NFC Championship - Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers
Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

He. Just. Didn’t. Work. OUT!

It seems like the current fad is to turn anything Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers do into an absolute negative. Take the recent Super Bowl loss; while the 49ers defense held the Kansas City Chiefs offense in check for four quarters, the Chiefs still managed to win the game. Days later, the 49ers moved on from defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.

Which led to the “scapegoat” talk. Things like the 49ers are blaming Wilks for the offense sucking against one of the best defenses in the league. You know, taking fault from the offense and giving it to a defense that managed to play well for a majority of the game.

Say it with me: the defense’s performance whether good or bad, was not why Wilks was let go.

Steve Wilks called a cover 0 in the Minnesota Vikings game (which Kyle Shanahan called out publicly). Steve Wilks’ defenses were dominant to start then the weekly brain fart started costing more than a two-minute drill touchdown. Steve Wilks’ defense had the Detroit Lions running all over the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, then the Lions decided to stop catching passes. Steve Wilks had Kyle Shanahan calling a time out because his coverages were terrible on the final drive of the Super Bowl.

Notice this? There’s a lot of things through 2023 that led to Steve Wilks getting fired. It’s not just the Super Bowl. And these are just the things being reported.

Steve Wilks was let go of for reasons like this:

If you remember, all the way back in the Seattle Seahawk game, there was a (dumb) gameplan to not have 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward cover Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf. From the post I wrote on that, here’s Ward discussing how it went down:

“I think he asked the DB Coach [49ers defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks] and he and John Lynch talked, and they were wondering why I wasn’t following DK tonight. The game plan wasn’t for me to follow him. I guess he talked to John Lynch and Coach Shanahan was like, “Why not? We need him to.” They told me to do it, and I was up for the task. I feel like I had a pretty good game.”

Now, at the time, I said this was 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan being 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. If that was one of the few adjustments the 49ers made to a defensive gameplan, I’d still stand by it. It’s the head coach’s job to jump in and make these adjustments to his team.

The thing is, and I wondered this then: what was the original plan in its entirety? How much of this beyond Ward was changed? And most importantly? Why the hell would Wilks even think of this in the first place?

While it appeared a small adjustment on the surface, knowing what we know now begs the question of just how much of the defensive gameplans were Wilks vs. Shanahan. If this was a simple tweak back then, no big deal. But when you know how this ends with Shanahan calling time outs in the Super Bowl because of Wilks’ coverages, one has to wonder just how much more hands on and micromanaging he was getting over his defensive coordinator and one has to wonder how/if it got progressively worse as the season went on.

And while the Super Bowl defense was much, MUCH improved, we still don’t know how much of that particular gameplan came from Kyle Shanahan and how much of it was initially Steve Wilks getting overridden by Kyle Shanahan. Maybe very little, maybe a lot.

Remember, the NFC Championship two weeks prior had the Lions running all over the 49ers. Sorry, but while the 49ers won that game, the Lions did their part in losing it. Despite what you may have seen, the defense didn’t exactly “clamp down” in the second half. The Lions missed easy layups and we still had a game in the final seconds when it probably could have been over with the talent on that defense. How embarrassing would it have been if the 49ers didn’t recover the onside kick?

Regardless, there was a laundry list of headaches for Shanahan, Wilks’ boss. Wilks just wasn’t working with the philosophy Shanahan had. At that point, the 49ers probably didn’t have much of a choice. If you are a manager and jumping in constantly because your direct report isn’t doing the job the way you want it, yes you could be micromanaging. It also could be it’s just not meshing, be it work style, personality, or whatever. In any case, you move on.

It’s not accurate when Arik Armstead and Talanoa Hufanga are out to say Dre Greenlaw, Fred Warner, Nick Bosa, etc. etc. just regressed and that’s why the defense started going off a cliff.

The 49ers defense blew another Super Bowl before this. The defensive coordinator then, Robert Saleh was retained and is a head coach right now. So it’s not like they have a history of making someone go down with the ship when a big game is lost.

And before you say Shanahan has no patience; remember fans wanted Saleh gone after the 2018 debacle. Shanahan had to announce in his season-ending press conference straight up that Saleh would be retained. Yes, the seat was warm, but that’s three seasons the 49ers were patient with him to turn the defense into the juggernaut they were.

And with Saleh, his players were defending him every other game. The players for Wilks? Not so much.

The moment you didn’t hear Shanahan come out and say Wilks was sticking around was the moment you knew something was up. There was no praise by John Lynch this time, there was no citing the injuries. This wasn’t a patience thing; this simply wasn’t working.

Now, all of that said, Shanahan should be criticized for the hire. I know a lot of people praised it but it really made no sense if you think about it. He tried to go outside the box and whiffed. There was plenty of evidence through 2023 that showed this defense wasn’t playing to its potential and a lot of it could have been avoided if they got the right guy for the job.

Blaming the loss of the Super Bowl on Wilks, or saying the 49ers picked him to go down when the 49ers have no evidence of doing such similar political act in the past is strange.

Wilks is not a bad defensive coordinator. He just wasn’t the right fit for the 49ers, and it was on display for multiple games long before the Super Bowl. This didn’t just creep up out of nowhere. And having a decent team for a Super Bowl doesn’t erase all the issues leading up to it. You can get a A on your final exam, but if you turned in D’s and C’s through the semester, you might not even get a B come grading time.

Wilks and the 49ers parted ways from a seasons worth of miscues, mistakes, and differences, not just one game, let alone the biggest game of the league.

He had to go.

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About the Author: Insidethe49

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