November 28, 2021

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The Sports Fanatics

NFL insider notes: Time running out for Kyle Shanahan, 49ers; Justin Fields showcases elite potential, more

The San Francisco 49ers are not who people thought they would be. And probing questions are being asked of the head coach. For good reason.

The Kyle Shanahan regime is not halfway through its fifth season, and, alas, things are not going well. It’s, frankly, looking far too much like Year 1, or Year 2, only he’s not the youngest head coach in the NFL anymore and the feeling-out process is long in the past. The adjustment phase ended years ago. And, to this point, that wistful season of 2019 — with the 13-3 record and the Super Bowl loss — feels like an awful long time ago.

The defense has been horrible, and trending decidedly in the wrong direction since Shanahan (make no mistake — he has been and always will be running the show there until/unless he’s fired) decided not to make stud interior defensive lineman DeForest Buckner a $20M/year man. The run game is a shell of what it used to be. The pop-gun offense isn’t scaring anyone. All of their elaborate smokescreens and spy-novel levels of offseason intrigue about which quarterback they were mortgaging their future to move up and draft seems a little too cute, especially since Trey Lance has barely played for the sputtering outfit. And what seems to be resonating most loudly in the Bay Area right now is Shanahan’s 32-44 career record (.444) and the fact he is 9-15 since the 49ers blew their lead to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

Ultimately, you are what your record says you are. And that ain’t good. And no amount of play-calling wizardry can change that overnight. This ain’t a post-Super Bowl hangover. This isn’t a blip. That’s a nearly 25-game sample size since the big collapse against KC, and, well, the 24 games preceding that glorious 2019 season weren’t special, either (10-14).

The reality here is that roughly a third of Shanahan’s wins (10) came in September-November of 2019, and we can point to quarterback play and injuries and whatever other mitigating factors you want to include, but keep in mind all of those players (and bad quarterbacks) were there in the first place because Shanahan wanted them there. Again, this is his show. GM John Lynch was a curious choice at the time — coming straight out of the broadcast booth — and he was there at Shanahan’s behest. No revisionist history here.

Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals (backup quarterback included) was not professional grade, and they have allowed 83 points in three games since their bye and don’t have much to rely on on offensive, either. Sunday’s effort looked like a team in distress, turning what could have been a reboot to their season into the greatest SOS to date. It was inexcusable. They continually put on dire displays at home. And the second-half schedule doesn’t appear to be especially kind on paper, either.

Owner Jed York already doubled down on this management team by extending their already lengthy deals by another six years in 2020. His offense has never finished above 18th in points during his time there save for the magical 2019 ride (second), they’ve been a middling team running the ball the last two years, and one would think Shanahan would turn his focus decidedly to developing Lance ASAP.

It’s pretty clear if they have any chance of salvaging this season, Shanahan is going to have conjure his offense to much higher heights. If he is, indeed, a wizard with the play sheet and quarterbacks, well, now would be the ideal time to show it. Because time is running out on another 49ers season, they are clearly the most disappointing team in the NFL (Miami was always fools gold), and this wreaks of the kind of six-win campaigns that have come all too frequently in San Francisco.

It’s still very early for the quarterback class of 2021, but I’m not sure how any impartial observer can watch them all play and not conclude that Justin Fields has the chance to be the most special of the bunch.

Mac Jones is the steadiest and the safest and his floor is not too deep; but he doesn’t have the transcendent talent Fields possesses, either. Each week you can see Fields grow and adapt and advance, even despite some of the major offensive line and coaching issues around him. He made five plays at Pittsburgh on Monday night that maybe a half dozen quarterbacks in this league can make, and he is only getting started.

By the end of the season, if the Bears are in the market for a new coach and GM, you will see candidates swooning and begging to get an audience. Yeah, it’s been a long time since the Bears were annual challengers, but it’s been the entire long and storied history of the franchise since they have had anything close to a quarterback with this skillset on the roster. I wouldn’t rule out a rookie of the year campaign, even with a late and rocky start.

Steelers’ passing woes, Bills’ O-line, Brady’s MVP chances

The Steelers have righted their season, for sure, but the scope of the passing game remains very pedestrian at best, the offensive line is still very much a work in progress, and I have a hard time seeing them do serious damage in January, though they have as good a chance to get there as anyone in a wide-open AFC … Spoke to some execs early in the season who faced the Bills and believed their offensive line had regressed and was going to be a big problem. Turns out they were correct. Very difficult to sort something like that out when at any given time four of your five offensive linemen might be struggling … Of all of his accomplishments, where would Tom Brady winning an MVP at damn near 45 years old rank? Has to be way up there, right? I’d have him and Lamar Jackson as my favorites at the midpoint of the season, and if Brady finishes this season anything close to the way he closed out 2020, he might be adding more hardware to his overflowing shelves.