May 29, 2024
Going into the most important season in Kyle Shanahan's Niners tenure, the vibes could not be worse.

Kyle Shanahan is one of the finest coaches in the NFL. He took over a laughingstock 49ers franchise — he was the fourth coach in four years — and turned it into a perennial contender.

That counts for a whole lot.

But this is the season he needs to turn the Niners from contenders into victors.

It’s Super Bowl or bust. Nothing else but ultimate victory will do.

And heading into this vital season — the one where Shanahan needs to get over the hump — the vibes around the Niners are downright bad. The book has been closed on defining roster move of his tenure in charge (the Trey Lance experiment) and Shanahan received a failing grade. Seven years into his tenure as the Niners’ head coach and in a league where quarterbacks are destiny, it’s still unknown if Shanahan can effectively evaluate and manage the position.

Add in the distraction that is the Lance trade and Nick Bosa’s holdout, and the Niners are entering the first week of the season without the kind of swagger you’d want to see from a team with championship aspirations.

Shanahan has countless hits as a head coach and the top football decision-maker in Santa Clara, but right now the misses feel more significant.

All of this can go away in a flash. Bosa could sign a new contract (the Niners said they “budgeted for” the new deal a year ago, and yet we wait). If that new contract is signed soon, he can play in the opener in Pittsburgh. No harm, no foul — he’s a defensive end, he doesn’t have plays. Brock Purdy could continue to be a revelation in 2023, giving Shanahan the Kirk Cousins-type quarterback he’s long coveted, surrounded by the game’s best offensive weapons. The Niners’ defense, now led by Steve Wilks, might find another gear with Javon Hargrave in the middle of the defensive line.

Who knows, the kicker the Niners took in the third round — yes, the kid who had a miserable preseason — might prove to be a gamer and knock through 60-yard field goals with ease.

Add a woeful NFC, and the Niners could feel invincible in a few weeks.

The ingredients are right for the Niners to be the NFL’s best team this season.

But ingredients don’t make a meal. You need to cook them right.

And in the NFL, there are a million ways a recipe for success can be ruined.

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Unnecessary drama tops the list.

The Niners have one of the toughest schedules in the league and they’ll have to play it with the NFL’s worst rest — San Francisco will have, cumulatively, 20 fewer days of rest than their opponents this season.

If this team decides to coast into the season, the way they have the last two seasons (a combined 7-8 in September and October), they might not be able to dig themselves out of the hole in November and December.

If that happens, Shanahan’s mistakes will loom much larger.

Ultimately, all that matters is wins. And so long as Shanahan keeps winning, he won’t have any issues.

But unlike in past years, he can no longer afford a down season.

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In fact, he can’t afford a neutral season, either. Not if he wants to keep his seat as cool as Bosa during contract negotiations.

Remember, Andy Reid was the best coach in Philadelphia Eagles history. He went to the playoffs nine times in 14 seasons, won the division six times, and went to five NFC Championship Games (including four straight).

But he didn’t win the Super Bowl, so the Eagles fired him when there was a downturn.

His former assistant, Doug Pederson, won that Super Bowl in Philadelphia a few years later.

San Francisco isn’t Philadelphia — we don’t run that hot over here — but I would argue the standard for this organization is even higher.

It’s not about winning one Super Bowl here. It’s about winning multiple.

The York family might be happy with merely contending — it allows them to make money hand over fist, buying English soccer teams and city council seats — but I know fans believe in the tao of Ricky Bobby:

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Shanahan’s window to be first — to win not just one title, but multiple — is wide open. But this window won’t stay open forever.

And if it’s clear the window is closing and Shanahan has an o-fer, I imagine the tide of public opinion will turn on him quickly.

This is still the guy with a reputation for choking in the big game, after all.

Doing seat meteorology is an inexact science, but looking at all the available information, I can make this forecast:

Shanahan better win big this season.

Anything less, and we’ll be having much more serious conversations this time next season.