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For 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, the right intentions mean no regrets

“No matter what you do, even if you’re doing the right things, you’re still going to make some wrong decisions,” Kyle Shanahan says, “and you’ve got to be able to weather that storm.” (Jed Jacobsohn/AP)
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When there’s a tough call to be made, a forehead-creasing calculation, I’d rather be on Kyle Shanahan’s sideline. Not because he can draw plays that leave receivers so open they look like they’re in a public park but because he’s a principled decision-maker. He’s not going to make a call with one eye on the owner’s box and the other on what’s popular.

“How the hell can you be any good if your intentions aren’t right?” he asked rhetorically.

Shanahan has spent most of his career trying to purify his own competitive intentions and avoid impure intentions in others. If his formative years as a young coach amid the despotic chaos in Washington taught him anything, it’s that a play-call to placate armchair critics or a boss — whether a play-it-safe default or a glory-seeking overreach — is the start of a dysfunctional organization.

It has been instructional to watch Shanahan’s defiance grow ever since, and if coach of the year awards are meant to recognize resolute leadership, he deserves one for what he has done with the San Francisco 49ers, whether he gets to another Super Bowl, or calls a pass when it should be a run.

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How to define the “right” intention? Let’s call it commitment to craft for its own sake regardless of outcome. The ability to resist pressure and conviction-weakening drift and go with informed judgment over fear of repercussion. Shanahan has that. He has lost two Super Bowls with tough fourth-quarter calls for which critics have scorched him. He has felt stabbing regret but keeps putting his heart and head on the line with what can only be called relish. His feat this season, reaching a second straight NFC championship game despite losing not one but two starting quarterbacks, has been all about his refusal to back off audacious play-calling just because low-drafted rookie Brock Purdy is under center.

“When you lose big games, those are hard, real hard, however it happens,” Shanahan said this week. “And you got to deal with that forever. But I feel like that’s what kind of hardens you and gets you back to the reality of what it really is. … You go off exactly what you think, based off your preparation and what you worked at to try to learn, and don’t ever look back. The only time I ever have regrets in games is when I feel I’ve made decisions that I don’t want to make. Or you don’t feel that was the right decision, you went for another reason.”

There are certain calls that he knows, “If it doesn’t work, God, it’s going to look stupid,” he told me a couple of years ago, not long after losing the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs in February 2020 despite a fourth-quarter lead. “But if it works, God, are you going to look good. But you’ve got to live with it if it looks dumb. And those are the kind of things that, if you don’t prepare the right way, your nerves will take over, and now you’re hesitating, and you’ll take the safer side. I prepare so that I will be ready when that time comes, so that I’m calling whatever I think is right. That’s everything to me.”

Who wouldn’t want to work for that kind of decider, in any profession?

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As Shanahan progresses from phenom to mature coach, it’s becoming clear that he’s more than just an artful and independent-minded play caller. He has become a hell of an organizational builder who at 43 arguably already has a better coaching tree than Bill Belichick. That’s because he has developed a deep bench of like-minded young coaches whom he can elevate from within. Like-minded not in the sense of sharing the same opinions but in their determination to work together to problem-solve without ulterior agendas or back-hall office politics; they have the right intentions.

Back in 2017, when Shanahan first interviewed for the 49ers job, CEO Jed York’s first question was, “How are you going to build our culture?” The 49ers were probably the worst team in the league at the time, having cycled through three head coaches in three years, losing at least 11 games in the second and third seasons. Shanahan observed later, “I didn’t have a big sell job or a big slogan or a big banner I’m going to put up that’s going to say how we’re changing the culture.”

What he had was a simple answer. “Everyone is going to talk to you about culture, and everyone is going give you PowerPoints,” Shanahan told York. “But culture is based on people. If the people we bring in and the people you’re hiring are good people with good intentions, the culture will be set.”

That has held true, from his close partnership with General Manager John Lynch to his faith in the well-practiced Purdy, who went dead last in the draft yet clawed his way onto the roster in the preseason with his combination of close study and commitment to the scheme. Lynch left a seven-figure television role because he burned to be back inside the action.

“The guy had a job where he worked three days a week to make good money, and he wanted to leave that just to be around football because he truly enjoys it,” Shanahan said later. “That’s why I got into the business, and that’s how our guys are.”

He knew Lynch’s motives were pure and together they could argue through player decisions without worrying about someone’s ulterior marketing agenda.

That commitment to people with the right motives has made the 49ers into something every team in the league envies: a stable winner. Each year Shanahan loses a coordinator to a team seeking to plunder his staff for the next young genius. Two years ago it was Robert Saleh to the Jets; last year it was Mike McDaniel to the Dolphins; and this year it probably will be DeMeco Ryans to somewhere. Yet the 49ers don’t miss a beat, always finding their next good fit, because right-intention motive is so inculcated from within. If the pattern continues, the next young guy to watch from his staff is probably Shanahan’s 35-year-old passing game coordinator, Bobby Slowik, whom Shanahan hired as a video assistant in Washington back in 2010.

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The 49ers under Shanahan have something more than talent and depth — what you see in them is an emotional alignment, a shared sensibility. It’s visible in everything they do: in Christian McCaffrey’s and Deebo Samuel’s enthusiastic commitment when they run and assistant coach Brian Griese’s willingness to give up a comfortable network job to wear sweats again as a quarterbacks coach.

The truth? Just like the rest of us, an NFL coach seldom gets pure justice from the right intentions or has real control over his fate. People and organizations do not stay the same. Competition increases; edges wear off. Opponents learn tendencies or copy and improve on your style. What was once an advantage can become a liability, and a good decision becomes a bad or predictable one depending on luck and who’s across the sideline.

“No matter what you do, even if you’re doing the right things, you’re still going to make some wrong decisions, and you’ve got to be able to weather that storm,” Shanahan once observed. “It’s very, very tough in this day and age where everything’s critiqued. … It’s very hard for people to stay the course.”

Yet the 49ers have done it. What matters as much as the final score is whether you can be proud of the job you did, the integrity of your work and the way you conducted yourself, even if others measure it as unsuccessful. Shanahan has something better than a winning record or a coaching award. He has peace of mind.