STANFORD - Stanford coach David Shaw used to be an automatic addition to any short list of NFL head coaching prospects.
Not any more.
The tipping point came in January when the 49ers were in the market. No sooner had the job opened up than the pathologically leaky 49ers front office announced (anonymously of course) that Shaw was on their radar.
It made perfect sense. Not only are they in Shaw’s backyard — he says he doesn’t want to leave the area — he had nine years of NFL experience as an assistant.
And significantly, the 49ers hired John Lynch as general manager. Lynch is an old friend of the Shaw family. David’s father, Willie Shaw, was a respected, innovative and pro-blitz defensive coordinator at Stanford when Lynch was there.
The two have done a mini-comedy act in the past, describing how Shaw convinced Lynch, after a long, fraught debate, to switch from quarterback to safety. It was, of course, the move that made Lynch’s impressive 15-year NFL career.
Also, Lynch played with David at Stanford. They are the same age (45). So speculation was that Shaw might get the job. Or at least an interview.
Shaw’s camp put out a statement immediately. Nope.
Really? Not even a thought? Asked last week to confirm he hadn’t talked to the 49ers, Shaw almost sounded offended.
“I think I have been pretty clear,” he said. “I have not spoken to anybody in the NFL, on any job, since I left the NFL (2006).”
Well alrighty then. I tried a little levity.
“Could you be more definitive?”
There was a quick smile and then back to business.
“I’d sign it in blood if I could,” he said.
Which is fine. Shaw’s got a nice thing going at the sprawling resort and country club that is Stanford. This is his 11th season on The Farm, seventh as head coach. If he wins six games this year he will tie the school record (71) set by some guy named Pop Warner. Presumably if Shaw breaks the mark, a youth football league will be named for him.
But coaches live lives of constant examination and second guessing. The longer they’re around, the more the peanut gallery chimes in with thoughts, suggestions and shortcomings.
Shaw describes himself as “thoughtful, calculating and meticulous,” which are great qualities for an investment banker, but not so optimal for an offensive coordinator.
It leaves Shaw saddled with a narrative that his game plan is too cautious, too conservative and too obvious.
Which it is.
When calling plays, Shaw’s first, second and third inclinations are to run the ball. You can still get a wince out of a diehard Cardinal fan with the words: “Rose Bowl. 2014. Michigan State.”
That was when, behind by four and 70 yards away, Shaw ran two dives and a screen pass into the teeth of the best run defense in the country.
Facing fourth-and-1 in the final two minutes, Stanford sent in its jumbo package. Michigan State called timeout to counter the beef. And rather than counter the counter, Stanford came back in the same formation, honked it up the middle, ran into a wall of defenders and lost the game.
Shaw will surely bristle if he reads this. He’s become progressively testy about his play-calling. Back in 2015 he groused that “Every single game that we’ve lost in my four-plus years … I’ve answered the same four questions.”
But if the question keeps coming up isn’t it possible there’s something to it? The problem is, if your big uglies don’t overpower the other uglies, that’s it. There’s no misdirection or motion to isolate one player on another. And that — hello Kyle Shanahan — is modern offensive football.
Watching Shaw stubbornly run sweep after sweep on third-and-5, the NFL minds may have cooled on his prospects. Jim Harbaugh made it work at Stanford and the 49ers with resolute defense, a grinding running game and sprinkling of big passes, but it only succeeds if your guys win the trenches.
That’s hard to do year after year, especially in college when recruiting can be a crap shoot.
My concern is that the ever-hyperventilating Stanford alums and Shaw are on a collision course. Make no mistake. Shaw’s been a consistent, classy winner. But programs get spoiled. A school that had its lunch money taken for years is now disappointed if it isn’t in the top 10.
Shaw is only making it easy for them by steadfastly refusing to adjust.
Because here’s the important part. I believe in David Shaw. It’s a cliche to say coaches are “bright” or “intelligent,” but Shaw really is. He’s not only ideal for a school that emphasises classy behavior, he sets a standard.
And maybe most important, he can recruit. Seriously, did you ever think we would hear the words, “extremely talented defensive secondary” and “Stanford” in the same sentence?
He told a sweet story last week about recording the weekend NFL games on his DVR and using play-by-play accounts to fast forward to splash plays by his former players.
Then he texts someone like Richard Sherman or Doug Baldwin, just to let them know that he’s watching and they are still part of the Stanford family. Nice.
But he needs someone to help him call the plays. And he needs to not veto the ones that are called. There’s nothing unmanly about it. Nobody failed. Step away from the play sheet and be the CEO.
Because you’ve got a program to run. And Pop Warner to catch.
Contact C.W. Nevius at cw.nevius@Pressdemocrat.com. Twitter: @cwnevius