Following the unceremonious and somewhat unexpected dismissal of Jim Tomsula on Black Monday, the San Francisco 49ers are once again in pursuit of a new head coach after just one year of Tomsula’s leadership.
After taking over for Jim Harbaugh and serving as a defensive line coach and assistant for nine years, Tomsula went 5-11 in his first NFL head coaching gig and dealt with significant injuries and retirements on both sides of the ball.
Tomsula has been praised for his abilities to motivate players, but his in-game strategies and preparation haven’t received the same adulation and as a result San Francisco is exploring some new options for its vacancy.
Some of the best assistants, coordinators, college head coaches will likely be in the mix, and we already know of two big names linked to the job. According to ESPN and NFL Network, the 49ers are considering both New Orleans Saints’ current head coach Sean Payton, as well as recently-fired Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly and former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.
There are also four other top candidates who could enter the mix and will certainly draw attention from the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles for their vacancies: Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Cincinnati Bengals OC Hue Jackson, and Stanford head coach David Shaw.
Starting with Payton, San Francisco would not only have to cover the final two years of his current contract (a grand total of $16 million) but will have to compensate New Orleans. According to NFL Network and Fox Sports, Payton would like a new contract and the Saints may be asking for a second-round draft choice to secure the deal.
It’s unclear if Payton wants to stay in New Orleans, but after a second-straight 7-9 run and the team severely cap-strapped, the Saints could be in midst of a long rebuilding process that Payton wants no part of.
Viewed as an offensive genius and going 87-57 over nine years in New Orleans, Payton led the Saints to their only Super Bowl victory way back in 2009 and he could quickly turnaround a 49ers offense that ranked last in the NFL with 14.9 points per game.
There are also questions surrounding quarterback Colin Kaepernick and whether or not Payton, or any other candidate, wants to proceed with the talented, but recently inconsistent, 28-year-old.
Kelly’s skill set, brilliant offensive mind, falls in the same vein as Payton’s, however his time in Philadelphia was marred by the kind of drama San Francisco likely hopes to avoid. Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie specifically stated after firing Kelly that his next hire would be someone with excellent communication skills, a clear shot at Kelly after he was accused of failing to relate to his players.
The 49ers also have general manager Trent Baalke, who helped assembled one of the league’s best defenses and nearly a Super Bowl champion three years and outlasted former head coach Harbaugh.
Kelly simultaneously held the head coach and GM tags with the Eagles, and his personnel moves were met with confusion throughout the league in the offseason. There’s also the question of whether or not Kelly would be ok with simply focusing on coaching with Baalke pulling the front office’s strings.
Shanahan, 63, is currently under consideration for the Miami Dolphins’ vacancy and he’s been a rumored candidate for a number of teams ever since Washington let him go after four seasons in 2013.
There’s no doubting Shanahan’s pedigree (back-to-back Super Bowl titles and a 170-138 overall record with 20 years of service as an NFL head coach), not to mention the three seasons Shanahan spent as offensive coordinator for the 49ers, ending with 1994’s Super Bowl title. But he could be entering a similar situation like he had in Washington. Like Payton, Kaepernick’s future will undoubtedly play a role in whether or not Shanahan is serious about taking the position.
The rest of the candidates fall into two categories: life-long coordinators/assistants and some head-coaching experience. Gase and Austin fall into the former category but they can certainly make a case for their first NFL head-coaching job.
Gase was up for San Francisco’s vacancy this time last year, but ultimately lost out to Tomsula and went with John Fox to spruce up Chicago’s offense. And for stretches it looked like Gase got more out of Jay Cutler than any other OC who’s worked with him, though Chicago finished No. 21 in total offense, a huge compared to Gase’s work as Denver’s OC for two years when he had Peyton Manning running his show.
Austin’s worked his way up from the college ranks as a defensive backs and secondary coach, making stops at Penn State, Michigan, Syracuse, the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, and Seattle Seahawks for nearly a quarter century. When he finally got his shot as a DC, the made the Lions the NFL’s No. 2 ranked defense.
Austin’s second season didn’t go nearly as well, but injuries and free agency played a decided role. The Lions lost defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to Miami, and top producers from 2014’s defense like linebacker DeAndre Levy and cornerback Rashean Mathis wound up on injured reserve.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s stock may have grown more than anyone else’s during the regular season. The former Raiders head coach helped Cincinnati maintain a top five rushing offense in his second year and quarterback Andy Dalton made the most impressive strides of his career under Jackson’s tutelage.
Shaw, on the other hand, would be an intriguing hire similar to that of Harbaugh. The 49ers would again be plucking the Cardinal’s prized coach away, though he wouldn’t have to travel too far. He would of course need time to adjust, though Shaw did serve as a quarterbacks coach for the Eagles and Raiders, and as a quarterback and wide receivers coach for the Ravens before going back to the college ranks.
However, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Shaw’s planning to stay at Stanford.