Why Shanahan ‘keeping it real’ is important to 49ers’ season

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan addressed possibility of losing with his team before Dallas game

SANTA CLARA — Kyle Shanahan did something unusual during the final preparations for the Dallas Cowboys’ 42-10 annihilation.

The head coach of the San Francisco 49ers addressed the possibility of defeat.

It’s not typical of a football coach, but Shanahan has his own way of doing things, and being candid is part of a style developed over 13 years as an NFL assistant and seven years as head coach of the 49ers.

So, rather than going on a testosterone-fueled Saturday night rant about leaving it all on the field and no one coming back alive in a heated battle with the despised Cowboys, Shanahan addressed the challenge in front of his players against a quality opponent with a 3-1 record.

Because it’s the NFL, the 49ers will almost certainly lose a game or two this season, regardless of how good they are. And five games into the season was not the time to pin everything on a game that could have meant the difference between being 5-0 or 4-1.

Shanahan is only 43 years old, but he has seen a lot since beginning his NFL career as a quality control assistant under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay and progressing through assistant coach and coordinator positions in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, and Atlanta before joining the 49ers in 2017.

“I’ve been in the NFL way too long, gone 5-0 and still haven’t made the playoffs,” Shanahan said after the 49ers thrashed the Cowboys. “I told our team last night that whether we win or lose, I expect it to improve us.” If we go out there and play like we’re capable, we should be able to carry that feeling into the next game.

“And if we go out there and get beat, I think it will make us better going forward… I’m glad we went the other route; being 5-0 feels good, but it means nothing until the end.”

“Keeping it real” is a common refrain among 49ers players when it comes to Shanahan. When Shanahan and John Lynch were recently extended contracts, defensive end Nick Bosa spoke about how the head coach treated starters and practice squad players equally.

“People talk about how real he is, how authentic he is as a guy and as a coach all the time,” linebacker Fred Warner said at the time. “Players relate to that.”

Playing for Shanahan, however, does not include hearts and flowers. Last season, when discussing how well Brock Purdy handled criticism, Shanahan recalled his first encounters with Matt Schaub.

Schaub had his best seasons in Houston with Shanahan as offensive coordinator, but once interrupted the coach in the middle of a list of plays that could have been executed better.

“All right, you played really good except for plays nine, 12 and 13,” he said.

“What about the plays I did well on?” asked Schaub.

“Those don’t matter,” Shanahan replied. That is what we anticipate.”

Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers’ quarterback from 2017 to 2022, wasn’t always a fan of Shanahan’s obsession with precision at the expense of “playing football.”

Shanahan offers blunt criticism that isn’t personal but very direct, and it’s no coincidence that his father Mike operates in a similar manner. There are no gray areas in terms of what is expected on and off the field. Motivation does not come in the form of a Knute Rockne pep talk.

Instead, Shanahan prefers a needle laced with sarcasm, such as when he told Bosa last season that the linebackers were outperforming the D-line and received a dominant performance as a result.

Or when he told Warner how good the Dallas defense was going into last weekend’s game and got a career night in return.

Shanahan, on the other hand, makes corrections and moves on most of the time. He’ll invite a player into his office for reasons other than play execution, as he did with Deebo Samuel last offseason.

Shanahan had video from Samuel’s disappointing season, which came after a large contract extension. Samuel listened to Shanahan and took the message so seriously that he told the media about it and how he wanted to make amends for his “awful” season.

He didn’t put Samuel in the “doghouse” or make the press the messenger about how one of his star players underperformed — a risky strategy. Instead of invoking the contract, Shanahan used a closed-door meeting and video evidence to make his point, presumably without invoking it and instead appealing to Samuel’s pride.

Samuel returned in peak condition and was elected captain by his teammates, a position he had not held in 2022. Samuel’s numbers aren’t spectacular, but he’s a completely different player in 2023 in terms of athleticism and attitude.

The 49ers have a lot of self-motivated veteran stars who are given detailed evaluations and treated like adults. A weekly emotional Richter scale is incompatible with a 17-game NFL season.

Shanahan was dissatisfied with his team’s performance leading up to the Dallas game, blaming it on a manufactured rabid intensity. He was impressed by how they went about their business.

“We’ve got a really good team in that way,” Shanahan said on Monday. “Even with how hyped that game against Dallas was, they weren’t making that much out of it.” It was pretty much like any other game or week.”

If the 49ers had approached the week differently and won, the problem would be selling the next game against Cleveland as equally important in the long run. And if they had lost, there would have been the crushing disappointment of a game that had been given a false sense of significance.

Instead, Shanahan kept it real, coaching a team of professionals who understand the importance of staying on schedule five games into a long season and a prize that is still three months away.

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