthy waiting game in which the Niners watched as Shanahan, then in his role as offensive coordinator, and the Atlanta Falcons kept winning postseason games. Because league rules stipulate that coaches on teams still in the playoffs can’t be hired until their seasons are complete, the entire NFL world went roughly two weeks knowing that Shanahan eventually would take over the 49ers.
When that finally happened, Shanahan had no choice but to hit the ground running with Lynch in an effort to rebuild a team that had dropped to 2-14 in 2016. What followed was a rush to fill out a coaching staff, begin scouting college prospects and potential free agents, sign a huge free-agent class, make some difficult (and quick) decisions on their own roster, host college prospects on visits, go through the draft, begin the offseason conditioning program and go through organized team activities.
There was little time to come up for air, and soon enough, the 49ers were back for training camp. By then, the process of sorting through a roster that had just gone through massive turnover became the focus. Along the way, the Niners lost projected starters such as linebacker Malcolm Smith and guard Joshua Garnett to season-ending injuries.
When the season began, the Niners promptly dropped nine in a row, becoming the first team to lose five consecutive games by three points or fewer. Despite the series of crushing defeats, Shanahan stuck to the plan, and his players’ belief in his message never wavered.
“No one was where we wanted to be and the season was kind of not looking very fun, but he was able to stay the course,” 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. “I think his first head-coaching year was very, very impressive because of what he had to go through. It was no success early for him. He was able to build a locker room that was 2-14 the previous year and going through an 0-9 start and still had us believing.”
To be sure, the losing wasn’t the only test Shanahan would face in his first season as a head coach. In addition to injuries, he also had to navigate an escalating situation with linebacker and fan favorite NaVorro Bowman. Bowman, who was returning from an Achilles injury, wasn’t the player he once was in the Niners’ eyes, and they began reducing his workload. As you’d expect for a proud player such as Bowman, he wasn’t thrilled with that idea and went so far as to request a trade from the only team he’d ever known.
After shopping Bowman, Shanahan and the Niners eventually cut him loose to choose his own team rather than forcing a trade to a destination Bowman didn’t prefer.
From the reduction in playing time to the day of Bowman’s release, Shanahan maintained his straightforward approach, repeatedly emphasizing the need to see the big picture for the organization.
“When you have a guy who had the type of career that Bo had had here, the type of guy he was, it would have been much easier to maybe ignore it,” Shanahan said. “You never know how people are going to react. That press conference was real tough for us because it’s not something that we’re wanting to do. We just felt it was the best thing to do. I’ve learned over my career that sometimes things you think are the best thing, perception-wise and stuff, sometimes it comes back and bites you a little bit because not everyone understands.
“That was something we had to do, that we believed would help us in the long run. We thought it was better for Bo, too. To sit there and stay strong with it, I thought it went over well. I thought it tested our organization pretty good. Didn’t know how everyone would react to it. I think everyone felt the same. It was something that no one was happy about, but I think everyone understood and it made me believe and feel a lot more comfortable where I was. I felt everyone in here had each other’s back and understood tough decisions you’ve got to make. Hopefully they end up being the right ones.”
About two weeks later, Shanahan and the Niners made a much easier decision: trading for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo’s arrival solved the Niners’ biggest issue and set them up to win those final five games. It also now has the Niners looking at much loftier expectations in Year 2 under Shanahan.
In the earliest Super Bowl LIII odds released by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, only seven teams have a better shot at winning next year’s big game than the 49ers, who are starting with 20-1 odds. All that for a team that a year ago at this time was considered a 300-1 long shot to win the Super Bowl.
Suffice to say, the hype around Garoppolo and the Niners is only going to continue to build as we head toward next season. And so begins a whole new challenge for Shanahan.
“I get everyone is excited, especially when you finish the season with five in a row or six out of the last seven,” Shanahan said. “We understand that. But I also know that doesn’t help at all. It’s not going to help you play better. I know one thing is for sure: When we get to Phase 1 or when we get to OTAs that we won’t be the exact same as we were right now. We will either be better or worse. The only way you get better is if you work. If we don’t, I promise you we’ll be worse.
“We’ve got to go right back to work, work just as hard as we did last year and try to be the best you can. When you think that way and you don’t pay attention to anything else, usually good things happen. This is how we planned for it to go. We wish we would have won more games this year. We were definitely hoping to. But I am proud of how we finished. We’ll have that exact same mindset going into next year.”