“That was bad. I’m showing my immaturity.”
Kyle Shanahan said this Wednesday as he grabbed at the podium microphone as if he could mute it and flashed a pained look to the 49ers’ public relations director, Bob Lange, a few feet off stage.
Shanahan just had become the first 49ers head coach in recent memory to curse on camera when, while fending off questions about who would start Sunday, he said, “I don’t mean to be a d--- …”
Reaction on social media was swift and absolute:
“I love this guy more every day,” gushed a mother of five in a reaction to the video of Shanahan’s slip.
“Just a down to earth guy who actually smiles and knows what he’s doing,” wrote another.
And another: “It’s about time a non robot showed up in the NFL.”
The last comment is an interesting one. If there was one critique about Shanahan as he took over the 49ers in February it was that he was too detached and too cold to effectively lead 53 men and be the face of a franchise.
An NFL season, especially a rough one, tends to strip a head coach bare, revealing his true personality and all of his flaws. The team’s last six coaches have had this occur, some more quickly than others.
Dennis Erickson, 2003-04 – The avuncular Erickson cared deeply about his players, which should be the top criterion of any coach on any level. After tough losses, Terrell Owens would seethe at his locker. He was like a bomb about to explode and no one dared approach him except Erickson, who would gently try to pacify the mercurial star.
If most NFL coaches are wound too tight, Erickson had the opposite flaw. He couldn’t assemble a crack coaching staff; most assistants were his buddies from Oregon State. And after he became entangled in the worst salary-cap situation in team history – he lost Owens and every other star player – he had no answers. His response following each loss, one more horrific than the last: “Heck, I thought Jeff (Ulbrich) and Derek (Smith) played their butts off.”
Mike Nolan, 2005-08 – While Erickson only could assemble college coaching buddies, Nolan surrounded himself with talent, which speaks to how highly he was perceived by his brethren. Nolan was smart, driven, good-looking – just ask him! – and was very good at identifying tough guys, which led to the 49ers’ success in ensuing seasons.
He, too, was dealt a bad hand – zero continuity on offense because his coordinators kept getting hired as head coaches. How Nolan reacted revealed his flaw. The feistiness that served him well as head coach worked against him when picked a no-win battle with his young quarterback, Alex Smith, who was gutting it out through a major shoulder injury. Nolan came out of it looking like the lesser man.
Mike Singletary, 2008-10 – No one could command a room like Singletary, and his Knute Rockne-like speeches and booming orator’s voice sent chills down a listener’s spine. But there was no X’s and O’s foundation to prop up Singletary’s words and they quickly began to sound hollow.
Jim Harbaugh, 2011-14 – He had the requisite oversize personality, the acumen and the eye for talent. Compared with Shanahan, Harbaugh was far more popular at this stage of his inaugural season – remember, “Who’s got it better than us?”; remember the blue work shirts he passed out?
The problem is that Harbaugh never shut off. He didn’t understand nuance. He would be charming one day, prickly the next with both personalities set to full blast. Whether the 49ers should have lived with the flaws of a highly successful coach, a refrain from fans and critics alike, is an absolutely fair question. But there’s no debate that Harbaugh made things more difficult than they needed to be.
Jim Tomsula, 2015 – He was the anti-Harbaugh: caring, compassionate and warm, and he was extra careful not to push his players too hard. But Tomsula was overmatched and unready, something that was obvious the first time he took the stage as head coach. The 49ers thought Tomsula’s halting, Columbo-esque style would be endearing. Instead it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing.
Chip Kelly, 2016 – He was the smartest and sharpest of his four predecessors. And he navigated the thorny Colin Kaepernick anthem issue more deftly than any of them could have.
But San Francisco 49ers Chip Kelly began his tenure in a struggle with Philadelphia Eagles Chip Kelly, who had been branded as a control freak who got rid of troublesome players. In San Francisco, Kelly tried to establish himself as a player-friendly coach (he did) and tried to stay out of personnel matters (he did). The problem was that his personnel stunk and, furthermore, was a poor fit for his system. He and general manager Trent Baalke were a mismatch that was doomed from the beginning. Their pairing ended up delaying the 49ers’ do-over for a year.
Which brings us to Shanahan.
Warnings that he would be robotic, controlling and arrogant have not come to pass. Instead, he’s come off as confident, hip – a D.J. plays music, mostly hip-hop, on full blast during every practice – genuine and funny. He laughed his way through his Wednesday gaffe and had general manager John Lynch laughing about the episode later. He turned a blunder into a win.
You’d think the son of a long-time NFL head coach would carefully guard his privacy. Chip Kelly, for example, never granted one-on-one interviews when he was the 49ers head coach. Shanahan has had several and has been an open book. He literally has bared the biggest scars of his life.
Which is to say, Shanahan is off to a good start. At this stage, observers already suspected Tomsula was in over his head and Singletary already had ticked off key members of squad with his rough, throwback-style practices.
Of course, it’s very early. Shanahan has been on the job for seven months. His demeanor is likely to take on a new tone as the regular season begins and the stakes get higher. We’ve already seen him start to withdraw as the team prepares for its Week 1 opener – it’s what prompted his blooper on Wednesday.
What is Kyle Shanahan’s flaw? No one knows yet, but one thing is certain: The NFL will reveal it.