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Is Shanahan’s lost play-calling rhythm a symptom or source of 49ers’ woes?

© Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports

Everything that the 49ers are and everything that they aspire to be is exacted by Kyle Shanahan. His vision is what makes the team tick.

When Jed York hired Shanahan, it was in the wake of self-created calamity. The excitement and highs of the Jim Harbaugh era evaporated just as quickly as they were born. That project imploded into itself, with the brunt of that weight on York.

After two years of wandering in the Chip Kelly and Jim Tomsula desert, Shanahan was supposed to be the savior.

It was a project, and the plan, for three years, seemed to be working itself into the crescendo Shanahan and his pick for general manager, John Lynch, had billed it to be.

The first two years were expected failures — at least, after Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in 2018 — and while they had some misses in their early roster-building decisions, the 2019 Super Bowl appearance was a vindication.

At least, it felt like one at the time.

The ensuing 2020 season might as well have been cursed. Injuries made progress untenable in a year most of us, football aside, would like to forget.

But 2021 was supposed to be the re-imagining of this team’s future. This was the defining offseason for Lynch and Shanahan, betting that they could compete and simultaneously find their future franchise anchor in Trey Lance.

Through six weeks, it’s fair to say — and pretty emphatically — this is not working, and it has little to do with Lance himself.

Shanahan and Lynch tried to walk a tightrope, keeping Garoppolo on board, and biting the bullet of his $26.4 million cap hit… which is fifth-most in the NFL among quarterbacks.

Their thesis, they argued, was that Lance would take time to be ready, and Garoppolo was still the best quarterback on the roster. In reality, they couldn’t recoup what they wanted for Garoppolo. Instead of moving him for less than they thought he was worth, they tried to have it both ways.

Sunday’s unending downpour was a metaphor that was perhaps too on the nose.

San Francisco can’t stop making mistakes, and with each mistake they make, another follows. And it all stems from the noncommittal approach entering this season.

Shanahan, the offensive mastermind, one-time wunderkind who has built an offense copied and recreated in myriad ways around the league, is in a rut. He admitted the obvious after Sunday’s game; he has not been himself.

Asked whether he feels like he’s been in a good play-calling rhythm, Shanahan was direct.

“No. I don’t think I’ve gotten in a great rhythm,” Shanahan said. “We’ve done it on a couple of drives, but we have not sustained that. I haven’t felt comfortable.”

This is his creation. And he is not comfortable with his creation.

Call that a dramatic assessment, but this team has not demonstrated the confidence which defined it in the 2019 season. It has been impossible to ignore body language and tone, and there is a discernible exasperation brewing among players and coaches, and it deepens each week.

The career-defining decision to draft Trey Lance appears to be weighing on Shanahan, and it has seemed that way since the middle part of training camp, when the quarterback questions mounted, and he tried to balance complimenting Lance while affirming he wasn’t ready.

At this point, Shanahan is leading a team which cannot get out of its own way. They are committing an egregious, untenable amount of major penalties which either kill their own drives or breathe fire into ones stalling for their opponent.

San Francisco is borderline incapable of converting on third down. After an opening touchdown, then two field goals, they went three-and-out five-straight times, stretching from the start of the second quarter through the start of the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t until a three-play touchdown drive based on bootleg passes — which the 49ers went away from after establishing on that opening drive — that the offense woke back up.

Linebacker Darius Leonard thanked them for going away from the plays that were working.

Clearly, Shanahan is overthinking himself. On Sunday, maybe that was due to the elements, and/or a lack of confidence in his quarterback’s throwing ability; you know, the same quarterback who he has inexplicably defended after blatantly drafting his successor.

After every game, there’s that talking point: a lack of execution. It’s pervasive throughout every facet of these performances, but Shanahan said Wednesday that these moments are distinct.

“There’s not one answer. You can go to each position, whether it’s a drop here, whether it’s a misread there, whether it’s a false start, whether it’s whatever,” Shanahan said. “It’s accumulation, you need to play better football. And that’s what we’re trying to do. You’ve got to go out there and you don’t need to make stuff up. But you’ve got to play better and everyone’s going to make mistakes in games, but how can you eliminate those? And one thing we talk about in here a lot is doing right longer. You have to do right longer than the other team. And I don’t think we’ve done that close to enough.”

That was Wednesday. It did not change this Sunday.

Shanahan is the leader of this team. He admitted after the 30-18 loss that he’s not himself. The question is, is Shanahan lacking confidence because the team is not executing, or is Shanahan’s lack of confidence causing the failure to execute?

It comes back to this offseason. By bringing in Garoppolo’s successor now, and by expending a monumental amount of draft capital to acquire him, Shanahan’s message was that Garoppolo was not good enough.

He then proceeded to say, in fact, that Garoppolo is good enough. “We can win with Jimmy,” was a frequent retort.

By retaining him, the 49ers failed to upgrade other positions substantially, especially corner, where they have been burned heavily by defensive pass interference penalties. They did not make a play for someone like Zach Ertz, while their undefeated, division rival Cardinals acquired him after an injury to their starting tight end. They let MyCole Pruitt go, who had touchdowns in each of the last two games with the Titans, while the 49ers have been snakebitten by dreadful blocking and receiving at that position without George Kittle.

Their initial first-round pick from 2020, Javon Kinlaw, is likely headed for injured reserve. Their second first-round pick, Brandon Aiyuk, was borderline benched in the second half and was targeted once.

Their second-round pick from this year, Aaron Banks, hasn’t played a snap, and was active for the first time on Sunday. Both their corner selections, Ambry Thomas, and Deommodore Lenoir, were inactive. Trey Sermon, their other third-rounder, along with Thomas, didn’t play a snap. Talanoa Hufanga, their sixth-round safety, and Elijah Mitchell, a fifth-rounder, were the only two rookies to play.

If this was about competing now, it’s not happening, especially not with Garoppolo, who needed one of the greatest running attacks in franchise history and a near-flawless defense to “take the 49ers” to the Super Bowl.

None of this is coincidental.

Shanahan took a half measure this offseason. Rather than establish their future now, and build an identity around the uber-talented, multifaceted Lance, he and Mike McDaniel tried to create a witches brew of an offense which worked for both.

It may have been true that Lance was not ready, but that’s assessing his performance in the system that was constructed this offseason, rather than one that could be built around him.

“That’s one reason I really like Trey,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “I don’t think you have to do a totally different offense.”

The current offense is not working for anyone.

And this straddling fence act has not inspired confidence throughout the team. That’s not to say that mixed messages at quarterback have caused the defense to commit penalties, but it’s part of a greater, all-encompassing energy.

Everything is frenetic and forced. A 10-year veteran, Josh Norman, admitted after the game that the cornerbacks, him most of all, are overeager in their pursuit of turnovers, which is part of why they’re committing so many pass interference penalties.

They cannot trust the offense, which put up 10 points against Arizona, to convert on third downs, an area in which the team is a combined 6-for-35 (17 percent) over the last three games.

Three weeks ago, Kyle Juszczyk, a Harvard graduate who was the first signing of Shanahan and Lynch’s tenure, ran the wrong play. He ran a failed fullback sneak on fourth-and-one instead of allowing the ball to go to Lance, who was supposed to run an option play with Mitchell behind Trent Williams. There are smart, veteran players making almost impossible mistakes.

Tonight, Shanahan ran one brilliant, opening drive before his offense went silent until the start of the fourth quarter. His touch, as he admitted, is gone right now.

Shanahan’s failure to be decisive this offseason has created a toxic, self-fulfilling cycle which has bred unease, starting with himself. This team is pressing, but with no one pushing in the same direction.

What is evident is that whatever the approach over the last few weeks has been, it is not tenable. Shanahan needs to be definitive going forward. That should start by naming Trey Lance the starting quarterback, and amending the offense to fit his strengths.

He has wasted too much time already trying to force two square pegs into round holes. There is still time to recapture the confidence that has left this team, as well as the creativity that once defined him, but it’s burning out quicker with each exhausting loss.


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