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Kyle Shanahan ‘pumped’ to keep Robert Saleh, reveals unselfish Ahkello Witherspoon moment

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers are heading to the NFC Championship game for the first time in six years, and they are doing so with the knowledge that their coaching staff is all but guaranteed to remain intact for next season. Robert Saleh was snubbed for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job on Sunday morning for Kevin Stefanski, the Vikings offense coordinator whose offense was put to task by Saleh’s defense on Saturday.

Kyle Shanahan not underhanded in excitement about Saleh’s head coaching snub

Head coach Kyle Shanahan was far from broken up about the news of Saleh’s snub, saying he was ecstatic when he heard the news that the Browns had passed on Saleh on his way into the 49ers’ practice facility on Sunday.

His excitement was directed more to the fact that the 49ers will retain Saleh, rather than any joy about him not being offered a head coaching position that Shanahan clearly believes he deserves sooner rather than later.

“I was pumped,” Shanahan said on Monday. “I definitely have some empathy for Saleh. I know anyone who goes through that process and stuff, we’re all competitive and you want to win and you want to get that opportunity. For Saleh, every year we keep him, we’ll be very fortunate. Saleh’s going to be a head coach in this league. Could have been one this year, most likely he’ll be one next year. But he’s going to have the right opportunity come around for him, it’s just a matter of time. Just very happy that we’re going to be able to have him going into next year.”

Shanahan said, “it would have been very hard,” to replace Saleh, but he put the thought of him leaving “in a box” in the back of his mind.

He said Saleh understood Shanahan’s reaction, and the pair discussed the news.

“He knows me well enough to know how I am, but I’m definitely excited he didn’t get it,” Shanahan said. “Not just for selfish reasons, because I care a lot about this organization too. And so it definitely helps me, but it helps this whole organization. I think it’ll help Saleh in the long run. Like I said, he’s going to be a head coach, just needs the right opportunity and he’s going to keep getting better and better.”

That last part is what stands out. Shanahan was the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2014, but resigned a year later after an edict from the notoriously poor front office that Johnny Manziel start — in addition to the multitude of other organizational issues.

Shanahan didn’t believe Manziel was ready, and was granted his release before joining the Atlanta Falcons as their offensive coordinator in 2015. Here’s a visual summary of how his time went under the Browns with head coach Mike Pettine (now the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator):

The implication that the snub would help Saleh in the long run is that the Browns, while upgraded talent-wise, are still the same organizational dumpster fire they were when Shanahan was there. Of course, Shanahan didn’t say all that.

Asked why it would help Saleh in the long run, he paused, then brushed the question aside with a joke.

“Umm, so he can be in California for another year,” Shanahan said. “Really helps him save money.”

He clearly has no reservations about Saleh’s talent, but implied, albeit with some underhanded tact, that the “right opportunity” was not in Cleveland.

Ahkello Witherspoon’s moment of unselfishness

The first game of Ahkello Witherspoon’s playoff career did not go well. He committed a pass interference penalty, allowed a first down, and was beaten by Stefon Diggs for a touchdown. On the next series, he was pulled for Emmanuel Moseley, who remained in for the rest of the game.

When he discussed it after the game, Witherspoon said he understood the decision and was by all accounts as positive about a playoff debut benching as one could expect.

“Not all the plays go your way,” Witherspoon said after the game. “I play a tough position and the biggest thing is I’ve got guys behind me that can come in and help us win a football game. Because ultimately it’s about the team and we’re just trying to get to that next step, whatever that may be.”

As Shanahan revealed on Monday, that team-focused rhetoric was more than bluster. After he was pulled for Moseley, Witherspoon volunteered himself to special teams coordinator Richard Hightower to take Moseley’s snaps on special teams.

In the seven regular season games since returning from a foot sprain, Witherspoon had not taken a single special teams snap, but took seven in the game against Minnesota.

“For Ahkello to get replaced by Emmanuel early in that game, he handled it great, but he went right up to Hightower right after that which ‘Tower told me yesterday,” Shanahan said. “He went up to him like, ‘Hey, coach told me they’re going with E-Man but hey, I’m good, make sure you give me all of E-Man’s reps, everything he has on special teams. I’ll do whatever I can to help. He needs his energy, put me in on special teams.’

It’s just that type of attitude where you haven’t had to call many people in to say that. Our guys have a lot of love for each other, all across the board.”

Shanahan declined to say whether Witherspoon or Moseley would start in the NFC Championship game against the Packers, but said he has “a pretty good idea,” though wanted to inform the players first. He said the decision would be clear by Wednesday.

Other notes: No injuries to report, Garoppolo’s interception ‘just a bad decision,’ and Packers expectations

  • The 49ers came out of the Divisional Round with no new injuries. It’s a statement so rare it’s worth repeated. The 49ers came out of the Divisional Round with no new injuries. Asked how he felt about that, Shanahan said, “Good, much better than usual.”
  • Jimmy Garoppolo’s interception was not an unlucky situation, or a case of miscommunication. He made a poor choice. Take it from Shanahan:

“Just a bad decision. It was zone coverage, we had no one to affect 54, their hook player who was just a little too deep. Jimmy thought he could get it over him. The guy made a good play and sometimes he’s just got to check down or go a different direction.”

  • Shanahan knows the 37-8 victory of the Packers, who have not lost a game since then, is unlikely to be repeated, and stressed that he has “thousands” of examples of times when a team, beaten soundly earlier in the year, came back to beat their opponent in the next meeting. His example of choice was in his 2015 season with the Atlanta Falcons, when they were beaten 38-0 by the then-undefeated and Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers in Week 14. Two weeks later, the Falcons dealt the Panthers (15-1 their only loss of the season). Here’s what Shanahan said his message would be about the 37-8 win:

“Don’t be that stupid. That’s not real. This is about Sunday’s game… The game before never matters like that. There’s four teams left and it’s four very, very good teams. It’s going to be a hard game for all of us. Also, our players, the type of guys they are, the way they’ve been all year, I’m not concerned about that. They’ll have to answer that question, I’m sure, a lot, but I don’t think that’ll be a worry for our players, which means it won’t be for me.”


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