Well well well. What an awesome start to the year for the 49ers so far! Who doesn’t want to begin the season 2-0? I am sure you have read elsewhere how much going 2-0 increases the chances the 49ers make it to the Super Bowl. It sure seems like we have the elements in place to make that happen. So far, the Defense and Offense have each won a game, with Special Teams playing a role both times (yes I know it takes the whole team, but in one game each, one side has done the heavy lifting while the other struggled).
Such a bounty of reasons to be fired up! Jimmy G has not thrown a pick. Trey Lance’s 1st throw was a touchdown. Nick Bosa is getting pressures, tackles and sacks at a steady initial pace. All up and down the roster are a bevy of strong players. Established veterans like Trent W, Jimmy W and the newly added Alex M. Up-n-coming vets like Messers Kittle and Warner or Promising-Yet-Unproven Sophs Aiyuk and Kinlaw round out the squad. Even our standard later-round-rookie-surprises have quickly emerged in the forms of Mitchel, Talanoa and Lenior. From both a competitive and entertainment perspective, this roster is loaded.
Hence with 11.7% of the season in books, there is cause for great hope among The Faithful and The Casual-49ers Fans Alike. (Side note: Are casual 49er fans called The Swingers? The Daters?...food for thought…(lmk if you have suggestions)). Not only are we winning, almost everyone involved can clearly see that the team is so far playing closer to its middle potential vs it’s ceiling. This can only inspire us to expect things to get better as the season unfolds.
While the other 3 teams of the NFC West look to hold several different kinds of potential agony for the 49ers, the rest of the schedule is littered with winnable games. Also, while the division might look tough to the rest of the league, this is Coach Kyle’s 4th time tilting at those particular windmills, so it might not be as hard to garner some divisional wins as it first appears. For many of the multi-years-on-the-team players there are some revenge match-ups waiting for our viewing pleasure as well.
All of this lends itself to a sense of well deserved enthusiasm from both fans and pundits. I too have been caught up in these feelings of “Could this at last be the season of the Shanahan Era where it All Comes Together?” Certainly in Year 4 of said Era, we fans are right to hope that all of our emotional investment in this real-life dramatic sports entertainment experience will pay-off with winning The Big Show and ascending back to our rightful place atop the NFL.
However...I can’t help but zoom out a bit and look at the whole meal in front of me. Sure there is a healthy main course of red and gold sanguinity spread out on the table of the season, but what’s that over here, in the sad little dish way over on the edge...Oh Crap...It’s a Side of Brussel Doubts.
Please bear in mind, it is not my intention to cause any happy fans to think or feel negative thoughts. I am not attempting to plop a rotten cherry on the sundae of a 2-0 record. Think of me as that friend who is just making sure you don’t get hurt by raising your expectations up too high. I am the spoon with which you eat the sundae (at least while you read this) and as that depilated youth says in The Matrix:
Young Monk: “Do not try and bend the spoon—that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.”
Neo: “What truth?”
Young Monk: “There is no spoon.”
Spoon or not, let’s pull over that dish full of brussel doubts and dig in for a sec. It might not be as delish as the red-n-gold cake we can eat elsewhere, but it might turn out to be good for us in the end.
So, why DOES doubt creep into my perception of this team even though I want them so badly to win for so many reasons (history, pride, entertainment etc.)? Examine the characters in this story and we quickly see that in spite of all the glad tidings, there is reasonable cause for doubt. Let’s peep one James G, who, to date, has put in a solid if un-glamorous start to the season. While it was noted above that he has not turned the ball over yet, history tells us that not only will this happen, it is bound to happen at an inopportune time, and soon.
Jimmy not only throws picks and fumbles but he has a high instance of “interceptable balls.” The universe seems to bail him out on the regular with little invisible pigskin sprites that knock the ball from DBs hands, rendering assistance unto him the way Disney Birds help Snow White hang her linens. While these ill-heaved balls do not result in changes of possession, they DO make the whole team tighten up, as both players and coaches subconsciously wonder when The Next One is coming. We watch some players without expecting that a mistake will come. Others, like Jimmy, have scared us so many times we cannot escape the vague feeling that something bad is coming soon.
Perhaps Jimmy has erased this tendency over the offseason, but as training camp reports and history both indicate, this is a statistically unlikely occurrence that has been blurred by the small two-game data-set we are basing our expectations upon thus far in 2021. Hence Jimmy’s head peeking up out of that bowl of Brussel Doubts with an impish grin.
I’d like to go on record that what I HOPE happens is that Jimmy Lights It Up super hard and has his best season ever, demonstrating growth as a player and the evolving mastery of a maturing QB. My super-secret fantasy is that he connects with Trey, mentors him and they become pals. Trey ends up playing about 17% of plays and we go to the Super Bowl where they both score 3 TDs each. I truly believe that the potential for that exists, however unlikely. After all, the main course IS one of scrumptious hope.
Buuuuuuut….Those Brussel Doubts aren't going to eat themselves so on to the next source of consternation. To further annoy my pal East Bay Chris with a second Matrix Quote:
Trinity: “It's the question that drives us. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did…”
(Notice dear reader, that in my metaphor, YOU, are Neo, The One...enjoy for a sec how that feels...)
In this case the question is not about The Matrix. When I think about Coach Kyle, the question in question becomes:
“Is Head Coach Kyle Shanahan ‘A Closer’?”
This question was clearly not first posed by me, but rather stretches back to his tenure with the Falcons. Without reviewing all the instances, suffice to say we have all experienced this quality in our brilliant coach. Look at him here, with an unhappy look on his face, which in turn is glued to his playbook. Sometimes I wonder if he is one of those guys with a mind so sharp, that it cuts him out of reality, stranding him in the realms of scheme, theory and thought.
Coach Kyle’s quirky changes in energy, competency, creativity and results have not only shown up in 4th quarters but in his relationships with certain players as well. One wonders at the source of this clearly observable behavior pattern. In both cases, it is hard to see how the classic human foible of getting bored and then distracted, lazy or both, could apply to things like quarters of football games or career paths of players. What then is the source of Kyle’s frequent inadequacies at clutch moments? For now, that remains a mystery for another day.
The element of this question that applies to the present circumstances is that this quality of Coach Kyle allows doubt to enter into the minds of fans, journalists and, I presume, staff and players as well. Whether it’s wondering if a 4th quarter lead of 38-17 will suffice for a W or how things are going to turn out with THIS traded-up-for-draft-pick who is currently-on-the-bench, the sense that we cannot feel confidant how things will end up colors the experience of following this team.
Obviously all fans want Coach to be a closer and often times he is exactly that. So far, however, both his career writ large as well as the two games played in 2021 support the case for entertaining some doubt.
Of course, life is never for sure, and it may be unfair to even ask if Kyle is A Closer given all the random elements that go into a football game, let alone an NFL season. However, my thesis here today has been that in spite of many causes for a main course of enthusiasm currently, there is indeed a reasonably healthy side-dish of doubt at this juncture. I hope that whether or not my case was made, that you enjoyed the verbal and visual ride.
Here is to a high quality game on Sunday. Let’s enthusiastically hope it further erases the doubts with a rousing victory at home!
P.S. If for any reason it makes you unhappy when people criticize Coach Kyle, here are some wise words about his better qualities: