The 49ers brass has made it clear that they entered the 2021 season hoping that returning a large portion of their core from their Super Bowl run would produce a similar result to the fantastic season the team had in 2019. The problem with that was, no matter how many players were brought back, a large portion of the coaching staff has moved on, and as such, a key ingredient in the recipe for success was never going to be a part of the equation in 2021.
While the 49ers have really only had ONE season of objective success since Kyle Shanahan took over, there was a clear desire from teams around the league to poach some of the talent that had been amassed among the 49ers staff. The most notable departure was likely former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who left San Francisco to become the head coach of the New York Jets.
I personally think that Saleh’s replacement DeMeco Ryans has done an adequate job considering it his first year as a defensive coordinator, but the dropoff from Saleh is still evident. The 49ers posted top 5 defenses in both of Saleh’s last two seasons, and his ability to bring a certain level of vigor and passion on the sideline has been more complex to replace than the production of the defense he used to be in charge of.
But beyond Saleh, there have been a handful of assistants whose handprints were all over the success that was had in 2019 who no longer hold positions within the 49ers organization, and that turnover has played a major role in the inability to replicate the success that had been found under their watch. It should be noted that not all of these losses fall on the 49ers, as their success led to promotions for staff members.
The most underrated of these losses, in my opinion, is Joe Woods, who is currently the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, having prior served as the defensive passing game coordinator in San Francisco, playing a major role in the 49ers finishing 2019 as the #1 passing defense in the NFL.
Woods also held the role of defensive backs coach, where he oversaw a unit that never had anywhere near the number of discipline issues that have plagued the team this year, despite essentially overseeing the same secondary that’s starting in 2021 (four out of the five starters this year started in 2019). The Browns are currently a top 10 passing defense, too, for what it’s worth, pointing to Woods’s success with the 49ers not being a fluke despite there only being a single season sample size.
In 2019, Kyle Shanahan had two key assistants fill the void of a traditional offensive coordinator role. Mike LaFleur was the passing game coordinator, and Mike McDaniel was the running game coordinator. This allowed both the flexibility to work with various position groups on offense without being significantly overwhelmed with the normal workload of a singular coordinator.
LaFleur joined Saleh in New York as his offensive coordinator, and McDaniel was promoted to offensive coordinator in San Francisco. However, I do wonder how much the lack of LaFleur and the elevated role of McDaniel has played in the 49ers’ offensive struggles this season, despite Kyle Shanahan being the play-caller throughout his tenure.
Quarterbacks coach Shane Day is also another departure. After spending the 2019 and 2020 seasons in that role for the 49ers, Day is now holding that same position in Los Angeles for the Chargers, where he is working closely with the uber-talented Justin Herbert. His replacement is a familiar face in Rich Scangarello, but the quarterbacks’ success under Day is hard to ignore.
Another difficult loss has been linebackers coach Johnny Holland, who is away from the team as he deals with some health concerns. Holland had been an assistant in San Francisco since 2017, working closely with the linebackers and the run game during Shanahan’s tenure as head coach.
Ultimately I don’t think this coaching turnover is the only reason the 49ers have fallen significantly short of expectations so far, but I do think it’s something that hasn’t been talked about nearly enough. This kind of turnover will almost assuredly be synonymous with any kind of sustained success the 49ers might have. The 49ers need to find a way to adequately fill these positions if and when they can consistently string together a period of objective success.