Grant Cohn: Kyle Shanahan took charge and 49ers reaped the benefits

Kyle Shanahan became a real head coach last Sunday.

And if he becomes a successful head coach one day, we will look back at Sunday's game against the Giants as his breakout performance. The day he showed he could coach an entire team, not just the offense.

Before Sunday's game, Shanahan was a mere offensive coordinator. Hadn't made the transition to his new job yet. He was laser focused on installing his complex scheme, his pride and joy, the thing the 49ers hired him for. He wasn't focused on instilling discipline or coaching fundamentals or creating a winning culture.

By neglecting those crucial things, Shanahan established a culture that tolerated mistakes. Not once did he punish a player who committed a penalty or dropped a pass or turned the ball over during training camp. He simply moved on to the next play like the mistake didn't happen. Or, he started the play over again. Called a 'do-over,' something you don't get in real games.

He was more concerned with teaching his state-of-the-art offense than enforcing a standard of performance. He wasn't a leader.

And his lack of leadership carried over to the regular season. The 49ers beat themselves every week with the same self-inflicted errors — penalties, drops, sacks, turnovers — and Shanahan couldn't eliminate the mistakes. Couldn't get his players to play a clean, focused game.

That's why Shanahan lost his first nine games as a head coach. He was a passenger on his own team. He wasn't driving the car. No one was driving.

But something changed in game No. 10.

Not only did the 49ers win — they blew out the Giants. Outscored them 31-13 until late in the fourth quarter when the Giants scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion during garbage time.

Sure, the Giants are a bad team. Maybe the worst team the 49ers have faced all season. The Giants were missing key players who are injured, and their healthy players didn't seem to want to tackle or cover or play in general. They reportedly have quit on their head coach, Ben McAdoo. It sure looked like they quit on Sunday.

The Giants' total apathy partially explains why the 49ers played so well. C.J. Beathard was the third-highest-rated quarterback in the NFL last week. The offense gained a season-high 474 yards. And the defense allowed the Giants to convert only five of 14 third downs. We can't expect the 49ers to produce those numbers every week.

But as well as they played against the Giants, the 49ers would not have won that game had they committed the same silly mistakes they made earlier in the season, if they had beaten themselves.

The Giants didn't give the game away. They turned the ball over just once. They forced the 49ers to play a clean, smart, professional performance.

And the 49ers did just that. They earned the win. And Shanahan gets the credit. For the first time this season, he was in the driver's seat.

The past few weeks, you couldn't tell if he cared whether the car crashed and burned. Couldn't tell if he was coaching to win or lose. He seemed to be going through the motions, motioned that made no sense. He was calling far more passes than runs, even though his offensive line struggles in pass protection and his quarterback, C.J. Beathard, was taking a beating.

Against the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago, Shanahan called 57 passes and only 16 runs. The 49ers would have lost to the Giants if Shanahan called that many passes again.

But he didn't. He called 33 runs and 25 passes against the Giants. This balanced approach allowed Shanahan to call play-action passes and bootleg passes so Beathard could roll out of the pocket and the Giants wouldn't know where he would be. They never sacked him, and they knocked him down only twice.

Shanahan put his players in positions to be successful, something he had not done enough in previous games. And they responded.

For the first time this season, the 49ers played with pride. The receivers didn't drop passes. The blockers didn't miss blitzers. And the whole team committed only three pre-snap penalties — two false starts and one offsides. Those are the non-aggressive, unfocused mistakes that lose games. The Niners minimized those mistakes against the Giants.

That's a big deal for the 49ers in general and Shanahan in particular. Minimizing mistakes sounds basic and easy, but Shanahan couldn't do this until his 10th game as a head coach.

Had he figured out how to hold players accountable for their errors before the season began, the 49ers wouldn't be 1-9 right now. They'd be 5-5 or 6-4.

But let's not dwell on the past. This season never mattered, anyway, not for wins and losses. The 49ers are building for the future. And they took a big step forward on Sunday.

They found a head coach.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Press Democrat and You can reach him at

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