Kawakami: 49ers' victim? Steve Wilks' firing was a bad look, but the mistake was hiring the wrong DC

A year ago, Kyle Shanahan gave Steve Wilks a great opportunity that was unfair to him at the same time. Two things. built into each other.

A great job, because anyone who wins is known as a great defensive mind, and it's hard to hand out a head coaching job at the next convenient moment. It is tough because it is loaded with great players, great resources, great responsibility and huge expectations.

It's logical to say that Shanahan's decision to fire Wilks as the 49ers' defensive coordinator on Wednesday was two partially contradictory things at once — a very public Super Bowl-loss scapegoat and a logical decision. A year of test failure.

It might have worked if Wilkes had developed chemistry with Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and the rest of the defense in the short time he had, but he didn't. Wilks, who came in as the defensive secondary coach, was a little more reserved than they were used to and focused more on the defensive backfield. It's becoming clearer every week that the 49ers' top defensive players don't fully trust their DC.

It might have worked if Shanahan had been willing to adjust some more, but he didn't. It would have worked if the 49ers' defense had been a little more focused and a lot less confused during the playoffs. But those distracted moments kept piling up through the Green Bay and Detroit games, and then into the final minutes against the Chiefs, when Shanahan at one point called a timeout to get the 49ers out of a defensive call he hated, then another at linebacker. Oren Burks looked anxiously toward the sideline before taking a critical third-down snap, trying to figure out where he should line up. Patrick Mahomes, of course, quickly completed a pass first down on that play.

Then, in his post-game session, Bosa flatly said the defense wasn't ready enough to stop Mahomes from running the ball on two back-breaking plays. As soon as Bosa said this, it was clear that Wilkes' position was in grave danger. Three days later, he was out of a job.

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But I don't know if anyone but the defensive hive mind of the 49ers could have avoided the shooting at this point. I know Wilkes, who wasn't part of the 49ers' culture when he was hired and couldn't find a way to integrate with it, is now out of a job. It's a bad look to fire someone with a good reputation after a failed Super Bowl. If you believe Shanahan's explanation on Wednesday, which I believe, Shanahan and John Lynch aren't as much of a scapegoat as admitting they made a mistake when they hired Wilks in the first place.

It wasn't his fault as much as it was theirs.

A midfield move from the booth to the sideline paid dividends for Steve Wilks and the 49ers' D, but renewed struggles in the playoffs led to Wednesday's firing. (Kevin Sapitus/Getty Images)

The 49ers have a specific way of running their defense, which was started by Robert Saleh during his three DC years before he took the Jets' top job and has been honed by DeMeco Ryans, who was previously the linebackers coach under Saleh. DC years ago he got his own high post in Houston.

The 49ers needed more. They had to realize that Wilkes wasn't going to give it to them, and they realized it too late. But there's context: The 49ers didn't have a strong internal candidate to replace Ryans last year and they couldn't land Vic Fangio, who ended up with the Dolphins (and now the Eagles).

Shanahan and Lynch logically wanted to keep the same Seahawks-style Cover 3 scheme that best suited their roster, but they also wanted an official figure. Wilks had power, but no experience in the Seattle system. So the 49ers' brass believed he would take the initiative. But that never happened. Wilkes was always looking out for outsiders.

“Yeah, that was the hardest part,” Shanahan said on a hastily called conference call Wednesday. “I know that's the challenge. It was difficult. But losing DeMeco is very difficult. Losing Saleh before (for two years) was tough. But we're not only committed to this system, but we're also committed to the players that we've had in our system from our D-line, our linebackers. He acted in it for so long. My goal was not to replace them all. And Steve, incredulous at how loyal he's been, tries to do just that.

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“But it wasn't the right fit. It hurt me to do it, but it was what I had to do.

So what happens now? Shanahan said he looks at both internal and external candidates, and it's always tricky to figure out which coaches from other teams are interested or available at this late date in the hiring cycle. But I think we can conclude a few things from this whole experience:

• All of the 49ers' defensive players are in their front seven. Their DC should come with a background on the defensive line or linebacking unit. Wilkes coached the linebackers and defensive linemen, but he never appeared. area Among them.

“I don't think it's just because of his background with DBs,” Shanahan said. “I think it's about the way we play linebacker and things like that. The way Fred and Trey (Greenlaw) have done it here over the years and the way we've coached it. I mean, there's no one way to do things. But you want to put things together. Steve always does that. He was working hard to do, no doubt about that. But it was fair, his background and how it ended with us, it was harder than it needed to be. I felt it would improve if we went in a different direction.

• Shanahan said he wants the best possible DC and won't stop him from looking for someone outside the Seahawks' defensive system. .

• I don't think highly regarded defensive line coach Kris Kogurek is a direct candidate. He's very valuable (and well-compensated) where he is and doesn't always seem like a guy who aspires to be a DC.

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Defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks is a great player, but his background in the secondary could be a hindrance this time around.

Defensive passing game specialist Nick Sorensen is an interesting name, but his background was mainly on special teams before joining the 49ers in 2022.

• While I think jumping up and down the sideline is more of a TV bit than actual practice, the 49ers' players love the energy from their DC. Saleh and the Ryans provided it. Wilkes did not. (Neither is Shanahan. But offensive coaches rarely get attention. They have to be calling or thinking about the next play.) I think Shanahan will be looking for a positive-vibe guy with this one. for rent.

That the 49ers had to ask Wilks to move down from the booth and have a personal connection with his players in the offseason, even after it worked, was a giant red flag.

• It's unlikely the 49ers will pursue Mike Vrabel, Brandon Staley, Ron Rivera, or one of the popular former head coaches like Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll with a defensive background. And that sets up even more of an outsider dynamic because those guys have been doing it for so long that, in the cases of Belichick and Carroll, they haven't been head coaches for decades.

Saleh wasn't a big name when he took over the 49ers' defense, but he was a perfect fit with Shanahan and had known Shanahan for years. Ryans was a very inexperienced coach when he replaced Saleh, but he was part of the 49ers culture and was a natural leader and playmaker. I don't know if the right candidate is out there, but I don't think it has to be a big name. It should be someone who fits the culture and immediately feels like an insider.

Go deeper

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(Photo of Wilkes in December: Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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