SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For the first three years of his tenure as the San Francisco 49ers head coach, Kyle Shanahan maintained a surprising amount of coaching staff continuity. Changes were few and far between.
In 2021, though, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh departed to become the head coach of the New York Jets, taking a handful of Niners assistants with him. The Niners had 13 coaches who were either new or carried a different title than in 2020. That theme carried into this offseason, when the Niners’ coaching staff went through its largest makeover since Shanahan took over, with 14 coaches who are either new or have has different responsibilities than last season.
Included in those departing were offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel — the longtime Shanahan lieutenant and run-game architect who became head coach of the Miami Dolphins — running back whisperer Bobby Turner (who is taking the year off to tend to some health issues) and assistant head coach Jon Embree (also joining the Dolphins). San Francisco lost every offensive position coach except Chris Foerster, who handles the offensive line and added run-game coordinator to his duties.
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“It was tough,” Shanahan said. “It threw me off a little bit. When the season ends, you want to get away and just completely check out, but it’s tough when you lose some coaches. You’ve got to kind of work at that, and it was a little stressful at first because you lose so many guys that you’re used to working with, guys that are your friends and also guys that you’ve depended on for a while. .”
San Francisco’s “brain drain” is one of the biggest issues facing the team as it heads toward next season. But Shanahan has earned some benefit of the doubt in his ability to identify and develop coaching talent. Saleh and McDaniel were first-time coordinators who have gone on to head-coaching positions and current defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is likely next.
The changes this offseason were so significant, Shanahan and staff did something they’d never done before: They skipped the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The objective was to get new staff members up to speed on the scheme and the fundamentals required to teach it but also to dive into free-agent and draft prospects with a knowledge of what is needed at each position.
None of Shanahan’s new hires raised more eyebrows than new quarterbacks coach Brian Griese, who is in his first year coaching at any level and charged with preparing second-year quarterback Trey Lance.
Griese played 11 NFL seasons at quarterback, including five for Shanahan’s father, Mike, with the Denver Broncos, and two years while Kyle Shanahan was as an offensive assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello left to be the University of Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, Shanahan heard through friends in Denver that Griese was interested in the job.
After working two years on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, Griese told Shanahan he was serious about leaving the booth to become a coach. Shanahan interviewed multiple candidates but liked the prospect of bringing in someone with a fresh perspective who can help Lance with all facets of the position. With the likes of passing-game coordinator Bobby Slowik and assistant quarterbacks coach Klay Kubiak helping, Shanahan wasn’t worried about having a coaching neophyte guiding the franchise’s most important player.
Shanahan said jokingly he doesn’t understand why “TV announcers want to come coach or GM. They seem like they’ve got a pretty good gig. But [Griese] has a huge passion for football. I was able to work with Griese for two years in Tampa. I personally think he was the smartest football player I’ve ever been around. The way he prepared, how organized he was. He was as detailed a guy as I’ve ever been around. I thought it was kind of you could bring something different to the quarterback position.”
There will undoubtedly be a learning curve for coaches as they adapt to their new jobs. Likewise, players will also need some time to adjust to all the new faces surrounding them. Close relationships, like the one Embree had with tight end George Kittle or the bond between McDaniel and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, can’t be conjured overnight.
To help with all of it, the Niners took a page from Bill Walsh, who recorded every meeting his coaches led. It’s something the Niners have done under Shanahan, and it has served as a valuable tool in helping the revamped staff catch up. The hope is the new additions will get an idea of how Shanahan wants things done without robbing them of adding their personality into those meeting rooms.
Eventually, that should lead to well-rounded coaches capable of taking the next step up.
“It’s a lot easier to show a new coach, ‘Hey, this is how we do our install, this is how we have been coaching this specific position,'” 49ers CEO Jed York said. “And it just makes it so much easier to onboard. … I think Kyle gives you an opportunity to learn and grow as a coach. … It’s a good culture, and I think it’s a culture that people who want to continue to advance their career or restart their career, it’s a great place to come.”
Being a pipeline into the highest-profile coaching jobs brings the double-edged sword of making it easier for Shanahan to hire good, experienced coaches, such as new assistant head coach Anthony Lynn, but also makes his phone number the most desired digits this side of the Powerball.
“That’s why I try to change my phone number all the time, because it’s hard,” Shanahan said. “But it’s stuff you’ve got to do and you try to find the right guys, and it’s not just who is the best guy, it’s who fits with your staff the best, who fits in that role. And there’s lots of different avenues to go through, but I feel good about where we’re at.”