Grant Cohn: 49ers must win against lowly Cardinals

The 49ers must win this game.

Kyle Shanahan must win this game.

The 49ers' season pretty much is over. Beating the Arizona Cardinals Sunday won't change that. I fully expect the 49ers to win.

But if they lose, Shanahan will be on the hot seat. Yes, the hot seat. He must beat this awful team.

For now, he has excuses. You've heard them. Jimmy Garoppolo is out for the season. The 49ers have injuries. They're rebuilding, and it's only Year 2 of the process. Shanahan has a long-term plan.

Fair enough. But Shanahan may not get to his long-term plan if he doesn't take care of short-term business.

The long-term plan did not consist of losing twice this season to the Arizona Cardinals. The long-term plan did not consist of losing almost every game without Garoppolo. The long-term plan did not involve the 49ers getting worse the longer Shanahan coaches.

He needs to win Sunday. Otherwise, the perception of him will change from a promising young head coach to a bad young head coach.

Here's why.

1. The Cardinals are terrible.

They're in more turmoil than the 49ers.

The Cardinals have scored 13.1 points per game. They just fired their offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, last week. They replaced him with former NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich, who never has been an offensive coordinator. He has to pick up the job running. And their rookie quarterback, Josh Rosen, is totally overwhelmed by the NFL. He's worse than C.J. Beathard.

The 49ers played the Cardinals three weeks ago, and outgained them by 227 yards. A statistical beat down. The 49ers should have won, but didn't because they committed five turnovers.

Shanahan still thinks football is all about gaining yards. It's not. It's about scoring points, and avoiding stupid penalties, sacks, fumbles and interceptions. If the 49ers continue to struggle in those areas every week, that's Shanahan's fault.

2. Shanahan still hasn't figured out the first rule of winning.

This is the first rule of winning in the NFL: Don't beat yourself.

In Shanahan's two years with the 49ers, his team still has not cleared that hurdle. And it's quite low. A mini hurdle. Every week, the Niners jump, clip their heels and fall face first.

Through seven games, the 49ers have committed 18 giveaways and forced only three turnovers. That's a negative-15 turnover ratio. The NFL record is negative-30. The Niners are on pace for negative-34.

Cue the injury excuse.

It's bogus. Every team has injuries. Of course, Garoppolo is injured, but the 49ers had a losing record this season with him. Remember that. The 49ers still must find ways to win. They find ways to lose every week with sloppy ball security and unforced penalties. They lack discipline and focus. Granted, they're missing talented players, but all players can give their best effort. They don't have to be superstars to hold onto the ball. Just hold onto the freaking ball.

Shanahan is in charge of developing and enforcing a standard of performance. He drives the message that turnovers are unacceptable. If his message doesn't reach the players, someone else should deliver it.

Because if the 49ers keep coughing up the ball, they're not getting better. That's Shanahan's fault.

3. Shanahan hasn't shown leadership.

The 49ers are a bus without a driver.

Every week, Shanahan sits in the back of the bus, watches it veer off the road into a ditch and rips the players for not grabbing the wheel. As if he's not the driver.

The 49ers have a tremendous void of leadership and professionalism.

Garoppolo filled that void. He already had stripes on his sleeves when he came to the 49ers. He came from the Patriots and played under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

When the 49ers traded for Garoppolo, the players watched how he got dressed. How he organized his locker. What he did in meetings. What he did on the field. How he communicated and carried himself at all times. They naturally followed him because the association with the Patriots gave him chops the 49ers didn't have.

Shanahan can't match Garoppolo's chops. Shanahan is a semi-successful coordinator who mostly has worked for losing teams during his career. He's not a natural leader. He lacks charisma and gravitas. He's dour. He loses himself in small details and doesn't see the big picture. Plus, he can't seem to win more than one game without Garoppolo.

The 49ers revert to a sloppy, unprofessional team without Garoppolo. That's Shanahan's fault.

4. Shanahan's position coaches have been subpar.

Other than tight end George Kittle, every player the 49ers have drafted the past two years has made no improvements or has regressed.

Shanahan attributes the young players' lack of development to 'the rookie wall' or 'the sophomore slump.' Basically, he blames the players.

I blame Shanahan's assistant coaches. His buddies. A bunch of yes-men. Most of them not qualified for their jobs.

Eight assistant coaches have two or fewer seasons of experience in their current roles: Wide receivers coach Mike LaFleur (two seasons), quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello (two), running game coordinator Mike McDaniel (one), special teams coordinator Richard Hightower (two), defensive coordinator Robert Saleh (two), pass-rush specialist Chris Kiffin (one), defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina (two) and inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans (one).

Ryans is the reason Reuben Foster has regressed. Zgoninia is the reason DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead have not improved. These assistants are learning on the job and not providing NFL-quality coaching for the young players. In LA, Sean McVay has the grizzled veteran Wade Phillips. It almost feels like Shanahan is afraid to have an assistant coach with more gravitas than he has. That's Shanahan's fault.

5. The defensive coordinator has been subpar, too.

Saleh's scheme is broken. He uses mostly zone coverage, because he wants interceptions. Zone defenders typically intercept lots of passes because they keep their eyes on the quarterback and react quickly on throws, in theory.

But Saleh's defense has intercepted just one pass this season. His zone coverage has been useless, because his players merely defend areas of grass, not receivers. The receivers are wide open when they catch the ball.

Saleh better be careful or the Cardinals will expose him on Sunday.

Saleh will face Leftwich, a neophyte coordinator, who has no tendencies Saleh can study. No tendencies Saleh can plan for. Saleh will have to make adjustments on the fly between every series. Big challenge.

Plus, Leftwich coached under Bruce Arians, who was successful against Saleh. Arians was the Cardinals head coach. He retired during the offseason, and may help Leftwich game plan this week. Count on it.

Who will help Saleh?

He already is on the hot seat. Shanahan will be next if the 49ers lose to the Cardinals.

You must win this game, Kyle.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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