NFL: Super Bowl LVIII-San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers needed to make a change at defensive coordinator and made the right choice.

The San Francisco 49ers made a significant change on Wednesday as head coach Kyle Shanahan relieved defensive coordinator Steve Wilks of his duties, meaning the 49ers will be looking for their fourth different candidate in five years as they conduct a search this offseason.

Wilks, a two-time head coach, including serving as the interim head coach with the Carolina Panthers in 2022, came to the 49ers as a respected leader with significant experience as a defensive coordinator, but ultimately became a poor choice for Shanahan and the 49ers, who are moving on after one year.

Was firing Steve Wilks the right choice for the 49ers?

The timing is certainly interesting, as Wilks was coming off a Super Bowl performance where his defense had their best outing in the playoffs, effectively shutting down Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs for a good portion of the game.

However, Wilks was overruled in the final minutes of the game when head coach Kyle Shanahan called a timeout on defense after seeing a look, raising questions about the disconnect in philosophy that had been brewing over the course of the season.

Now, the 49ers’ defense wasn’t bad by any means in 2023, but it’s safe to say they experienced some regression, despite courting their entire core of elite players.

On the season, they dropped from the league’s best defense in terms of yards allowed in 2022 to the eight-best in 2023.

Looking at the expected points added (EPA) per play, the 49ers, who were first in 2022, also faced a drop, going to No. 12 this season.

More importantly, Wilks’s unit couldn’t get off the field, ranking 24th in third down conversion rate allowed, which was an issue that popped up in the Super Bowl over Kansas City’s final three drives, where the Chiefs converted on five of their seven chances.

However, this move stems far beyond the numbers and the Super Bowl performance over the first 3.5 quarters.

There was a clear disconnect between Wilks and his players, as well as between him and Shanahan.

The first clear sign came when Shanahan publicly outed Wilks for his inexcusable Cover-0 call against the Minnesota Vikings which ultimately was an influential mistake in that game.

Later on, amid struggles at the bye week, Wilks was asked to leave the booth to coach from the sidelines, despite expressing a preference for working from upstairs when he was hired.

Then, from Weeks 13-17, the defense really began to take some steps in the wrong direction, ranking 23rd in EPA/play, while the team’s run defense ranked 26th in EPA/play.

The struggles were amplified in the playoffs, as the 49ers got off to slow starts in both of their first two games before making the necessary adjustments in comeback victories over the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

Now, there was still a good amount of progress with Wilks’s unit, as the 49ers were a top-five unit in takeaways per game, while players like Deommodore Lenoir, Ambry Thomas, and Ji’Ayir Brown took steps forward to becoming key pieces on the defense.

But, at the end of the day, there was too much of a disconnect between the front seven and the secondary that led to too many issues for such a talented unit.

Even if the 49ers had won the Super Bowl, it felt that a Wilks firing was inevitable, as San Francisco has been an organization that has cut their losses at the right moment, rather than delaying those issues.

This wasn’t a decision that was made to call out a scapegoat; instead, this was a move that had been brewing over the entire second half of the season, and ultimately the way San Francisco had to go for better results in 2024.

Overall, this is a move that still reflects on Kyle Shanahan, who tasked the wrong man for the job, especially when considering the 49ers’ desired scheme and the style that Wilks has been accustomed to at his previous stops.

Now, after it felt that Shanahan had to take a more hands-on approach this season on the defensive end, he’ll hope to erase those issues by nailing his next hire at defensive coordinator.

Read More

About the Author: Insidethe49

Insidethe49 Site Staff

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!