Jun 16, 2020
Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer
- Covered Rams for nine years for stlouisrams.com
- Previously covered University of Missouri football
- Member of Pro Football Writers of America
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York set about hiring his fourth head coach in as many years in January 2017, he had a simple objective: find someone he wouldn’t be paying to not coach his team a year later.
OK, there was far more to the eventual hiring of Kyle Shanahan than that — Shanahan’s offensive prowess, his understanding of the way the 49ers built some of their greatest teams and his ability to rebuild a broken culture chief among them — but it’s not a joke to say that York wanted to land someone who could give the Niners the type of stability they’d lacked at the top of the organization for nearly two decades.
It’s why York signed Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to matching six-year contracts in 2017. And it’s why York, on the heels of San Francisco’s dramatic rebuild from 2-14 to NFC champions in Shanahan’s first three seasons, wasted no time getting Shanahan to agree to a second six-year contract on Monday that will keep him in San Francisco through the 2025 season.
“I mean, I think I’m still paying like three coaches,” York said, laughing, in January. “It’s like, ‘If we’re going to pay a coach, might as well pay the same one for six years.’ It seems like a good idea to me.”
Apparently, the idea was so good that York decided to do it again halfway through Shanahan’s first six-year deal. ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who first had the news of Shanahan’s new deal, reported that Shanahan’s contract will make him one of the league’s five highest-paid coaches.
For some, such a long and lavish contract might seem like an overreaction to a strong season. But for the 49ers, it actually means much more. In agreeing to a new deal, Shanahan becomes the first head coach to sign a second pact with the Niners since Steve Mariucci did in 1999.
Since then, the job once held in such high esteem because of Bill Walsh’s dynastic run, has been a veritable turnstile. Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary followed Mariucci, none lasting four full seasons on the job.
Jim Harbaugh offered the most hope when he took over in 2011 and took the Niners to three straight NFC Championship Games before an 8-8 final season. Harbaugh’s hard-charging style took its toll, however, and York eventually chose to keep then-general manager Trent Baalke over him. A misguided attempt to promote Jim Tomsula to head coach and the failed one-year experiment with Chip Kelly followed.
All of those experiences, especially the breakup with Harbaugh, influenced York’s decision not only to hire Shanahan but to give him (and Lynch) their initial six-year contracts. Providing Shanahan and Lynch a long enough runway to execute their vision was also a byproduct of the fact that changing coaches every year inherently makes it more difficult to sell qualified candidates on the job.
At the time, York made it clear that having a coach and general manager on the same page was of the utmost importance. It also undoubtedly increased the urgency to sign Shanahan to a new deal and will likely mean the same in the near future for Lynch.
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In their initial interviews, Shanahan was his usual, honest self in assessing the roster and letting York know that a turnaround wouldn’t happen overnight. York acknowledged in January that he viewed 2019 as “Year one of a four-year deal,” because the first two seasons had to be spent tearing down the roster to the studs and starting over.
York’s belief in Shanahan paid off in a big way in 2019. After compiling a 10-22 record in his first two seasons, Shanahan and the Niners burst onto the scene last season, going 13-3 in the regular season and cruising through the NFC playoffs before a disappointing loss in Super Bowl LIV. By the time it was over, Shanahan’s career record, including playoffs, stands at 25-26. Given the talent on the roster, it should surge past the .500 mark for the first time next season.
Even in their most difficult moments, the 49ers never wavered under Shanahan’s leadership. The Reuben Foster saga, the season-ending Jimmy Garoppolo injury in 2018 and all of that losing might have been enough to fracture many locker rooms. Shanahan’s group grew closer.
“I didn’t want anybody to be questioning ‘Well, it’s year three, they’re on the hot seat,'” York said in January. “No, it’s a six-year deal and we’ve locked ourselves in, all three of us, and we’re here together and we’re going to build this thing the right way … We wanted to build the right team. And you have to have a long-term vision and to me when you can make those long-term decisions the right way and don’t have to worry about ‘We need to do it right now and we’re gonna shortcut it,’ then you give yourself a chance.”
With Shanahan, 40, in place for at least the next six years, the 49ers finally have that chance for a long time to come.
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