It’s certainly not the most pressing issue for Kyle Shanahan right now, but let’s just say it now, loud and clear: He might not have to hear about a losing career coaching record ever again. And by the way, I really don’t think he loved hearing that.
The math is easy. The conclusion is easier. Thanks to this current six-game 49ers winning streak, the 49ers are 9-4, have just clinched back-to-back winning records (for the first time since the 49ers had winning seasons in Jim Harbaugh’s first three campaigns), can also clinch the NFC West crown with a victory on Thursday in Seattle and are now 48-46 in the middle of Shanahan’s sixth regular season in charge. Add in the 49ers’ 4-2 postseason mark under Shanahan and that’s a comfortable four games over .500 as the 49ers’ leader, as things stand now.
It might get a little wobbly in the near-term if Brock Purdy’s oblique injury limits him for the Seahawks game, but the 49ers have dealt with so much quarterback drama and have so much momentum this season, I’m assuming they’ll figure things out and adjust successfully if they have to.
Of course, fighting his way above .500 for the first time with the 49ers shouldn’t really be that big of a deal for a coach who has always been considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the league and who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl berth three seasons ago and back to the NFC Championship Game last season. Coaches who inherit terrible rosters (like the 49ers when Shanahan and John Lynch took over in 2017) are always working uphill.
Bill Walsh went a combined 8-24 in his first two seasons with the 49ers and 84-35-1 with them after that. Walsh didn’t get his career record above .500 until 1984, his fifth season, when the 49ers went 15-1 and won their second Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson also went a combined 8-24 in his first two seasons in Dallas. Even though the Cowboys were 36-12 in three more seasons under Johnson after that, Johnson didn’t get his career record above .500 until his fifth and final season in Dallas, when the Cowboys went 12-4 in 1993 and won their second and last Super Bowl of the Johnson era.
The 49ers haven’t won a Super Bowl under Shanahan (yet?), and I’m in no way saying he’s the next Walsh. But otherwise, the Walsh/Johnson pattern holds up decently: The 49ers were 10-22 in Shanahan’s first two seasons. Since then, they’re 38-24 in the regular season and they’re 42-26 counting the postseason.
And now Shanahan is finally over .500 for his 49ers career. Again, it shouldn’t be a huge deal just as a number — Shanahan and Lynch have never been in trouble with Jed York. They were never on the hot seat. The last thing York wants is another coaching and general manager search, and he knows he’s got it good with these two. But it’s an interesting and appropriate milestone because this is all happening in the middle of Shanahan’s most complete coaching season.
Brock Purdy’s revealing debut as 49ers’ QB1
It’s not just about the QBs, but I’ll point out that Shanahan has lost Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo, his top two QBs going into the season, and so far the 49ers have only gotten stronger. I’ll point out that Shanahan is an offensive-minded guy who loves to set up his defense, which might not always produce the prettiest offensive statistics but sure is appreciated by the 49ers’ defensive personnel. I’ll point out that we all had some question marks about the composition of the offensive line starting this season, but that group is looking better every week.
I’ll point out that this is one of the most mature and stable teams in the NFL, which is exactly how the 49ers can deal with losing multiple QBs for the season and other key players for weeks at a time and adapt to the addition of Christian McCaffrey on the fly and just keep rolling. It’s already been a remarkable season for the 49ers and for Shanahan, and the biggest stuff is coming.
This is what usually happens when a very talented coach hits his prime leadership years. This is right now for Shanahan. All of the puzzle pieces he and Lynch started collecting in 2017 seem to be clicking into place, all of their smartest plans are working out and all of their best improvisations are looking pretty smart. They’ve made some errors along the way, but all management groups do that. None of this is easy. Shanahan and Lynch have built it right, though.
This doesn’t mean that the 49ers are going to win the Super Bowl this season. If they don’t, I’m sure there will be complaints about Shanahan. But he and Lynch have created a winning situation with winning players. And now it’s statistically a winning era, too.
Let’s get back to that QB situation. I’m wondering: Is Purdy an interesting combination of the two guys Shanahan was mulling over when he had the third pick in the 2021 draft — Lance (movement, high character) and Mac Jones (field vision, pocket presence)? Perhaps. I’ll throw in some clear Garoppolo characteristics (quick release, quiet leadership), too.
We’ll see and know more once Purdy plays on the road and gets into bigger spots. He definitely has a physical ceiling. Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen, he is not. But Purdy has already passed some very important initial tests that a one-game wonder like Nick Mullens (in 2018) never really did. As Shanahan said Sunday, Purdy made the plays that were there, made some plays that weren’t there and only made one glaring mistake, an interception that was called back because of a defensive penalty. And then Shanahan called another pass play right after the deleted play, which Purdy fired to Brandon Aiyuk for a touchdown. If you want to impress Shanahan, that’s how you do it.
If you had to boil down what it takes for a QB to fit with Shanahan in one sentence, here it is: Be decisive about the open throws Shanahan schemes up for you, set up your stars, be focused enough that when you go off- scheme it’s not out of control, and don’t screw up by trying to do too much. (Wait, am I writing about Purdy with Shanahan or Jonathan Kuminga with Steve Kerr? Sometimes it all blurs. I don’t think Shanahan and Kerr would disagree with me too much on the blurring, either.)
Since Purdy came into the Miami game after Garoppolo’s injury on Dec. 4 (trailing 7-3), the 49ers have outscored two current playoff teams, Miami and Tampa Bay, 65-17. Purdy has beaten blitzes with perfect reads and accurate throws. He’s scrambled for a TD. He’s made the easy throws. He has been in total control. Shanahan-style control.
And yes, if Purdy keeps playing like this, he probably will go into the offseason with a viable chance to win the full-time starting job in 2023. Obviously, Lance is in that discussion, too. Lance is very talented and cost a ton to acquire. He’s the guy Shanahan picked over Jones. But if Purdy is the best QB for the job, he’s going to get the job.
Brock Purdy plays like a veteran, and now the 49ers have the division title in sight
(Picture: Kyle Terada/USA Today)