We learned a new meteorological term Sunday—“bomb cyclone”—which made sitting through the end of Kyle Shanahan’s era of genius almost worth the 182 minutes of shambolic comedy that the bomb cyclone provided. We would neither have known nor cared about bombogenesis, which causes bomb cyclones, if not for the way it took over an otherwise desultory evening of football between two desultory teams, the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers, that had much higher expectations thrust upon them than they clearly deserved. As it turns out, though, meteorology likes to change its language as much as football does, so the storm and Colts-49ers were perfect partners.
In Indianapolis, all is relatively well because the Colts’ shambolic performance still ended up with 30 points and an unexpected win. The 49ers, conversely, have now transitioned fully into a team hated by its fans. Shanahan is now being asked about the proper level of abuse he should be catching, and how much he should re-evaluating, and how much his situation is starting to seem a bit like early-stage Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. A Super Bowl contender before the season (which is actually an oxymoron, but hey, “bomb cyclone” is in play now) is fairly wrecked, and nobody is good any more because a fan base embarrassed is a fan base that wants stuff blown to bits.
It wasn’t that long ago that Shanahan could do no wrong because in NinerWorld, the word “genius” is bestowed on day one and doesn’t change until the moment it becomes “idiot pig.” We are now on IP1, and there is not much chance that it will change any time soon, if at all. The Shanahaniners are 2-4, 33-40 since he became the answer to Chip Kelly, have won one of their last 10 games at Levi’s Stadium and have lost three home games played in Arizona due to COVID rules in Santa Clara. All the contexts of Shanahan’s first two seasons have been wiped out by current public opinion, and he is on the verge of returning the franchise to the worst place it can be: the one that convinces people to hire planes with streamers that castigate club president Jed York. And owners hate being the lede of any story.
Shanahan, though, sounded almost defeated last night as the wreckage was strewn before him. The team with the most pass interference penalties in the league were savaged by them, and four more turnovers puts them squarely in 29th place ahead of only the three most ridiculous teams in football, the Jets, Jaguars, and Chiefs. Wait, the Chiefs? What the hell?
But what the hell indeed. The 49ers stink right now, and players are going to Stage Two of the Dance of Denial: “We’re a lot better than we’ve shown.” Yet to quote a crusty old barnacle named Parcells, they are actually what their record says they are—a team that doesn’t score very much, and is good if you’re trying to run the ball but ridiculously bad if you’re trying to throw it. They’ve had injuries, but not nearly at the rate of last year when their 6-10 record might actually have been better than they were.
Mostly, though, Shanahan sounded a lot like Solskjaer did after Man U was stripped naked and tossed into a freezing lake by Liverpool, like a man who says he has to work on answers nobody is really sure he has. The general feeling among the Man U jackal class is that Solskjaer is a very nice guy who probably needs a new gig. He has already become the most pitiable object of all—the fired coach who just hasn’t been fired.
Nobody is there yet with Shanahan because football coaches on this side of the ditch tend to go into one of two categories—successful despot or failed despot. But the cutlery is being prepared, and a seemingly winnable game against Chicago is now the only thing keeping the 49ers from being 2-7, as the two after that are against the Cardinals and Rams.
See how quickly we did that? From Super Bowl contender to a 195-to-1 shot to be a playoff team. Shanahan’s time is suddenly looking shorter rather than longer even though his contract is looking longer and longer with every passing day (through 2025, if it helps). York has eaten contracts before, in fact every time except when he and Jim Harbaugh parted ways because they hated each other.
And part of the proof of Shanahan’s new place is the way he is being folded into this team’s miserable recent history. And yes, miserable it is—156-186 and six playoff appearances since 2000. Two of those were failed Super Bowl attempts, the last when Shanahan was still considered a slightly less professorial version of Bill Walsh. No more. The smartest kid in the room is now puzzling over tests, and the popular argument that was “When will he get rid of Jimmy Garoppolo and replace him with Trey Lance?” has morphed an addendum that reads “And what if Lance isn’t any good either?” When folks take their criticism to second-level places, you’ve got issues. And when you have to cop to them yourself in post-game pressers, you are heading for Ole territory.
Kyle Shanahan isn’t there yet, and those four more years make a nice cushion against pre-panic, but parades once formed rarely get canceled, not even for bomb cyclones. The only thing that happens is that people get really wet waiting for the float to arrive.