Kawakami: How Kyle Shanahan builds his 49ers coaching staff and braces for more assistants getting hired away

It all seems so inevitable now that Mike McDaniel is winning games and wisecracking his way through Dolphins pressers, but nobody really knew what was going to happen when Kyle Shanahan bumped McDaniel’s 49ers title up to offensive coordinator for the 2021 season and triggered weekly trips to the podium for the longtime lieutenant with the deadpan humor.

There was no doubt that McDaniel, for years one of Shanahan’s closest associates, could handle every schematic question and explain details of the 49ers’ offense more thoroughly than anyone except Shanahan. But McDaniel also is a dramatic departure from the normal public NFL coaching personality, which mostly trends towards high decibels and lower informational calories. The Yale-educated McDaniel, now in his first season as the Dolphins’ head coach, is a free spirit more than happy to run through the full depth of a play design or go on a pop-culture riff or sometimes both things simultaneously.

Again, it all seems so inevitable and charming now that McDaniel is flourishing in Miami, running the most explosive offense in the NFL and bringing his 8-3 team to face the 49ers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. But it wasn’t inevitable in 2021 when McDaniel started doing those OC pressers.

“I never knew how he would do in those press conferences,” Shanahan recalled on Wednesday. “Oh how he’d come off. That’s how he is all the time to us, even a little bit worse, probably. And it’s an acquired taste sometimes or sometimes it throws people off a little bit. But I thought he put it together real good and in a funny way and was always entertaining in those press conferences.”

Shanahan, of course, occasionally flashes some deadpan humor himself, which he was doing with that answer. But one larger point here is that these regular podium moments can hurt potential head-coaching candidates if they don’t look and sound the part… or they can be so unique that they intrigue an owner or two.

I asked Shanahan: Do you think those pressers, which got national play every time McDaniel landed a joke, gave an intricate response or made an interesting facial gesture, helped McDaniel get the Dolphins job?

“You’d have to ask their owner, ’cause each lemonade stand’s different, is kind of how I see it,” Shanahan said. “They run it however they want. I bet it did. Because it seemed like they liked him; obviously, they hired him. So I’m sure they didn’t dislike it. But that’s Mike’s personality.”

As McDaniel got more and more famous last season and the 49ers fought their way to the NFC Championship Game, Shanahan had to realize that he might be losing his OC soon. He’s getting used to it. In previous years, Shanahan’s original defensive coordinator Robert Saleh left to take the top job with the Jets and took offensive assistant Mike LaFleur and offensive line coach John Benton with him; when McDaniel left last February, he brought along former 49ers assistants Jon Embree and Wes Welker. It seems very likely that current DC DeMeco Ryans, who started with the 49ers as Saleh’s quality control coach, will get a top job this coming offseason and probably will want to take a few current staff members with him.

So these days, Shanahan isn’t just coaching this team and managing his staff, he also has to have an idea about how he’s going to replace some or all of these guys in future years. He’s taken more defensive positioning in the recent past — he’s blocked some assistants from leaving to take jobs that weren’t play-calling roles. It might’ve created some temporary hard feelings, but Shanahan said he had to do what was best for the 49ers. But when it’s a clear promotion, Shanahan has never stood in the way of the departures (and NFL rules prohibit it, anyway).

Knowing all this, Shanahan has to groom position and quality-control assistants to become coordinators and then groom others behind them to replace the coordinators when and if they leave for head-coaching jobs.

“I’ve gotten more aware of it the last few years,” Shanahan said. “Mike (McDaniel) was always the easiest, because he was the first guy I was ever with when I was a receivers coach at 26 (with Washington). He was the (quality control coach), but they put him in my room. So wherever I went, except a couple of years he was out (of the NFL), he was always my assistant. So you’re always grooming him and working on things together. Then the guy he replaced (in Washington) was Matt LaFleur (now the head coach of the Packers), got a couple years with him, got one with Sean (McVay), then Matt’s brother Mike. So you’ve always got those guys you’re grooming.

“Then when I came here, I thought I had some guys that were younger, that weren’t going to get taken for a while. But it seemed to happen a lot faster than I expected.”

Mike McDaniel returns to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday as head coach of the 8-3 Dolphins to face his old boss. (Jasen Vinlove/USA Today)

There definitely has been a big staff turnover in the six Shanahan seasons. Only four current 49ers assistants are still around from Shanahan’s start in 2017: Ryans, current passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik, linebackers coach Johnny Holland and current safeties coach Daniel Bullocks.

Due to Shanahan’s reputation as an offensive mind and the group of respected head coaches — McVay, LaFleur and McDaniel — who worked and learned under him, the 49ers’ offensive staff is always likely to get poached. These days, Shanahan’s key offensive assistants include Slowik, offensive line/run-game coordinator Chris Foerster, assistant head coach/running backs Anthony Lynn, first-year quarterbacks coach Brian Griese, assistant QB coach Klay Kubiak and tight ends coach Brian Fleury.

“It’s always what I’m thinking about,” Shanahan said of staff regeneration. “You never know when it’s going to happen, especially when our defense has success, who (the departing coaches are) going to try to take with them. We’re always trying to get some guys in here that you can groom, that you can teach. It’s not just about teaching it, but guys also need to go through some stuff with you, too, which makes them the most prepared.

“Started doing that a while ago. I moved Bobby Slowik over to offense when he was on defense. Moved Brian Fleury a number of years ago. He was a D-line coach when I was in Cleveland. Saw him, brought him in to be a QC from Miami. And then I thought he had the potential to really help us on offense, so I moved him there about four years ago, I think. (And then brought in) Klay Kubiak this offseason… It’s something that came up pretty fast in our first few years here, and it’s something I’m always thinking about.”

Clearly, when you lose this many talented coaches, there’s always going to be the potential of losing the brainpower that got this thing going. Shanahan probably will never be able to duplicate the history and symmetry he had with McDaniel and LaFleur going back to their Washington days.

But when you have a bunch of assistants who move on to bigger jobs, you will also always attract good young coaches because they know this is a place to grow and get noticed. It’s also a good spot for established coaches to drop right in and maybe win big. For instance, just like Ryans might’ve been the guy Shanahan had ready all along for whenever Saleh departed, this time around there is some sense that former 49ers DC Vic Fangio could be tapped to replace Ryans in 2023.

I asked Shanahan: What qualities do you look for in new coaching candidates?

“Usually, I like someone that I’ve seen on the staff at other places I’ve been when I didn’t get to hire staff,” Shanahan said. “You get to see people’s work ethic, kind of what drives ’em. There’s (the example of thinking), ‘Man, this guy would be good with the players.’ Or, ‘Man, this guy could teach a player.’ Or, ‘Man, this guy is extremely smart and can just soak everything in, he can type everything up, he can break everything down, he understands every blitz, every formation. He can memorize all this stuff.’ Who can do both of those? There’s so many different variations of stuff. …

“There are so many different qualities in how to build a staff. Coordinators and stuff are just a little bit different, because they can’t be in too big of a hurry, either. There’s so many processes that if you skip a step, you can see it in guys, in my opinion, later in their careers. So I like guys who can do it the normal way where they’re just breaking down stuff and listening to everybody and soaking stuff in.

“And guys who also don’t mind the pressure on ’em. We’re not always going to be nice. We try to be. But there’s going to be a lot of pressure, you’re not going to get many pats on the back. And you’ve just got to grind and hope it works out for you one day.”



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(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)


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