Barber: Why 49ers' Robert Saleh is a head coaching candidate
Somewhere in the innards of 49ers headquarters, Robert Saleh is watching tape, or crunching numbers, or consulting with one of his position coaches, or watching more tape.
The San Francisco defense had its first poor game of the 2019 season, and you can bet the architect of that defense is making fevered adjustments as the team enjoys its long break between Thursday Night Football and an important showdown with the Seattle Seahawks next weekend.
Saleh is no doubt miffed that Cardinals rookie Kyler Murray posted a stellar passer rating of 130.7 against the 49ers on Thursday, after their defense had limited previous quarterbacks to funhouse numbers like 45.4 (Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston), 28.9 (Carolina’s Kyle Allen) and 13.4 (Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield). The defensive coordinator has a personal stake in the upcoming game, too; he spent three seasons as a quality-control assistant in Seattle.
Anyway, this is simply what Saleh does when he gets extra time to prepare.
“He’s a madman,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said last week. “He will work himself to death. Like, you give him a day off, where he can just work freely, you’ll come back and he’ll have drawn some really unique things up. … He has a really cool plan, the way football works in his mind.”
The 49ers are 8-0 for the first time since 1990, quite a rebound for a team that finished 4-12 last season. And the success has been driven by Saleh’s relentless defense, which (despite the slip-up in a 28-25 win at Arizona) leads the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, ranks second in scoring defense, total yardage allowed and passer rating, and is third in sacks.
It’s no huge surprise that Saleh, 40, is on everyone’s short list for head coaching opportunities in 2020. But it is a stunning turn of events nevertheless.
After back-to-back losing records and rather dreadful defensive performances in 2017 and 2018, the mob was calling for Saleh’s head. I think most people in the NFL still viewed him as a talented coach last offseason. I know 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan did. But this is how things work in sports. When a team loses too frequently, over too long a time period, we demand scapegoats. Saleh was first in line to go.
As Saleh said in early October, “As much as they love you today, they will put you on a pitchfork and light you on fire tomorrow.”
Shanahan kept the vigilantes at bay and held firm in support of his defensive coordinator, and everyone involved currently looks like a genius.
Last Tuesday, after Saleh’s weekly press conference, I pulled him aside in a Levi’s Stadium hallway for a couple questions. The first was: Do you want to be an NFL head coach?
“I’m gonna be very cliché. I’m really not thinking about it,” Saleh said. “I know my family does. And my family asks me all the time. But just as fast as it’s happened and things have been going good, it can go the other way. So just gotta stay in the moment and focused. And whatever happens happens.”
When I asked Saleh whether he had head coaching aspirations when he got into the business 17 years ago, he opened the portal just a crack.
“I’m always trying to be my absolute best,” he said. “Not that being a head coach or anything like that would solidify my life or anything. But you’re always trying to be the best possible version of you in any profession. So whatever that best possible version of me is, then …”
The best possible version of Robert Saleh would be an NFL head coach. I mean that practically, as it’s the highest office a coach can reach in this profession. And I mean it fundamentally. Every football coach has his ideal level of authority. We’ve all seen brilliant assistants who fail as head coaches because, for example, they have the Xs-and-Os but not the people skills. We may be looking at that in Denver, where an esteemed former 49ers defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, is struggling to keep the Broncos afloat.
I can’t say for sure that Saleh will be a great head coach, because there are job skills - like clock management, like hiring a staff - that aren’t apparent until someone is in the position. But he has the raw material to be great.
Saleh has a collection of traits that are rare in a football coach, starting with his demeanor. With his sturdy jaw, weighlifting arms and smooth bald head, he looks like the kind of coach who would grab a defensive back by the face mask after a blown coverage and coat him with spittle while yelling in his face. Those looks are deceiving. Saleh speaks softly and deliberately. He smiles a lot. At least, that’s how he is before the media. His players say that’s the real Robert Saleh.