“Every time I say it’s a game, you tell me it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you tell me it’s a game.”
— “North Dallas Forty”
SANTA CLARA — Forty-Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan continues to be the most impressive 0-6 coach in recent memory.
Shanahan gives complete, candid and thoughtful answers at his press conferences. He doesn’t bristle at pointed questions about poor results. His offensive scheme, despite dropped passes and penalties, has been as innovative and unpredictable as promised.
He’s smart, savvy and personable.
He’s also ruthless.
That’s not a bad thing. In fact, I’d say it is part of the job description. To be a head coach you’re going to have to look someone in the eye — someone you might like and admire — and tell them they are done.
Professional football sets an impossibly precise and unforgiving standard. Say you have a guy — a fan favorite, a model citizen and a veteran. He’s lost a step, just tenths of seconds. But it’s too much. He’s got to go.
That’s why Shanahan and general manager John Lynch met with linebacker NaVorro Bowman after the loss in Indianapolis. Bowman was disappointed in his lack of playing time after that game and said so publicly.
NaVorro, we understand you’re not happy, they said, but that’s the way it is going to be. In fact, when showcase rookie Reuben Foster comes back from injury, you are probably going to be playing less.
Bowman’s reaction was what we expect from proud professional athletes. He said he was only 29, had plenty of football left, and if they weren’t going to play him he wanted to go to another team.
Bowman is no troublemaker. But this was at least a modest challenge to Shanahan’s authority. Shanahan is only 37 years old. And looks it. If anything, he seems even skinnier since he took the job.
If a respected veteran starts complaining about his role, on a winless team, it could be the beginning of an unraveling. It would not be good locker room optics for a coach who looks like he needs to show ID to buy beer.
Shanahan and Lynch tried to work out a trade, and when that didn’t pan out they decided —with Bowman’s consent — to release him and let him arrange his own deal. He did, with the Raiders.
The twist is that Lynch says Bowman’s agent came back at the end of the week. He said NaVorro had reconsidered. He was willing to take fewer snaps and stay with the 49ers.
Nope, they said.
“Deep down I think I’m a pretty compassionate person,” Shanahan said last week. “It was an extremely hard thing to move on from NaVorro. Extremely hard. But you have to think what’s best for your team now and into the future. Once you are convinced … you can’t hesitate. I never will.”
He didn’t mention it, but the benching of hail-fellow-well-met quarterback Brian Hoyer couldn’t have been any easier. Hoyer was Shanahan’s hand-picked guy, brought in as a placeholder for the year.
And honestly, in many ways Hoyer did everything expected of him. He hosted an offseason workout camp. He mentored young players. He was quotable and cooperative with the media — even when the confidence-crushing narrow defeats piled up.
Hoyer is one of those never-give-up underdog stories we love to write. The problem is, there may be a reason someone is an underdog.
Once the games began, Hoyer began having problems delivering the oblong spheroid. That moment three weeks ago when Hoyer missed a throw and Shanahan caught the ball out of bounds, then spiked it in a flash of temper, may have been the beginning of the end.
Shanahan replaced Hoyer before halftime last week, sending in rookie C.J. Beathard. It was no experiment. Beathard is now the starter.
He looked pretty good against Washington, but this is still a gamble. For starters, when he met the media Wednesday, some reporters were surprised to be looking the former Iowa QB (listed at 6-2) right in the eye. He’s not very big.
But this is how you create a team from scratch. You evaluate talent, promote those you think have it and get rid of those you think don’t. It’s making hard choices.
“It’s tough,” Shanahan said last week, “But that’s what I believe my job is.”
Bowman and Hoyer are known well enough to merit a mention.
There are hundreds of players right now, who were starters in college, who had a cup of coffee with a team, only to be told their services aren’t needed.
The 49ers had a classic this year. In September they signed Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware, who, despite being named defensive MVP at this year’s national championship game, was not drafted.
Barely a week after he joined the 49ers, Boulware sent out a tweet:
“10:34 AM — Signed expensive lease for my new apt
“11:52 AM — Picked up mom+gf from airport to visit for week
“11:55 AM — Got Cut #LifeofTheNFL”
I called Boulware’s management company in Georgia to ask if he wanted to talk about the cold, hard reality of NFL life. But a media rep said Boulware declined. She said he was focusing on his game.
You’re missing the point, Ben. It’s not a game. It’s a business.
Contact C.W. Nevius at email@example.com. Twitter: @cwnevius.