The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most dysfunctional, desperate and distressed franchises in the NFL, and the only thing standing between them and the Cleveland Browns is whether Kyle Shanahan agrees to take their head coaching job. That is the precipice upon which this once-great franchise is perched, and that is how close the 49ers are to falling even deeper into the NFL abyss than their recent failures with Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly have already taken them.
Make no mistake, this football club has been reduced to the vast outskirts of NFL relevance, their GM and coaching openings openly walked away from by varied candidates and their ability to land Shanahan -- one of the few true "it" guys of this hiring cycle -- the only thing preventing them from falling further into a deep spiral. Should Shanahan spurn them next week, when he has agreed to a second interview with the 49ers whether his Falcons win or lose the NFC Championship Game, this will be a complete cluster, an NFL team reduced to restarting a search for coach and general manager in late January during the Senior Bowl. It will be about as far removed from the Eddie DeBartolo and Bill Walsh 49ers as possible. If it comes to that, they should probably go ahead and change the team's nickname. Any vestiges with the past will no longer apply.
Of course, if you read some of the local media, or let the 49ers brass try to spin you, they would sell a yarn about how Shanahan best not push too hard or ask for too much, or overplay his hand, lest they go in another direction. They would talk about how there are only 32 of these jobs and none other available this winter and about how the 49ers could find no shortage of assistant coaches who would do whatever it takes to run a team. But that would be ignoring facts like "candidates" like Tom Cable pulling out of contention for their coaching opening, and the perception that the 49ers franchise has become something akin to Chernobyl to the coaching community. Or the problem that the roster has not a single discernible strength at any position group except perhaps defensive line, and that might still be a stretch. It would ignore the leaks and cliques and alliances that have resulted in this franchise's woeful state, save for the first three seasons of Jim Harbaugh's regime, which now looks like the ultimate anomaly in San Francisco.
Jed York and his most trusted exec, Paraag Marathe (remember when he was cast out of NFL duties, allegedly, a year ago?) can pretend as if their latest misadventure into the coaching and GM woods has gone according to plan, and that they fully expected all along to be the last NFL team without a coach or general manager. But we all know that would be duplicitous at best. This job remains unfilled because it is anything but something top qualified candidates want (Josh McDaniels was super smart to flee), and if they manage to land Shanahan in the end it will be because they have sold him, and not vice versa.
It's important to consider how the 49ers reached this point. They only hired Tomsula two years ago because no one else wanted him and by that point no one else wanted the 49ers. Sorry, but you don't try to dictate staff to Adam Gase. They only hired Kelly a year ago because no one else of merit wanted the 49ers and no other team had any interest in Kelly, resulting in the ultimate marriage of convenience and desperation. And now they find themselves in this predicament again precisely because of the trepidation that qualified candidates have to remotely hitch their wagon to the York/Marathe nexus of futility.
That's the reality here. I'm just keeping it real.
So, given this situation in which this is the only open job, and Shanahan is the lone desirable candidate, what should the offensive master-schemer do? While the 49ers are in a no-win situation should Shanahan say no, Shanahan himself is in a win-win. At 37, with a gifted and explosive offense in Atlanta playing in a climate-controlled dome and against the defensively inept NFC South, he will only be even better positioned for head coaching jobs a year from now. He is a master play caller and game planner, and in a league where finding someone to detect and cultivate a quarterback trumps all, Shanahan is in a master class in that regard.
He could stay in Atlanta and have five more head coaching interviews a year from now. He can pick and choose and call his shots. Meantime, if he turns them down, the 49ers will be scrambling even more than usual. York will be even more of an outcast among his fan base. The tumult would be palpable.
But of course there are reasons for Shanahan to take the job, as well. It is a total blank slate, with the 49ers also trying to rebuild their football operations. And they'll run names and possibilities by Shanahan next week. They have the second pick in each round of the draft and even if they won, say, four or five games next season, that would be an accomplishment. When all you do is lose games and fire coaches, there is literally no place to go but up.
Shanahan should be able to command significant control over the roster and, if it doesn't go well in San Francisco, well, the 49ers are the new Raiders -- no one wins there, ownership is twisted and losing there can't really be held against a coach. It's all graded on a curve. Shanahan could leave if it doesn't work, get any offensive coordinator job that's open and quickly be back on the head coaching circuit. The turnaround for him would be short and sweet.
And if he does manage to be the guy who gets the 49ers back anywhere close to the elite of the NFL, well, then Shanahan would be a rock star. He would be a wunderkind coach with the Bay Area in the palm of his hand -- remember, by the time the 49ers turn it around, assuming they ever do turn it around, the Raiders will be playing in Las Vegas. And given the fact Shanahan has been around the coaching game his entire life, and given how deep his competitive fires burn, he will have a distinct motivation to take on the significant task that the 49ers entail.
So, we're about to find out if this is in fact rock bottom for the 49ers, or if the nadir is still to come. We're about to find out if York can finally land a coach worthy of what this job used to connote, or if he is about to embark on yet another wild goose chase should Shanahan tell him, no thank you. The greater reality is that anything less than approaching Shanahan on wounded knee would be a mistake, and the danger for the 49ers missing out on this coach far outweighs the necessity on this particular coach to take this particular job.
It really is all or nothing for the 49ers at this point. And they know it. And the entire NFL knows it. It's time to do whatever it takes to get a uniquely qualified coach to say yes to the 49ers. Because the opportunity cost of turning down this job has proven to be minimal, and the jobs open a year from now stand to be considerably more attractive.
In the end, I believe this gets done, since it really has to get done from the team's standpoint, and if it doesn't then the fingers should only be pointed in the direction of Santa Clara, where the losses come in bunches and the press conferences with the owner are generally more interesting and explosive than the product on the field.