Kyle Shanahan’s ascent to infallible NFL mind has more closely resembled the various clanks and twangs a metal ball encounters as it arches its way through the chute of a pinball machine toward the blinking lights at the top of the glass.
His performance as the offensive coordinator in the Falcons’ record-setting blown 28–3 lead in Super Bowl LI raised questions about his feel for big moments. His performance as the 49ers’ head coach and offensive play-caller in Super Bowl LIV, another double-digit blown lead, was another thwack against the side of the wall. He is a man of contradictions. On one hand, he has developed the offense run by almost a quarter of the NFL. Coordinators from his tree, or those simply smart enough to buy the starter kit on EXOS and imitate it from scratch, are getting hired at a feverish pace. On the other hand, he is 29–35 as an NFL head coach, with just one winning season in four years.
A person of sound mind could argue that his one winning season, which ended in the 49ers’ loss to the Chiefs down in Miami, was due in large part to the 49ers’ defense (second in DVOA) and less the offense he oversaw (seventh in DVOA). Injuries, in addition to some notable big-game performance lapses at the quarterback position, almost certainly played a factor as well.
And yet, there is something undeniable about his acumen, which makes San Francisco’s selection of Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick on Thursday night all the more fascinating. For years we have often chastised players for not living up to their draft position, as if they chose the arbitrary number and extraneous pressure themselves. But this pick, for better or worse, will be more of a direct reflection on Shanahan himself.
Of the possible options (Lance, Mac Jones and Justin Fields among them), Lance is especially polarizing. He threw the fewest attempts out of any of the top quarterbacks available. He played just one game last season. One could view it as Shanahan’s ultimate vote of confidence in himself.
Above the missteps in Super Bowl LI and the unevenness of the last four years, this draft pick could be the defining moment of Shanahan’s early legacy—the buoy that keeps his boy genius reputation afloat, or the heavy metal ball that finally slips off the table’s edge.
Throughout the draft process, we have been subject to the performative ballet of a sage football mind. Admittedly, there was something brilliant about cloaking this decision for as long as the 49ers did. It kept us all guessing, sure. It probably annoyed some of their opponents and the rest of the league, all of whom were possibly looking to lock in trades behind the 49ers to grab whomever they did not. Among the better-leaked tidbits were quarterbacks other than Mac Jones working with Shanahan’s friend and former pupil John Beck, as if they were all being privately vetted for a White House cabinet position.
Now, though, Shanahan has made a concrete decision. The creator of the offense has decided on the avatar who will run his system. Soon, faults cannot be blamed on youth or inexperience or injury. Soon, there will need to be a return on all of the fawning equity that has been placed on the head coach, who strolled into his first job with a contract nearly twice as long as the average coaching life cycle itself.
Much of it is deserved. Shanahan’s talent is undeniable. The way in which he’s turned the draft into a ready-made factory of receiving threats who continue to diversify his offense. The way in which he seems to scoop up a handful of running backs out of the heap and turn them into monstrous downhill threats. With the right quarterback, this team is designed to be good for a very long time. It didn’t waste long identifying the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo was not the right quarterback.
But as coaches will tell you, the minute you make this kind of move—the minute you sacrifice capital and pour your heart and brain out for everyone to see—that’s the moment the clock really starts on what will always be thought of you, and whether the rest of the journey continues to resemble the bumpy ride through the pinball machine.
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