Is Steve Wilks the latest Kyle Shanahan scapegoat?  

In the midst of another Super Bowl collapse, did the 49ers head coach throw his former defensive coordinator under the bus in order to distract from his own failings?  

This should have been a game that San Francisco had in the bag, in a completely dominant first half the Niners’ defence led by Steve Wilks shut down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs‘ offence. Until the final drive of the half in which Harrison Butker finally got KC on the board, Andy Reid’s team didn’t have a drive which lasted more than four plays.   

But despite the dominance the Niners only had a 3-point lead holding a 10-3 advantage a crucial fumble from usually reliable Christian McCaffrey stalled the Niners in the redzone. Things began to unravel for Shanahan and SF in the third quarter, Kansas City began to make adjustments to Wilks stifling defence coupled with the unlucky injury to starting linebacker Dre Greenlaw and more confusingly after dominating in the first half Shanahan took the ball out of McCaffrey’s hands.   

It seemed as the third quarter progressed the Niners’ head coach was determined to make Brock Purdy pass the 49ers to victory. In fact, by the time Mecole Hardman took the winning pass into the endzone Purdy had attempted 38 passes, just 8 less than Patrick Mahomes. As good as the former Mr Irrelevant has been this season the Niners’ success has been built on not asking Purdy to do too much.

So unsurprisingly Chiefs Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnaulo went after Purdy forcing 3 and out after 3 and out and a scoreless third quarter for the Niners left them trailing 13-10 heading into the final quarter. Now we all know what transpired in the 4th quarter and OT, handing the great Patrick Mahomes the ball needing a touchdown to win the game was only going to end one way.   

But in the aftermath of the game, much has been made of the fact Kyle Shanahan just cannot get over the line in the biggest game when it matters most. Despite his illustrious coaching career, his loss in Super Bowl 58 marked the third loss in his coaching career in which he at one point in the game had a double-digit lead.   

In Super Bowl 51 when Shanahan was the Offensive Coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, we saw probably the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history as the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.   

His first Super Bowl as a head coach also ended in heartbreak, with the Niners holding an 11-point lead over the Chiefs with just 7 minutes left to play, but Patrick Mahomes inspired Kansas City to a famous comeback win scoring 21 unanswered points as the Niners felt 31-20.   

And then Sunday made it an unfortunate hattrick for Shanahan as the Niners’ early 10-0 lead evaporated. But with the heat firmly on the Niners leader, he seemed to be looking for someone to pass the blame onto and it seems that ended up being his defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks.   

Wilks is one of the league’s most respected assistant coaches, a former defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers in 2017 when he led the Panthers to a top 10 defence in most categories on their way to an 11-5 season. Wilks was then awarded his first head coaching gig on the back of the Panthers’ success.   

He was hired to be the new Arizona Cardinals head coach, but things were rocky from the start. Under the rocky leadership of former general manager Steve Keim, Wilks was given little power, he revealed in his lawsuit against the Cardinals he wanted the team to trade up to draft Josh Allen, instead Keim stayed put at 10 and selected Josh Rosen.  

After a 3-13 season, Wilks was fired, and the Cardinals then drafted Kyler Murray first overall the following year. But despite his time in the desert, Wilks proved to those around the league that he was more than capable of leading a team in the NFL.   

After being hired by his old club the Carolina Panthers as the secondary coach, when Matt Rhule was fired after a 1-4 start Wilks was handed the interim tag and led the Sam Darnold Panthers to a 6-6 record over the final 12 games just missing out on the NFC South title. Despite his incredible efforts he was passed over for the permanent role with Frank Reich instead hired, the Panthers went 2-15 last season.   

So now we come to 2023, when former Niner’s defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans left to become head coach of the Houston Texans Wilks was hired to replace him. In his 5 years on the Niners defensive staff, the final 2 spent as the DC the SF defence was regularly the league’s best and many believed in 2022 it was the best in the league.   

So, with Ryan heading back to Houston where had success as a player this left big shoes for Wilks to fill but despite the obvious pressure on his shoulders, we saw Wilks lead the Niners’ defence that was top 10 in most categories including being the number 3 scoring defence.   

But the writing seemed to be on the wall for Wilks, when the Niners suffered a midseason three-game losing streak despite the obvious poor play of QB Brock Purdy it was Wilks who was under scrutiny. With many believing the DC wasn’t getting the best out of star edge rusher Nick Bosa.   

Bosa had somewhat of a down year by his lofty standards, just 10.5 sacks compared to the 18.5 and 15.5 he posted in years prior, however, clips showing the former Ohio State star being locked up by Vikings tackle Christian Darrisaw showed it was far from just Wilks to blame for the struggles of Bosa.   

And despite telling the media that he expected all his coaches to return for the 2024 season, a stunning turnaround left many in NFL circles feeling that Wilks being fired was another tactic to deflect from the failings of Shanahan.   

Jason La Canfora a respected NFL writer referred to Shanahan as an “eternal scapegoater” and many around the league seem to agree with that sentiment. The fact of the matter is, Wilks didn’t muff a punt in the red zone, Wilks didn’t fumble in the red zone, and Wilks didn’t return zero points from the two turnovers his defence forced.   

As previously mentioned, Wilks is one of the most respected coaches leaguewide. But if you are in any doubt about the respect he garners from his players, just take a look at the comments made by Panthers Linebacker Shaq Thompson following Wilks stint as Panthers interim head coach.   

So, the chances are, Wilks could find a position on another defensive staff around the league, however, now with a sour taste in his mouth from his times in Arizona, Carolina and San Francisco who could blame him for staying away?   

As for Shanahan people are starting to take note of his failure in big games and his seeming quickness to shift responsibility. An early name touted as a potential Wilks replacement is former Chargers HC Brandon Staley. A coach who during his tenure in LA regularly trotted out one of the league’s worst defences.   

Firing a respected coach like Wilks only to replace him with a “defensive-minded coach” who shipped 63 points to Aidan O’Connell and the Las Vegas Raiders certainly won’t help Shanahan keep face amongst NFL circles.