Kyle Shanahan has seen enough.
The 49ers special teams units have ranked near the bottom of the league over the last two seasons. As opponents routinely picked up big yardage on kickoff returns. Meanwhile, seeing San Francisco return a kickoff out to the 25 was cause for a standing ovation.
And who can forget the mistakes from the San Francisco punt return unit? After their defense opened the game by forcing Seattle to a three and out, this unit allowed Travis Homer to take a fake punt 73 yards for a touchdown. Early in the fourth quarter of their NFC Wildcard contest against Dallas, this unit was at it again, allowing the Cowboys to convert for a first down on a fake punt which led to a field goal.
Following the game, Kyle Shanahan gave his thoughts on the performance of his special teams.
“My number one goal is not to lose on special teams,” responded Shanahan. “It means I’m not just going into games trying to dictate the flow games through fakes. I usually want to depend on offense, but special teams, the starting point is to not lose it, to not turn the ball over, to make sure we get the ball back. So, that’s not just because of now. But yesterday with the special teams, those two plays were huge.
“Our defense rebounded huge on it, but it did cost us three points on one, on the fake punt.”
San Francisco has made improving special teams play a priority early this offseason.
The team started the process when it hired Brian Schneider to replace Richard Hightower as the special teams coordinator. From 2010 to 2020, Schneider was the special teams coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks. During the early part of his tenure in Seattle, the Seahawks’ special teams were among the best in the league.
A coach is only as good as his players, and three of the 49ers first five free-agent signings have a special team’s focus. The first move was signing linebacker Oren Burks from Green Bay.
San Francisco again addressed special teams, adding former Steelers receiver Ray Ray McCloud late Thursday night. The addition of McCloud addresses the 49ers need for an upgrade at kick returner. He averaged 9.7 yards per punt return and 22.2 yards per kickoff return last season.
The latest move came early Friday when San Francisco added former Indianapolis Colts safety George Odum.
Odum has been a special teams ace for Indianapolis, playing all 65 games during his four years with the team. In 2020, Odum earned All-Pro honors for his efforts on special teams.
In addition to his play on special teams, Odum made a career-high seven starts last season. He racked up 55 tackles, one interception, forced a fumble, and recovered one.
The 49ers focus on special teams has not only been about adding new players. The team retained exclusive rights free agent linebacker Demetrius Flanigan-Fowles and safety Tarvarius Moore returns after missing the 2021 season.
Improved play from special teams and the quarterback position could lead to big things for San Francisco in 2022.