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Kyle Shanahan keeps out-dueling cohorts because his 49ers are zen when it matters

© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Before this weekend’s slate of games, an iconic graphic surfaced from the Washington Football Team’s (cursed) 2013 season.

There, below, are three awfully young-faced offensive minds, all blissfully unaware of the football torture and agony of near-greatness they are going to endure over the next decade:

Three of the NFCs four teams are represented by disciples of Mike Shanahan and that ignominious Washington franchise. The other team has Tom Brady.

But Kyle Shanahan, aside from the obvious lineage, is unlike those other two then-bright faces.

The joy hasn’t been beaten out of him, but at times, especially this season, it’s been fair to ask if it has. He’s looked haggard, as if no cup of coffee — and he has several each day — will reinvigorate him.

Maybe it was Deebo Samuel who awoke him from his play-calling stupor, when Shanahan realized he could play him as a legitimate running back.

He test drove that theory in earnest against Sean McVay in a 31-10, Week 10 bludgeoning that was the beginning of a now 9-2 run. It was not the last time McVay’s Rams gave the 49ers life, nor will it likely be the last.

Maybe that changes if there’s a 49ers-Rams rematch next round. Who knows with this team.

But as of this moment, Shanahan has beaten McVay six-straight times. He’s now beaten Matt LaFleur in both of their playoff matchups and three of their five total meetings.

Shanahan has taken heat for being borderline dogmatic in his commitment to his scheme, for his in-game propensity towards conservative decision-making, being perhaps too harsh and particular in his demands of players, and most prominently, for refusing to play the rookie quarterback he spent such a hefty price for, even as this season was on the brink.

That criticism has been harsh at times — and it could be argued unfairly — but when you’ve had one successful season in five, and the fifth, for so long, seemed like it was destined for disaster, well, those are the criticisms which will naturally be levied upon you.

Despite the interminable disorder that has defined this season, Shanahan remained himself and recommitted to Jimmy Garoppolo.

He’s probably more subdued than in seasons’ past and that appears at this point, like a benefit.

Shanahan’s tenor reflects upon his team, and though it’s been an uneven relationship with his quarterback, he reflects on him, too.

When you have a quarterback who is naturally relaxed, seemingly unable to be burdened by the weight of a potentially legacy-defining playoff game, and an understated coach who’s become more gruff over the years, that’s a foundation for calm.

Garoppolo said after the game that there was no moment when he felt panicked on Saturday, despite the countless occasions when that would have been a normal feeling.

“There was a calmness, honestly, and probably midway through the first or second quarter that I realized it was gonna be that type of game,” Garoppolo said. “There’s just a feel to the game. Even when they had the lead, I felt like we were controlling the game, as crazy as that sounds. But you could feel on the sidelines, we were waiting for that one play to spark us.”

In the end, Shanahan received a divine act in the form of a Jordan Willis blocked punt turned Talanoa Hufanga touchdown. The Packers’ ensuing drive was throttled, again, by an Arik Armstead sack and surprisingly impressive coverage from Hufanga and Dontae Johnson on Davante Adams.

Then, Shanahan iced the game by turning to Samuel, the man who re-ignited his creativity this season. It was a third-and-seven in which the 49ers needed roughly four yards to reach the end of Robbie Gould’s range.

Shanahan called a timeout, switched out of a pass play, and had Garoppolo stick it in Samuel’s gut.

Who the hell runs on third-and-seven and knows it’s going to work? Shanahan, and apparently the rest of his team.

“I knew we were gonna [convert],” Kittle said. “They came out in nickel. I knew the backer that I had to block was a safety. I was like, ‘Oh this is money as long as we take care of the interior.’ Deebo just has to run in a straight line for a first down and that’s exactly what he did.”

As Garoppolo said, “that’s just how we win.”

Garoppolo was asked twice if the 49ers were really as calm as he claimed.

After the dropped passes? Yes. After the interception? Yes. The failed fourth and 1? Yes.

“Honestly, yeah. I mean, as weird as it sounds, yeah, there was a calmness,” Garoppolo said. “There was a sense of, we’re still controlling this. It’s just gonna take one drive, got the field goal and you had to chip away. It was a mature type of game that day where you had to be patient with it.

The 49ers are calm against the storm, which, as it turns out, they are often the creators of.

That starts with Shanahan, and his steely demeanor. He has experienced blowing two of the most infamous leads in NFL history. The upside is that his NFL scar tissue runs deep. He knows firsthand there is no NFL scenario too absurd to become reality.

When LaFleur got up on Shanahan on Saturday, he turned to the crowd, stoking the flames and encouraging them to get louder like it was some winter pep rally. He’s done it before, and clearly got excited that he was on the brink of an NFC Championship birth. He expressed that, thinking it would give his defense an advantage. It ended up coming off fairly lame.

In Week 18, McVay was all but chest-bumping Tyler Higbee in the end zone like he’d just sunk a beer pong-winning shot. It was embarrassing then and even more embarrassing after he oversaw the greatest collapse of his career, losing for the first time as a head coach after holding a halftime lead (45-0 previously).

And then there’s Shanahan, standing there in his ski-suit getup like the coaching grim reaper, trying to will his team out of their insistence on self-sabotage.

This isn’t a criticism of LaFleur or McVay for showing excitement. These are human emotions they’re expressing. It’s probably healthier, at least long term, than opting for the dour, Belichick-lite demeanor Shanahan displays on the sidelines, though he does make sure to celebrate as hard as anyone when it’s over.

But it is a representation of his seriousness and composure, especially against LaFleur and McVay, steeled against the harrowing reality that his season may end imminently. And yet, he’s calm.

And wouldn’t you know it, Shanahan’s old Texas friend Richard Hightower, whose seat was far hotter than those on the heated benches from Saturday’s game, came through when he needed him most.

Criticized — and rightfully so — all season for overseeing an abysmal special teams unit, Hightower’s group may have well just saved his job and kept this ridiculous team in the playoffs with some incredible kick and punt returns, a blocked field goal, and a blocked punt touchdown coupled with a tough field goal to send the 49ers to the NFC Championship game.

LaFleur’s team crumbled because its special teams unit was the worst in the league. They had a field goal and punt blocked and on the final play of the game, had 10 players on the field… after a timeout.

But that only mattered because Aaron Rodgers, the looming specter who had 37 touchdowns and two interceptions since Week 2, was silenced. He evaporated, and possibly for good in Green Bay.

Rodgers went without a touchdown for just the third time this season and is now 0-4 in his career against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs.

If you watched Rodgers over this season, you would not be confident entering this game, let alone after going down 7-0 with an offense that was temporarily unable to catch the ball.

You are facing Aaron Rodgers, in the fifth-coldest playoff game in Green Bay history, down seven points. Every drive you’ve embarked upon has ended in catastrophe.

Still… calm.

Remember, Shanahan had to build this team, failing in preposterous ways at some stages.

LaFleur and McVay stepped into prefabricated homes. They could add the extra garage, redo the bathroom, build out the basement, make whatever additions or subtractions they needed, but the frame was all there.

Shanahan was toiling with sweat and his own frequent misjudgments, trying to turn an etch-a-sketch design into a mansion.

But because he built it from scratch, it was always in his own vision. He has had to sell everyone from the top down on what he was and is trying to accomplish in order for it to work.

It’s why the 49ers’ zen is so natural and earnest. They know pain and cataclysmic failure. They’ve shared that collective football trauma and dealt their own. Rodgers was supposed to be the boogeyman, but they’ve claimed that title for themselves.

Their confidence is irrational, but it’s borne out of reality, and reality, as they continue to prove, is often ridiculous.


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