Kyle Shanahan Is a Risky Hire for the 49ers

Shanahan was the 49ers’ best head-coaching option, but there is major downside too.

When I teach dance and theatre, my students often go off on their own to create projects. Creative composition isn’t something where I can force them through every decision and create a piece of art for them; they have to take initiative to work honestly on their own.

As one of my professors in grad school once said, “You have a choice: you can choose to work or you can choose to use your time unproductively. I hope you choose to work.”

Freedom of choice is important, but it sometimes leads us to bad decisions.

Kyle Shanahan made a big decision this week, choosing to walk away from the 2016 NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator job and take over as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. This is a decision that he earned the right to make by taking the Falcons’ offense and turning it into a juggernaut force.

For quite a few reasons, though, it seems like a choice he might regret.

We Are Our Choices

Kyle Shanahan more than deserves this promotion, after coordinating offenses from the tender age of 29, nearly a decade ago. Shanahan was the youngest coordinator in NFL history when he was promoted by the Houston Texans and has dazzled in every stop in the league.

We can confirm this by looking at the production of his offenses, and our own Net Expected Points (NEP) metric is perfectly suited to help us with that.

NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows the average production of these offensive units both before and during his tenure by Passing and Rushing NEP per play.

Year Pass/Run Ratio Adjusted NEP/P Passing NEP/P Rushing NEP/P
Year Before 1.65 0.02 0.05 -0.03
Tenure 1.38 0.05 0.09 0.00

There’s a startling difference in the fortunes of offenses before and after Shanahan appears to right their ships.

We can explain away part of the Washington surge due to quarterback Robert Griffin III's emergence as a rookie phenom in 2012, sure, but Texans’ passer Matt Schaub significantly improved both years of Shanahan’s coordination, as did -- obviously -- Matt Ryan the past two years.

Even the dumpster fire that was the 2014 Cleveland Browns’ quarterback carousel improved from -0.04 Passing NEP per drop back the year prior to a round 0.00 in Shanahan’s one year with them.

Shanahan has had more mixed results with his running game, with just 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2016 as years in the positives for Rushing NEP per play. Still, he improved his teams’ average run game efficiency during his tenures from slightly below league-average to just above.

There’s no denying that Shanahan is the next big thing in the offensive guru category. The question is: can he work his magic with San Francisco’s offense while having to be responsible for their roster-building and defense as well?

Choosy Coaches Choose SF

Shanahan isn’t walking into a cake situation with the 49ers this offseason.

Fortunately for him, none of the teams he’s joined have been juggernauts on either side of the ball when he arrived, excepting Washington in 2009. The Texans were 26th in opponent-adjusted Defensive NEP per play in 2007, Cleveland was 15th in this metric in 2013, and Atlanta was 30th in 2014.

What might alleviate some of these defensive woes is that Shanahan’s efficient offense keeps the offense on the field when it’s clicking -- they ran 1,175 plays this year -- and his aggressive play-calling leads opponents to play catch-up. When forcing his opponents to be aggressive to keep up, his defenses can play softer coverages and defend easier.

Still, there’s a worrisome precedent he will have to beat: offensive coordinators coming from teams with good-to-great quarterbacks have not fared very well when they leave the cushy environs of their previous job.

The most similar example of this is Josh McDaniels, who coordinated three consecutive top-six New England Patriots offenses by opponent-adjusted NEP per play from 2006 to 2008. He went to the Denver Broncos in 2009 and was expected to be the savior of the franchise. With full roster control, he traded quarterback Jay Cutler for Kyle Orton, drafted Tim Tebow, and was fired midway through the 2010 season after his teams combined for just the 18th-best nERD over those two years.

We can also look to Chip Kelly, who leapt from the college ranks to the pros and rode the Philadelphia Eagles straight into the ground. After a rookie head coaching season whose success was primarily based on their offensive prowess in 2013, he was given the keys to making roster decisions. The Eagles’ nERD went from 5.00 in 2013 to 1.75 in 2014 and then plummeted to -4.20 in 2015. He was subsequently fired.

We could name Marc Trestman with the Chicago Bears, Scott Linehan with the then-St. Louis Rams, and even Todd Haley with the Kansas City Chiefs as other examples of great offensive minds who just didn’t work as head coaches, especially ones with little veteran experience to fill in their gaps of knowledge.

The 2017 Rams staff is exciting because defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has coached in the NFL for decades and comes from a strong defensive pedigree, is supporting offensive wunderkind Sean McVay in the head-coaching role.

The 2017 49ers still don’t have a defensive coordinator lined up, and new general manager John Lynch is coming straight from the broadcasting booth (a la legendary failure Matt Millen) to the front office. No defensive experience and possibly no checks and balances in roster construction is a scary notion for the 49ers.

Shanahan is a high-upside signing for the 49ers, but there’s a big risk with him striking out on his own.

Multiple-Choice Quiz

Even fantasy football aficionados may not be happy with Shanahan’s hiring in San Francisco; his added efficiency doesn’t help fantasy footballers much when it comes to the passing game.

The table below shows the average difference between a team’s quarterback the year before Shanahan and during his tenure with a team in terms of box score stats.

Before 36.63 259.34 1.50 1.13 18.62
During 34.94 267.01 1.44 1.00 18.43

Shanahan’s offenses don’t often need to throw a ton in order to be effective and efficient, and by the end of games they get so far ahead they don’t need to throw deep or use the pass to run out the clock. In addition to less volume, his passing attack likes to spread the ball around to a variety of receivers.

His top wide receivers tend to see fewer targets than most other teams, but the tertiary options and tight ends tend to earn more volume and scoring chances.

Hey there, Vance McDonald.

Where the difference benefits fantasy players is in how Shanahan uses his running backs. Getting far ahead in the game means clock-killing late for the run game. The table below shows the improvements for running backs when Shanahan gets his hands on them.

Time Role Touch/G Total Yds/G TD/G FPTS/G
Before RB1 15.08 56.00 0.33 8.18
During RB1 19.00 90.14 0.64 14.12
Before RB2 7.29 34.07 0.14 5.34
During RB2 8.54 38.92 0.38 6.89

Add in the fact that lead running backs under Shanahan accrue 1.33 receptions per game more than they did without him, and you have a recipe for big-time fantasy value for the likes of Carlos Hyde, but the 49ers may continue to be a lesser place for air options in fantasy football.

Besides, they still have to select a quarterback before we even get to this point.

There’s a lot riding on Shanahan's decisions over the next few months.