By Nick Shook
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It’s been one of the worst-kept secrets in the coaching news cycle of the offseason, but thanks to Atlanta’s appearance in Super Bowl LI, it had to officially remain in a state of limbo.
Now the wait is finally over.
Kyle Shanahan has been named the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the team announced.
Shanahan joins forces with recently hired general manager and potential future Hall of Famer John Lynch, who once played safety for Shanahan’s father, Mike, in Denver. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Shanahan and Lynch are each on board on six-year contracts. The plan is for Shanahan to have control over the 53-man roster, while Lynch will control the other facets of the organization, Rapoport added.
Fresh off a crushing loss and inexplicable avoidance of the run with a lead late in the Super Bowl, Shanahan’s star was brighter a week ago. But that doesn’t take away from his unit’s performance in Atlanta in 2016. The Falcons‘ offense’s 33.8 points-per-game average produced an assistant coach of the year honor for Shanahan, a Most Valuable Player award for quarterback Matt Ryan, and an NFC title for Atlanta.
Shanahan was in charge of a unit that also broke franchise records in total yards per game (415.8) and yards per play (6.7), and created impact players in Tevin Coleman and Taylor Gabriel, along with usual stars Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. Atlanta’s offense became feared by most of the league thanks to its unpredictability, which was driven by a utilization of a multitude of targets. It wasn’t uncommon for Shanahan’s offense to complete passes to 10 or 11 different targets in a game.
Those types of numbers and the on-field transformation of the Falcons before the league’s collective eyes made Shanahan a prime candidate for a Niners team that had one of the league’s worst offenses (31st overall in yards per game, ahead of only the offensively inept Rams).
Shanahan and Lynch have quite a task ahead of them in Santa Clara. The Niners have a roster lacking much in terms of high-level talent and an uncertain situation at quarterback. San Francisco came one unexpected comeback win over the Rams away from securing the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, instead settling for the second pick, thanks to that late-season victory. There are a multitude of voids to fill, and with Shanahan’s run-first offensive scheme, the focus might turn to the trenches, quarterback and the running back position (which already features Carlos Hyde) before expanding outward.
Rapoport reported Monday that atop Shanahan’s wish list is Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is approaching free agency but is again a candidate for the franchise tag.
One point to build upon in terms of roster construction and marriage with scheme is the return of tight end Vance McDonald, who signed an extension before seeing his season end early due to injury. The athletic pass-catcher showed flashes of becoming a reliable, versatile tight end as part of a unit that will undoubtedly look to him often while the Niners attempt to shore up the receiving corps (which was led by Jeremy Kerley, who is now an unrestricted free agent).
The best news: San Francisco has the second-most projected salary-cap space in 2017 at $80.8 million, according to OverTheCap.com. That’s plenty of room to work for Lynch and Shanahan.
UPDATE: The Falcons are set to hire Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to replace Shanahan as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Sarkisian previously served as head coach at USC for less than two seasons, and at Washington for five seasons.