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Barber: Why 49ers' Robert Saleh is a head coaching candidate

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SANTA CLARA — 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.

I noticed that the coordinator had tossed out a “heck” during his media session. When I asked defensive back Tarvarius Moore if Saleh ever gets raunchier than that, he laughed out loud. “He definitely tries to limit the foul language,” Moore said. “But it slips, of course, every now and then.”

“He like that commander-in-chief-type thing,” defensive lineman Ronald Blair said. “No matter what kind of chaos is going on, he kind of stay cool and collected.”

Blair explained how Saleh sprinkles personal reflections into the game-plan installation — “inspirational things,” Blair called them — to emphasize certain points. Blair recalled one in some detail. Walking home in his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan, as a child one day, Saleh, who is of Lebanese descent, had to cross “a bad street.” He felt he was alone, until he reached his house and realized his family was always there for him, even in enemy territory.

“You can tell he put his thought into it, you can tell it’s really important to him,” Blair said.

Shanahan teases Saleh by calling him Gandhi, and recently referred to him as “a peaceful giant.” That doesn’t jibe with the image of the wild man who became the star of the 49ers’ big victory over the Rams as he pumped his fists and struck Hulk poses on the sideline, the man who wears a rubber wristband that reads “All Gas, No Brakes — Extreme Violence.” But that’s part of Saleh’s charm. Like many of his players, he can flip the emotional switch when he steps onto the grass on game day. Athletes notice when coaches love the game as much as they do.

“Absolutely,” defensive tackle Jullian Taylor said. “That means that they’re invested. You’re all in, and not holding back anything, and you believe in the people you’re around. And I think that’s good for morale.”

Saleh has another asset that balances, or perhaps supersedes, his likability rating. He’s really good at game planning. He has always been meticulous. It’s how he opened doors in coaching, first in the college ranks, where he became known as the young coach who made himself useful by mastering technology.

“I knew early on he’d be a good coach,” Bobby Williams said.

Williams was the first head coach to hire Saleh, at Michigan State in 2002. (Williams is now special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at the University of Oregon.) As a 23-year-old graduate assistant fresh out of a job in finance and making $650 a month in football, Saleh helped prepare the defensive scout team at Spartans practices.

“A lot of times, scout team players include a lot of freshmen and walk-ons,” Williams said. “He did a good job of getting those guys organized. … It takes a lot of work when you put it together, trying to get the right look from a group of guys who don’t really understand what the other team is doing. It takes an extensive amount of coaching.”

Saleh always had the requisite attention to detail. He still does.

“He just brings like a surgeon type of mentality, and energy that I think would suit a whole lot of teams looking for a head coach,” Blair said. “He’s just really methodical in his approach.”

None of the qualities I’ve talked about here — kindness, unfiltered enthusiasm, intelligence — are unique. But it’s rare to find a football coach who possesses all of them. Think about it. No one would call Shanahan exuberant. Jon Gruden is, but he alienates some players with his acerbic wit. Jim Harbaugh and Jack Del Rio had the player interaction down, but left most of the detailed strategy to others.

This is what will make Saleh such an attractive candidate in January or February. That, and a coaching pedigree that includes stints with Pete Carroll, Gus Bradley, Ken Norton Jr., Kris Richard and now Shanahan, whom he met when they were Houston Texans assistants in 2006. And if Saleh gets an interview, he’s gonna kill it — just as he did in 2017. Remember that Shanahan originally hired him as his linebackers coach. It was only after Saleh talked his way into an interview for the coordinator position, and arrived with a massive binder laying out his plans for the defense, that Shanahan elevated him to the senior position.

It was a canny hire. But Saleh’s success means Shanahan may be looking for another coordinator in a few months.

Saleh would speak only in generalities but sounded ready for the next step.

“The different experiences that I’ve had, whether it was in Houston, going to Seattle and learning a lot about me, and who I am as an individual coach, being a position coach for Jacksonville, going through a complete rebuild there,” he told me. “Coming here and going through this rebuild. I think all of those moments have only helped me be prepared for every day, moving forward.”

Even the bad moments. Even when the 49ers were surrendering 817 points in 2017 and 2018. Even as Saleh’s defense established all-time NFL lows for interceptions (two) and total takeaways (seven) last season. He survived, and the 49ers are better for it.

“With every scar comes knowledge, right?” Saleh said in that hallway. “And so I’ve had a lot of scars in my life, and if you’re not learning from them, then you’re not really paying attention.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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