History and hindsight might one day offer a different view, but in the here and now, the Niners’ willingness to wait appears to have landed them one of the best and most qualified coaches in this hiring cycle.
At least that's the view of general manager John Lynch, the man who will work with Shanahan to rebuild the Niners.
“He was the catch of this head coaching cycle," Lynch said. "It’s one of the best years I’ve seen a coordinator have. But, when I talked to [Falcons quarterback] Matt Ryan and the players on this team, they spoke of the leadership and the presence that Kyle had in front of that room. I think that in this league, again, I get to see a very global outlook of the league and there’s a lot of really good coordinators, but there’s some that really separate themselves. I just thought Kyle, he really did that this year. He has impressed me for a long time. This year he put it all together. And it wasn’t just calling plays. It was setting up plays and he was doing things and as soon as I got in front of him and saw the other part, his philosophies and how they marry with mine and all those things it just got me really excited."
There were plenty of twists and turns in Shanahan's pursuit and head-scratching moments along the way, but the process isn’t nearly as important as the 49ers pulling it off and what happens next.
In surveying the landscape of available head coaching candidates, this year’s group didn’t come with much sizzle. Before teams even began firing their previous coaches, Shanahan and New England’s Josh McDaniels were the two names that moved the needle most in league circles.
So, how did the Niners, without the benefit of a stacked roster, a franchise quarterback or any kind of recent stability at the position, find a way to get Shanahan? Simply put, they were willing to wait. In total, they waited 36 days between the firing of Chip Kelly and the hiring of Shanahan.
A lot happened in the meantime in a process that was far from perfect. Although Niners CEO Jed York said he had no preconceived plan for hiring a general manager or a coach first, the Niners ended up putting all of their eggs in the Shanahan basket after McDaniels backed out in mid-January. McDaniels, who was believed to be the team’s top choice, withdrew his name after the Niners failed to interview New England executive Nick Caserio for the open general manager job.
Despite the curveballs -- three of their candidates took other head coaching jobs and two more pulled out of the running -- the Niners finished with Shanahan. He was the only coach available who combined a longtime NFL pedigree with an extensive history of success as a coordinator at multiple stops with multiple quarterbacks and an element of exuberant youth that should allow him to relate to a young roster.
Of course, Shanahan has plenty to prove as a head coach. It’s a job he has never held and many great coordinators have gone on to flop as head coaches. The combination of a pay raise and paranoia has seen many a first-time coach get caught up in the minutiae instead of focusing on what matters. There will be growing pains along the way; one needs only to see the Falcons' fourth-quarter playcalling in their devastating Super Bowl collapse for evidence.
But Shanahan looks like the type of first-time coach who can have success, provided he’s given time and resources to see through a plan for rebuilding the 49ers and doesn’t get caught up in internal power struggles.
Ryan, who struggled with Shanahan in 2015, turned into the league MVP in 2016 and sees the characteristics of a successful leader in him.
“Obviously, I’m a big proponent,” Ryan told Atlanta reporters last week. “Kyle will do a great job if he does get the opportunity. I think he’ll be an excellent head coach. ... Whenever he does get his opportunity, he’ll do a great job.”
Shanahan has spent the past nine years as an offensive coordinator with stops in Houston, Cleveland, Washington and Atlanta. In six of those nine seasons, Shanahan has called the plays for an offense that finished in the top nine in the league in yards per game.
All of that coalesced this season when Atlanta led the league in points scored (540) and yards per play (6.7) and was second in yards per game (415.8). As the maestro of that offense, Shanahan was named the NFL's Assistant Coach of the Year.
Shanahan has the added benefit of father Mike, who won two Super Bowls as Denver's coach, as a sounding board when things get difficult. And things will get difficult at some point as Shanahan feels his way through his first head coaching job with a first-time general manager alongside.
It’s going to take time to rebuild, something York has said he recognizes and a big reason why Shanahan and Lynch were reportedly given unprecedented six-year contracts. Of course, long-term contracts didn't mean much for previous coaches Jim Tomsula and Kelly.
“We’re going to continue to do everything that we can to get better,” York said in early January. “They’re going to have a very, very long leash in terms of making decisions. There are no sacred cows here. Whether that’s in the personnel department, on the coaching staff, in the locker room. They need to be able to re-establish a championship culture."
To have a chance to do that, Shanahan is going to need York & Co. to practice the same patience with him that it took to land him.