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Kyle Shanahan Had Better Hope Christian McCaffrey Is The Answer

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 28: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers walks back to the locker room after Carolina was defeated by Miami 33-10 at Hard Rock Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Eric Espada/Getty Images

Kyle Shanahan won’t let you see it because his faceplate never slips, but he’s kind of panicked right now, which is why he decided to pay what he paid Carolina for Christian McCaffrey, the multi-positional offensive threat, and by multi-positional we mean running back, wide receiver, and injured list. Shanahan, or as he is more commonly known, the San Francisco 49ers, has muscled up to the table and gone all-in yet again for the Super Bowl that always seems so close and yet so far away.

This is Shanahan’s sixth year as the team’s head of everything except sweatshirts and garlic fries, and if you throw out the first two years as the requisite stable-shoveling bad teams must undergo to become good ones, he has been a success. He has steered this team to a Super Bowl and an NFC title game, and has been called a genius so often that Albert Einstein wants to rise from his grave, walk over to Bill Walsh’s grave and say, “What gives?”

But therein lies the conundrum. Shanahan is supposed to have had his parade by now if reputations count, and the fact that he hasn’t means that the locals are starting to turn on him for not being the genius everyone keeps calling him. In addition, he’s taken some mighty odd gambles in the last 18 months, most obviously the trading of several future draft wash-outs (which is what most draft picks end up being) to move up and select the ongoing rumor that is Trey Lance to replace the oddly competent/competently odd Jimmy Garoppolo. That plan required Lance to be brilliant in Year Two and Garoppolo to be a Cleveland Brown, in itself a risky plan, but neither half came off. Garoppolo had shoulder surgery, Shanahan lost his chance to ditch Garoppolo, then decided to make him the new backup to the guy who took his job, and then Lance bifurcated his leg in the first game this year, making Garoppolo the starter again to the great dismay of 49er fans who are ever angry that Garoppolo isn’t Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, or even Geno Smith.

And now, seeing a 3-3 team with a cottage cheese–flavored offense and a defense with injured players stacked up like cordwood outside a North Dakota cabin in winter, Shanahan is wheeling that deal again, trading more future for the right now they hope McCaffrey can be.

Taken alone, each of these decisions has visible potential merit. As a package, they resemble the long-term planning of a drunk man at a casino. Shanahan’s coaching philosophy—score early, grind clock, and let a superior defense do the work—has been jousting with his general managing philosophy—”Seventeen? Screw it! Hit me, darlin’, and can I get another scotch rocks over here?”

Now unless Shanahan’s real goal here is to have Draft Weekend off for a fishing trip, he’s going all-in to repair a plan that Lance was supposed to fix. Chasing money you’ve already lost is how Vegas stopped being Yuma, but Shanahan is now a man who believes either that the window is as open as it’s ever going to be, or thinks that Jed York is not going to be afraid to fire him much longer. One ring may make him bulletproof, but two close calls that missed have only made him seem more vulnerable.

All that is pure silliness, of course. The 49ers lost their Super Bowl because their vaunted defense couldn’t hold the Chiefs in the fourth quarter, which is being held against Shanahan and Garoppolo because that’s what 49er fans do. They lost to the Rams in the NFC title game last year because Jaquiski Tartt dropped an interception late in the game, which is also being held against Shanahan and Garoppolo. This dynamic is known simply as the I Only Know Two Guys So Don’t Confuse Me Paradox. When in doubt, the coach is a moron, and when in further doubt, hate the quarterback, and has been the 49er ethos in place since Walsh clocked out in 1989.

Only now it seems to have come to a head. If McCaffrey gets hurt, as is at least a coin flip given both his and the team’s recent health histories, Shanahan has no more discernible moves to make. If McCaffrey is a difference-maker to the good, the offense that lacks a dynamic passing attack may save itself by being better on the ground than ever. And if the 49ers pull a Super Bowl out of this piefight, then Shanahan the genius coach becomes Shanahan the genius general manager, the guy who went all-in until he finally got pocket bullets and survived the river.

And if not … well, he’s still got three more years on his contract and he can try to fire Garoppolo again this off-season. Eventually, he’ll close that deal.