Kawakami scapegoat of the 49ers Firing Steve Wilks looks bad

Kawakami: scapegoat of the 49ers? Firing Steve Wilks looks bad, but the mistake was hiring a bad fit DC

A year ago, Kyle Shanahan gave Steve Wilks a great opportunity that was largely unfair to him. Both. Built on top of each other.

A great job, because it was difficult enough that anyone who succeeded would be hailed as a great defensive player and possibly take on a head coaching job at the next appropriate moment. Difficult because it was full of great players, great resources, great responsibility and great expectations.

For that reason, 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 the same time – a deeply awkward moment of very public scapegoating for the Super Bowl loss and also the logical conclusion of one failed one-year experiment.

It could have worked if Wilks had developed more chemistry with Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and the rest of the defense in the short time he had, but he didn't. Wilks, who served as the defensive secondary coach, was a little more reserved and focused much more on the defensive backfield than they were used to. And it became clearer every week that the 49ers' best defensive players simply didn't fully believe in their DC.

It could have worked if Shanahan had been willing to adapt even more, but he wasn't. It could have worked if the 49ers defense had been a little more focused and less confused during the playoffs. But those distracted moments piled up during the games in Green Bay and Detroit, and then into the final minutes against the Chiefs, when Shanahan called a timeout once to get the 49ers out of a defensive play he hated, and then again at linebacker Oren Burks spun around the formation and looked anxiously toward the sideline before trying to figure out where to line up on a crucial third-down snap. Of course, on this play, Patrick Mahomes quickly completed a pass for a first down.

And then, in his postgame session, Bosa flatly said the defense wasn't prepared enough to defend Mahomes, who ran the ball on two game-changing plays. When Bosa said this, it was pretty clear that Wilks' status was in serious jeopardy. Three days later he was unemployed.

But I don't know if anyone outside of the 49ers' defensive team could have avoided a shot at that point. I know that Wilks, who was not part of the 49ers culture when he was hired and never found a way to merge with it, is now unemployed. It's a bad look to fire someone with such a good reputation in the days after a failed Super Bowl. But if you believe Shanahan's statement on Wednesday, and I do, then it's not so much a scapegoat as it is an admission that Shanahan and John Lynch made a mistake in hiring Wilks in the first place.

It wasn't his fault so much as hers.

A mid-year move from the locker room to the sideline paid dividends for Steve Wilks and the 49ers' D, but renewed playoff troubles led to Wednesday's firing. (Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

The 49ers simply have a specific way of running their defense, initiated by Robert Saleh in his three years at DC before taking the Jets' top job, and in his two years by DeMeco Ryans, previously linebackers coach under Saleh, DC was promoted years before he got his own top job in Houston.

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

Shanahan and Lynch logically wanted to maintain the same Seahawks-style Cover-3 scheme that suits their roster so well, but they also wanted an authoritative figure. Wilks had the authority but no experience in the Seattle system. So the 49ers brass just hoped he would go along with the plan. But it never happened. Wilks was always the outsider looking in.

“Yeah, that was the hardest part,” Shanahan said in a hastily called conference call Wednesday. “I knew that was the challenge. It was hard. But it's really hard to lose DeMeco. It was hard to lose Saleh (two years ago). But we're not only committed to this system, but we're also committed to the players that have been in our system, from our D-line to our linebackers. Been playing in it for so long. My goal was not to have to change everything. And bringing Steve, who was incredibly loyal and tried to make it happen.

“But in the end it just didn’t work out. It hurt me to do that, but that’s what I had to do.”

So what happens now? Shanahan said he would look at both internal and external candidates, and it was always difficult to figure out which coaches from other teams were interested or available this late in the hiring cycle. However, I think we can draw some conclusions from this entire experience:

• The 49ers' defensive stars are all in their front seven. Your DC should have a background related to either the defensive line or the linebacking unit. Wilks coached the linebackers and defensive linemen, but he just never seemed to be a part of them.

“I don’t think it’s just because of his DB background,” Shanahan said. “I just think it has to do with the way we play linebacker and stuff like that. The way Fred and Dre (Greenlaw) have done it here over the years and the way we've trained it. I mean, there's no way to get things done. But you want to connect things together. And Steve was always working on it, there's no doubt about that. But it was more difficult than it needed to be just because of his background and the way it came to us. And I felt like it would get better if we went in a different direction.”

• Shanahan said he simply wants the best DC possible and wouldn't rule out finding someone outside of the Seahawks' defensive system, but it's likely the next DC will come from that coaching staff or at least be closer to it than Wilks.

• I don't think highly regarded defensive line coach Kris Kocurek will be a viable candidate. He's extremely valuable where he is (and well compensated) and has never seemed like a guy who really wants to be DC.

Defensive coach Daniel Bullocks is an up-and-coming player, but his secondary background could be a hindrance this time around.

Defensive passing specialist Nick Sorensen is an interesting name, but his background prior to joining the 49ers in 2022 is primarily in special teams.

• Although I think jumping up and down the sidelines is more of a TV job than actual coaching, the 49ers players like energy from their DC. Saleh and Ryans provided it. Wilks didn't. (That's not the case with Shanahan, by the way. But offensive coaches rarely attract attention on the sidelines. They have to have a say or think about the next play.) I think Shanahan will start looking for a guy with a positive attitude .

That the 49ers had to ask Wilks to leave the locker room and make face-to-face contact with his players on the sidelines midseason was a huge red flag, even after it worked.

• It's unlikely the 49ers will pursue any of the very famous former head coaches with defensive backgrounds – Mike Vrabel, Brandon Staley, Ron Rivera or even Bill Belichick or Pete Carroll. That would create an even stronger outsider dynamic since these guys have been doing it their way for so long and, in the case of Belichick and Carroll, have been nothing but head coaches for decades.

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


Dre Greenlaw's injury reflected the fear in the 49ers' locker room

(Photo by Wilks in December: Robin Alam / ISI Photos / Getty Images)