The Necessary Evolution of Kyle Shanahan from Play Caller to Leader of Men

Fans have more questions at this point than the 49ers have injuries.
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It seems like a perfect time to jump back in the Silverado and talk about a few things. Consider it therapy, if you will. My apologies for the delay since the last ride, I’ve been under the weather. But I’m back and feeling better, so let’s get to it.

I want to start the conversation by reassuring you this is a safe space to open up about how you feel and don’t hold back, because you know what? I definitely won’t, as I’m utterly frustrated, upset, disappointed, angered, perplexed, flabbergasted and any other synonym available to describe these feelings. So don’t be shy, get it out, you’ll feel better.

That said, get comfortable, of course click in your seatbelt (and your mental seatbelt as well, this may be a bumpy ride), collect your thoughts, and we’ll be on our way to take this ride around the Bay area as we vent our collective frustrations. And yes, there is plenty venting to be done.

We’ll start with thoughts on the game itself and how head coach Kyle Shanahan called the game in the season debut of rookie quarterback Trey Lance, and work our way to and through other topics. Again, buckle your mental seatbelt.

The Shanaplan (play selection) vs Cardinals

First of all, great job to the young Lance as he put forth a valiant, gutsy effort and put the team on his back as he was the offense on Sunday.

Of course, there were things to clean up, but he looked great in his first action with limited time to truly prepare for his first NFL start. And if that is the floor for this young man, I’m excited to see him continue to develop moving forward.

I’m still trying to find an explanation for the way Shanahan called the game Sunday. I mean, it’s totally beyond me. It seemed as if he was heavy on the “ask Madden” button because the play calls were confusing. I don’t want to turn this into a film session, but there are a few plays I want to discuss and determine the “why” in them. We’ll start with the first possession and first play from scrimmage.

They came out in a one back set with Elijah Mitchell but motioned him to create an empty set, leaving Chandler Jones unblocked and young Lance in the backfield alone with no help. So much for easing him into it. Lance was on the run from the start. Seeing the front, why not keep Mitchell in to help pick up any free runner? In this case, Jones. Had Mitchell been kept in the backfield, he could’ve at least slowed him down. Again, I was scratching my head from the start. 

I get Lance is an athlete who can make plays with his legs. That’s fact, not fiction. But to come out on the first play and pretty much make him hostage to his legs, I just don’t get it. To add more difficulty to the play, center Alex Mack decided to slide (help) to the two-defender side where Laken Tomlison and Trent Williams were one on one, instead of sliding to the three-defender side where the help was needed as Jones was unaccounted for.

As you can see in the clip, Daniel Brunskill and Mike McGlinchey were also one on one, Brunskill got whooped and, believe it or not, McGlinchey held his own with JJ Watt, and Jones had a free run at Lance ready to give Lance a warm welcome the NFL. I don’t know about anyone else, but it just seemed like Shanahan was determined to show and prove to the world how ready Lance wasn’t with his play selection.

Even Brian Baldinger was left confused with the play calling, so clearly it wasn’t just me. To be clear, I’m not sure nor am I even saying this was sabotage by Shanahan, but he definitely didn’t set up Lance for success. The beauty in it all, Lance still played well enough to win the game. Funny thing is, up until Sunday many were saying Jimmy Garoppolo was the issue.

Well, after Sunday it’s clear neither quarterback has been the issue. The issue is the common denominator -- Kyle Shanahan. The head coach. He’s supposed to be this genius play caller and master scheme creator, right? Well, he didn’t show this to be true on Sunday. 

Execution 

Though I am placing the majority of the blame on Shanahan, I also will acknowledge the offensive line didn’t help any as they were constantly getting beaten and drawing holding calls (seven to be exact) as well. The worst part about the holding calls, most of them came when Lance had the team rolling, in scoring position and in favorable down and distances. 

I understand the shift from Garoppolo to Lance has some to do with the blocking issues as the styles of play are different, but come on. They have to do much better than that. It was like the worst game of poker ever. I’ll see you 1st & 10, and raise you 1st & 20. I’ll see you 3rd & short, and raise you 3rd & long, which led to numerous decisions to go for it on 4th down. Oh, fun fact, the 49ers were 1 of 5 on 4th down. Terrible! 

The offensive line picked the wrong day to have a bad day at the office. Getting owned by the Cardinals defensive line not only led to hurries of Lance, but also allowed a number of batted down passes at the line of scrimmage, which also had a huge impact on production and drives not being sustained. Between the questionable play calling and terrible offensive line play, Lance was pressured, hurried and looked like he should’ve had on track spikes instead of cleats, because he was running all game.

Before I move on from execution, I also want to mention the wide receivers had a hand in lack of execution as well. Both Mohamed Sanu and Deebo Samuel both dropped pass in the game. They too chose the wrong time to have off days. Speaking of Deebo, as Baldy states and along the lines of execution, it took way too long for Shanahan to adjust his play calling. 

Plays like the touchdown to Samuel could have and should have been called from the start to avoid hanging Lance out to dry.

Why not use your running backs more or get the ball into the hands of your playmakers to run the ball instead of running Lance into the ground? No way your 21-year-old rookie quarterback making his first start should have more carries than the running backs combined! Mitchell was doing well and Sermon barely played. Really? Get it together, Kyle!

Personnel decisions

Something that was just as baffling as the play calling, the personnel Shanahan chose to have up for the game. Knowing you rookie quarterback is making his first NFL start, one would think you’d have not only your best receivers in the game, but also those the quarterback has the best chemistry with.

Think about it. The receivers Lance worked closest with to build a rapport were either inactive (Jauan Jennings) or used in a limited capacity (Trent Sherfield) Sunday. Sherfield had zero targets. Zero! In addition, dynamic second year playmaker Brandon Aiyuk was also underutilized. I know all the rumors that have been going around about Aiyuk not being ready or needing to take the next step.

I for one don’t believe that narrative at all.

Aiyuk made two of the best catches of the game and his career Sunday.

But they want us to believe he lacks effort and doesn’t deserve targets. Last year the knock on him was he couldn't make contested catches.

To date, Aiyuk has made 7 contested catches, which is the 4th best in the NFL. He hasn't regressed as a whole, he has regressed because of this offense. Again, so confused. So let me get this straight. The plan was to call up return specialist Travis Benjamin from the practice squad for a competitive advantage, but not only was he not back to receive a single kick, he had no impact on the game and had zero receptions on three targets?

Like I said, I just don’t get it. Oh wait, he did have an impact on the game, as he was called for holding on a Lance run to again put the team behind the sticks. You can’t make this up.

Closing thoughts

It was a tough loss to the Cardinals in Lance’s first start. But even with facing an undefeated and sizzling Cardinals team, Lance and the 49ers had their opportunities to win this game. It was a culmination of terrible play calling and poor execution by the offensive line that lost this game. No way you can put this loss on either Lance or DeMeco Ryans and the defense as they both kept the team in the game.

As the title of this article states, Shanahan needs to evolve from just an offensive coordinator and play caller, to a head coach and leader of men, and he is definitely part of the problem at this point. The team is on a bye week and its much needed as there is a lot to figure out, not to mention they have a number of players on the mend. Unfortunately, that includes both Garoppolo and now Lance, as he has been diagnosed with a knee sprain.

We have arrived

Per usual, I sincerely hope you enjoyed this ride with me as much as I have. I know a lot of what we discussed was difficult to stomach, but the most beneficial conversations are normally the hard conversations.

I pray the health of the injured players improve in time for the Week 7 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts. I’ll be in attendance for this game so I’d love to see the 49ers put their best effort forth and get back to their winning ways. For that to happen though, Shanahan needs to look in the mirror, refrain from putting any of his players in harms way as he did Lance, demand the best version of himself to be not only just a great play caller, but an amazing leader of men. Let’s go Kyle, lead these men and team to greatness.

I’m not in any way insinuating he should be fired, nor am I requesting such. But what I am requesting he do a much better job being a head coach/leader of men than he has been. The most important part of what I've learned in my time coaching, even at the youth (14u) level. 

It's not just about calling plays, it's about connecting with your players, bringing out the best in them, encouraging them, and ensuring them their best interests are always at heart. And most importantly, managing individual personalities and expectations accordingly. It's like having children. Just as you can't raise each child the same, you can't coach each player the same either. If they buy into your "why," the rest is easy. If he can be even half the leader of men he has been a play caller (aside from Sunday vs. Arizona), the future is very bright and the rest of the season can still be competitive and fun to watch.

See you next ride.