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Rams-49ers: Sean McVay can deal crushing blow to Kyle Shanahan on Monday

San Francisco’s head coach is mired in yet another slump, so what keeps his job safe for another season?

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

His record is 32-40. His offenses have ranked 18th or worse in four of his five campaigns. He’s lost 10 or more games in three of his four previous seasons. And he also inherited a 2-14 roster but coached the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in his third year as a head coach.

Kyle Shanahan was considered the darling of the 2017 coaching candidates, much more so than former Washington colleague Sean McVay, despite regularly receiving criticism from the media during his first eight seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator because of the narrative that his career was a clear example of nepotism.

That all changed in 2016 when things clicked for quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons led the league in scoring. These are Ryan’s 2016 stats with Shanahan as OC and his career average in parentheses:

69.9% completions (65.5%), 4,944 yards (4,353), 38 TD (27), 7 INT (12), 9.3 Y/A (7.5), 117.1 passer rating (94.5), 9.03 Adjusted Net Y/A (6.74)

As you can see, 2016 is an anomaly season for Ryan, and of course those career stats are lifted by his MVP season with Shanahan. In 2017, with most of the same personnel, Ryan went right back down to his pre-2016 production.

In San Francisco, 49ers showed immediate improvement with Shanahan, going from 27th in scoring, 30th in yards, 29th in NY/A, and 32nd in time of possession in 2016 to 20th in scoring, 12th in yards, 16th in NY/A, and 20th in TOP in 2017. That improvement was largely thanks to the upgrade at quarterback that they received from a midseason trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, which bumped their 1-10 record to 6-10 by year’s end.

Garoppolo’s presence also helped the 49ers reach the Super Bowl in 2019, and in Shanahan’s third season at the helm, San Francisco ranked second in scoring, third in net yards per pass attempt, second in rushing yards, and the defense was even more dominant than the offense. However, as 2016 was an anomaly for Matt Ryan, it was a bit of a Shanahanomaly for the coach too.

In 14 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Shanahan’s offenses have ranked 17th or worse in scoring 10 times. Only the 2009 Texans, 2012 Washington, 2016 Falcons, and 2019 49ers ranked in the top-10 in points, while eight of Shanahan’s offenses have ranked 20th or worse. And while Shanahan’s offenses regularly gain good chunks of yards through the air, his quarterbacks have no less struggled to find the end zone as well as they find turnovers:

(Passing rankings under Shanahan, 2021 49ers highlighted)

And though Shanahan and Garoppolo did reach the Super Bowl less than two years ago, there might also have been 20 or more other quarterbacks in the NFL who could have done the same for San Francisco that season. Many of them would have won the Super Bowl and ultimately the decision to trade for Garoppolo could be the one that haunts Shanahan and general manager John Lynch the most when looking back at the missed opportunities of the last four seasons.

There’s no need to rehash the details of other quarterbacks who the 49ers could have drafted, signed, or traded for, because we’ve heard it all before and alternate universes are pointless to examine, but we’ve seen what Shanahan does with decent quarterback play. We haven’t seen what he can do in San Francisco with really good-to-great quarterback play.

It’s the same situation that the LA Rams found themselves addressing with the trade for Matthew Stafford in January. The 49ers went a slightly different route by trading even more draft capital to acquire third overall pick Trey Lance several months later. And while it would still be surprising to see anyone but Shanahan overseeing the development of Lance and the perennial rebuilding of the Niners in 2022, San Francisco is enduring another stretch of losses that must be driving ownership and many fans to the limits.

Following a 2-0 start with far too narrow wins over the Lions and Eagles (those teams are a combined 3-14, with all three wins belonging to Philadelphia, one of which is over Detroit), the 49ers have lost five of their last six games.

At one point last season, Kyle Shanahan lost six of seven. In 2017, the Niners started 1-10. In 2018, the Niners started 2-10, at one point losing six in a row.

In previous years, much of the blame could be laid on the absence of Garoppolo, but in 2021, the problem is more about his presence.

Jimmy Garoppolo is a perfect example of being a statistical fallacy—a mirage created by stats we used to think were good in the 2000s but are no longer acceptable in 2021.

You could argue that a quarterback who completes 65 percent of his passes with 8.2 Y/A, a 93.5 passer rating, and not too many interceptions is often good enough. But that may have only been the case 8-10 years ago. A 93.5 passer rating doesn’t even rank in the top-16 anymore.

And Garoppolo has only thrown eight touchdowns in seven games—those types of scoring numbers don’t even fly within the last 20 years of the NFL.

One of the most important tenets of football is the most simple one of all: touchdowns matter. I’ve seen fans argue in favor of countless quarterbacks for being “good” or “serviceable” based on protecting the football, completing a high percentage of passes (Marcus Mariota is one example, Sam Bradford is one more familiar to Rams fans) and that may be true to some degree—if you also have above-average to great players at nearly every other position.

A mediocre-to-bad quarterback creates a razor thin margin of error everywhere else on the field. When I saw Garoppolo and Lance in training camp in August, it was remarkable how close the quarterback competition was between a raw developmental project out of North Dakota State who had played in one game in 2020 and an eight-year veteran who played in the Super Bowl that same year.

The value of a great quarterback is that he elevates all those around him. The downside to a “good” quarterback is that you have to work that much harder to put superior talents around him. The 49ers have actually done an amazing job of that in the last several years—George Kittle, Trent Williams, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and now Elijah Mitchell—and yet the offense is 30th in third down conversion rate, 18th in scoring, 27th in plays per drive, and 19th in passing touchdowns; San Francisco makes up for that by ranking sixth in rushing touchdowns, but that goodwill is erased by mistakes.

The 49ers rank 27th in turnovers, 30th in fumbles, including five by Garoppolo.

It is also true that San Francisco’s injury concerns stretch well beyond Garoppolo but that excuse doesn’t play as well as it used to: Garoppolo is healthy enough, Samuel and Aiyuk haven’t missed a game, Nick Bosa is healthy, Trent Williams has played in all but one game, and the offense has been no more potent during Kittle’s five appearances.

The main reason we will likely see more of Kyle Shanahan in 2022 is that the 49ers already believe that they have their quarterback of the future on the roster, thereby eliminating a need to fill next year. And that’s important because San Francisco won’t have a first round pick again until 2024.

Whether it eventually clicks for Garoppolo this season or Lance in 2022 is the determining factor for Shanahan’s coaching future, but a loss to the Rams on Monday Night Football will surely sting for him and also be a pivotal victory for Sean McVay.

NFL: SEP 21 Rams at 49ers Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As is well covered, the Rams have lost four in a row to the 49ers, making McVay’s 3-1 start against Shanahan (scoring at least 39 in all three wins, and the loss was with Week 17 backups) seem almost a distant memory. The fact that LA was a top-ranked scoring team in those seasons and is again a top-ranked scoring team with Matthew Stafford at the helm, is encouraging.

However, it’s an even bigger moment for Shanahan, as a win over the 7-2 Rams would buy him slack at a time when he must be feeling pressure to do something positive over a team that has mostly played great. Shanahan is 0-3 against the NFC West this season, after going 1-5 in each of his first two years, 5-1 in 2019, and 3-3 in 2020. That’s an overall divisional record of 10-17, with half of those wins coming in a single campaign.

McVay can make it 0-4 this year—or he’ll leave Shahanan’s door open longer than he should.