As the Niners have emerged from their early Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch cocoon this year, I point to the patience the team had. When CEO Jed York recruited coach and GM, he dangled six-year contracts to both as a show of (very) good faith. So if going 10-22 in the first two years tested York’s resolve, he didn’t show it. Nor was the NFL information superhighway abuzz with rumors of Shanahan’s demise. Even when the quarterback gets hurt, as happened here, impatience in the fan base is usually a thing. There was some of that on the outside, but never internally.
Shanahan paused a half-hour after the game Sunday night to consider his good fortune.
“That’s why I’m happy where I’m at—it’s the organization we have,” he said. “We went through some tough times in our first two years, especially starting 0-9. I think the next year was 1-7. When you start that way, it’s very hard for a place not to splinter. That’s what was so different here in our first two years. Going 0-9 and finishing 6-10 helped finish with some momentum. Last year, never once throughout the year did you ever feel like the defense was against the offense or vice versa. Never once did I have an owner crushing me with, ‘Hey, we gotta change this guy.’ I mean, everyone here really just believed in each other. That was really tested with some of the times we went through but I think that was the neatest thing about it. We knew we had the right people around. We just had to get a couple difference-makers and stay healthy.”
Jimmy Garoppolo making all 11 starts after missing 13 last year (knee) has been huge. But I view five pieces either new or just rapidly ascending as being huge here. Nick Bosa, the second pick in the draft, and trade acquisition Dee Ford gave the Niners the best defensive-line depth in football. In 41 pass-drops Sunday night, Rodgers was sacked five times, pressured six times and hit twice more, per PFF. The most significant hit was probably the first—and that brings us to the third relatively new guy who’s exploded for the Niners: middle linebacker Fred Warner.
“I’m a San Diego kid,” Warner told me, gripping his post-game NBC player of the game football in his arm like he didn’t want to let it go. “I loved Junior Seau. I was a Shawne Merriman fan.”
He did his best Seau on the fifth play of the game, blowing up the Green Bay protection in the middle of the line on third-and-10 at the Packer 25-yard line, sacking Rodgers, forcing a fumble and setting up the first Niner touchdown. Since San Francisco lost playmaking linebacker Kwon Alexander with a torn pectoral a month ago, Warner has taken over his explosive playmaking. He’s led the team in tackles in each of the last four games, recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles. And he’s smart, running the defense in his second year out of Brigham Young. “We’ve got a bunch of checks we had to make all game, and Fred didn’t miss one all night,” Shanahan said. “We love the guy. Love his talent. Love his brain. And then our coaches, who really know linebackers, [defensive coordinator] Robert Saleh and [position coach] DeMeco Ryans, could really tell us how he fit in our scheme, and I think it was great for John Lynch to go get him in the draft.”
Two other newbies: Free safety Jimmie Ward’s a six-year vet, but he’s been hurt so much the Niners couldn’t rely on him. This year, he’s joined the fast-rising secondary as a big hitter who excels in coverage. He made the play of the game in the secondary, going up with Jimmy Graham to break up the pass. Graham looked to come down with it, but Ward fought with him coming down and the ball came loose a split-second after Graham landed. (If the Packers challenged the play, called an incompletion, they might have overturned it.) “It was basically who wanted it more,” said Ward.
Finally, Deebo Samuel’s been a godsend to the offense. The rookie second-rounder (must have been a tremendous draft for this guy to go in the second round) broke up the game just before the half with a 42-yard streaking touchdown that left the Green Bay defenders in the dust. “I was worried I’d never learn the offense when I first got here—the playbook is so big,” Samuel told me. “But I’m good with it now. I love this offense.”
The team’s got a little bit of the Shanahan ethos. America doesn’t know him yet. He’s not as polished as his dad, veteran coach Mike Shanahan, was. Then again, he’s 39. He’s got time. What he is, is tough and an excellent play-designer and play-caller. He won’t say it, but he’s the kind of a just-try-to-knock-this-chip-off-my-shoulder coach who players respect. And they respect Shanahan because they know he puts them in the best position to win.
All opponents can be beaten. All opponents we respect. We can find something in everyone we play to exploit. Who does that sound like? “I’ve never met a coach who reminds me of Bill Belichick as much as Kyle,” said former Patriots and Falcons front-office man Scott Pioli, who has worked with both.
“Assume you’ll be watching Lamar Jackson against the Rams,” I said to Shanahan on Sunday night.
“We won’t have a fun Monday/Tuesday preparing for him,” he said. “But we’ll be ready by Sunday.”