Where Kyle Shanahan ranks among 49ers head coaches

The 49ers have a long and storied history. Since 1979, they have reached the playoffs 24 times, won 17 NFC West championships, played in 16 NFC Championship games, and played in seven Super Bowls, winning five. Over that time, the team has employed a total of 10 head coaches.

Kyle Shanahan makes the list. Take a look at the list for where he ranks and why.

5.) Steve Mariucci

After one season at Cal, Mariucci became the 49ers head coach in 1997. Inheriting a roster that included a Hall of Fame quarterback and the greatest wide receiver of all time, Mariucci found immediate success.

In his first season the 49ers finished 13-3, reaching the NFC championship game. San Francisco fell short to Green Bay, their third playoff loss to the Packers in consecutive seasons.

Mariucci and the 49ers finally got past Green Bay the following season. Trailing late in the fourth quarter in an NFC Wild Card game, Steve Young found Terrell Owens down the middle for a touchdown to vanquish the Packers. They would lose to Atlanta the following week.

In 1999, a brutal hit in week three against Arizona ended Young’s career. As a result, Mariucci became the first 49ers coach in over 20 years to not have a Hall of Fame quarterback running the show. San Francisco also failed to win at least 10 games for the first time since 1982.

After two rough years, Mariucci had rebuilt the 49ers into playoff contenders behind former Canadian Football League star Jeff Garcia and Owens.

Despite making the team relevant again, Mariucci was fired following a playoff loss to Tampa Bay in January 2003.

4.) George Seifert

Seifert inherited a Super Bowl winning team in 1989 which feature a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and several others who would eventually reach Canton.

With Seifert at the helm, San Francisco won the Super Bowl again and nearly reached its third in a row the following year.

Seifert oversaw the transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young in 1991, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

Following consecutive losses to Dallas in the NFC championship game, San Francisco took advantage of the newly implemented salary cap to poach several free agents. The additions, including Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, helped the 49ers finally get past Dallas and win the fifth Super Bowl in franchise history.

Losses to Green Bay the next two seasons would lead to the end of Seifert’s time with the 49ers.

With only one year left on Seifert’s contract, the team set out to bring in Steve Mariucci to serve as his understudy. Instead, Seifert chose to resign. 

Seifert returned to the NFL in 1999 to coach the Carolina Panthers. In three seasons with Carolina, Seifert won just 16 games. He was fired in 2001 following a 1-15 campaign.

3.) Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh inherited a talented, but underachieving roster when he replaced Mike Singletary in 2011.

One thing Harbaugh did not inherit was a Hall of Fame quarterback.

It’s safe to say nobody expected anything from Alex Smith. The former number one pick looked to be on his way out. Just another draft bust. Harbaugh saw something in Smith, naming him as his starter.

San Francisco shocked the NFL, finishing 13-3 and reaching the NFC championship game before falling 20-17 to the New York Giants in overtime.

Season two saw Harbaugh replace Smith with Colin Kaepernick after the former suffered a concussion against the Rams in week ten. Kaepernick took the league by storm, setting playoff records while leading San Francisco to the sixth Super Bowl in franchise history.

Another trip to the NFC championship game followed as the 49ers won consecutive playoff games on the road. A loss to Seattle set off a chain of events which would lead to Harbaugh and the 49ers deciding to part ways following the 2014 season.

Harbaugh finished his tenure with a .695 winning percentage.

2.) Kyle Shanahan

Shanahan is ranked ahead of Seifert and Harbaugh because of the situation he walked into.

Unlike those two, Shanahan took over a team which had become an NFL laughingstock following a pair of disastrous seasons with Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly at the helm.

The first two seasons of Shanahan’s tenure were spent rebuilding the roster. By year three the 49ers were 13-3 and headed to their seventh Super Bowl. Over the next three seasons San Francisco would reach the NFC championship game twice.

Shanahan’s time with the 49ers follows a similar pattern to that of Bill Walsh, with one major difference.

Unlike Walsh who quickly figured out the quarterback position, Shanahan hasn’t been able to get the position settled. This has led to a Super Bowl loss and consecutive losses in the championship game.

1.) Bill Walsh

This is no surprise.

Walsh took over a dysfunctional franchise in 1979. His first two seasons resulted in sub-.500 records leading some to say he wasn’t the right man for the job.

All of that changed in 1981.

With Joe Montana now firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback the 49ers finished 13-3 and won the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

Walsh would win the championship on two more occasions, following the 1984 and 1988 seasons.

Considered the inventor of the “West Coast offense”, Walsh changed the game. Instead of using the run to set up the pass, he used the pass to set up the run by using short passes to spread the defense out.

Walsh was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.

This article has 48 Comments

  1. as much as i love KS and JH…….im not sure i could place them above a guy who won 2 SBs……
    I see the argument though…….they both took over really, REALLY , bad teams and almost one a SB within a couple years. KS took over the worst roster in football, JH took over an underachiever…..making KS a little bit better.
    They both have shortcomings…..They both have tremendous leadership abilities,,, JH was a leader of men, KS is one of the guys……same result. Players love ’em.
    GS took over a dynasty and only won 2 SB’s……jack holds that against him. Thats fair, not right or wrong, but fair.
    Not sure id put Mooch in top 5…..he presided over the death of a dynasty…….i dont think he even made it to an NFCCG…..if any coach did in the ’70’s……id probably give them the 5th spot

  2. #5 Mooch (no SB’s)
    #4 Shanahan (no SB’s)
    #3 Harbaugh (1 SB a loss)
    #2 Seifert (2 SB wins 1 SB win if you give Walsh credit for Seifert’s first SB)
    #1 Walsh (3 SB wins)
    I guess we are looking at 1979 and on but I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Dick Nolan. Brodie always said if Dave Parks hadn’t left they would have won 3 SBs. Honorable mentions for Frankie Albert and Buck Shaw. Lastly who knows how good Monte Clark could have been if Eddie D. hadn’t made the worst hire in 49er history, Joe Thomas at GM. If you doubt that was the worse hire look up the O.J. trade

    1. if ED had not hired and fired Joe Thomas then he would not have hired Bill Walsh
      Walsh changed the game. Greatest coach of all time

      1. William,
        So I guess that makes Eddie D responsible for the greatest as well as the worst hires in 49er history.

    2. You are disqualified from commenting because you said that Kyle Shanahan has no Super Bowls win he took us to one in 19…But somehow you can’t remember four years ago

      1. AM,
        You are correct but it still wouldn’t change my rankings. I’m surprised you are the only one to catch that.

        1. If you look at the year before Harbaugh, and the year he took over, it was nearly the same team. He got a decent team where Shannahan got nothing. He and Lynch (whom Shannahan picked) rebuilt the team from the ground up. Shannahan has been to as many NFC Championship games and a SuperBowl as Harbaugh. But one thing is different, if you can recall the last two years watching the 49ers in the Harbaugh era, it was either him or Greg Roman where they could not get the plays in fast enough, and they had to keep taking timeouts. It was so infuriating! Also, Harbaugh had his starting QB in his last year and still went 8-8. Shannahan didn’t have a starting caliber QB in the years he had a losing record. If you include the fact that he still had a what…11 or 12 game win streak this year with 3 different QB’s….yeah… I give the nod to Shannahan.

  3. Jack,
    I’m fine with Shanahan at number two given the fact (as you pointed out) that he took a dumpster fire of a team and got to the Superbowl in year three.
    That’s quite a feat. And except for one season of crazy injuries and covid setbacks, Shanahan has done a great job in keeping the 49ers relevant.
    Imo, we are just one great QB from making it back to the SB.
    Just like Bill Walsh, I’m hoping that Shanahan can find his great QB – but I digress.

    1. Shanahan may have already found his great QB in Purdy. I know he lacks a few ideal physical traits but he is top notch on the mental side. He is very bright and was able to learn the offense very quickly and he is able to make very quick decisions which allows him to be poised in the pocket similar to Montana. I would not rule out Lance yet either. He also is very bright but it’s too soon to tell on the decision making part and accuracy was an issue.

      1. Eli Manning scored one of the highest wonderlic test among the greatest QBs of all times. But it wasn’t until he was surrounded with very good players and coaches before winning two SBs.

        You could find other QBs throughout the NFL who have not had high wonderlic scores that have been successful because of being surrounded by great players and coaches.
        While I appreciate QBs that have high intelligence, it certainly isn’t the only reason for winning.

        Purdy’s success could be attributed to great players and coaches. But one good year does not necessarily make you a great QB.
        And of course, there’s the small size thing.

        1. I don’t disagree. Intelligence is important for learning and understanding the offense. What Purdy has in addition is an elite S2 score which measures the ability to make quick accurate decisions. Apparently the score on this test correlates closely to GB ratings. His score on this is equal to Mahones, Allen and Burrows.

          1. Felix,
            If Purdy can be better next season than he was this past one, he will be well on his way to becoming one of the best QBs in the league.
            One good season is only a starting point. Putting together a string of good seasons is my measurement for true success.

            1. Aes,
              I think 3 very good to great seasons is the measure of greatness. In Purdy’s case, with the talent he is playing with a SB victory should be thrown in.

              1. Agree, Coach.
                Also, every (unfortunately) 49ers QB will be playing in Montana’ and Steve Young’ shadow along with winning a SB as the standard. That’s a big added pressure especially for a young QB.
                We’ve had two QB’s that have taken us to the Super Bowl in the last 11 years, but still no SB win.
                I’m waiting to see who that QB will be.

  4. I think you have to give Seifert more credit because the NFC in the early 90s was absolutely brutal and he still won 2 Super Bowls. We’ve seen how much coaching matters in the NFL so it’ tough to say he just hit the cruise control and watched after taking over from Walsh.

    Shanahan and Harbaugh are a toss-up. Harbaugh took the same team that was terrible and improved it immensely to 2 NFCCGs and a Super Bowl in his first 3 years. Whereas Shanahan’s team started with almost no talent at all. The tiebreaker is going to be what Shanahan does going forward. It won’t be hard to pull ahead as Harbaugh got sabotaged by Jed and Baalke.

  5. Jack, I agree with your ranking of the coaches. Bill Walsh was a football genius and certainly one of if not the best of all times. I completely agree that Shanahan is #2 on this list and may also be considered an offensive genius. He’s still young enough that he could coach for many more years although he is very intense so he might burn out at some point. Harbaugh is an outstanding coach as he has proven time and again. He could have gone on to be an all time great NFL coach if not for the fact he inherited Baalke as GM and a young Jed York who mage some big mistakes. I might quibble a little with the ranking ahead of Seifert of Mariucci. Not only did Sievert inherit a great team he inherited a great owner in the pre cap years. Mariucci could most likely gone on to more solid years if not for an idiot owner who fired him.

    1. Seifert ran into the problem that most defensive HCs do, he ran out of good OCs. It was Marc Trestman who brought him down. After M. Shanahan he couldn’t find another good/great OC. Does anyone else remember “NO MORE SWEEPS”

        1. or the swing pass!? after ricky waters left, we could not run the ball. swing passes to Derrick Lovelle was the alternative
          A screen pass involves misdirection, trickery and timing…….
          A swing pass involves none of that and is seen coming a mile away……
          its purpose is to get 3-4 yards and keep the clock running…….just like a hand off.
          not a bad play …if used on occasion, or to get the ball into the hands of a speedy play maker. Derrick Lovelle was neither. we ran it 10-15 times a game it seemed. It was the worst! It contributed to Youngs record high completion % as well.
          Still having PTSD from that play and that offense is why i appreciate KS & JH’s run happy offenses in recent years.

  6. Some data might be helpful. George Seifert took the 49ers to the playoffs in 7 of his 8 years as head coach. He won two Super Bowls and two other teams made it to the NFC championship game. In other words, he won SBs 25% of the time and got to at least the NFC championship 50% of the time and made the playoffs 87% of the time.

    In the playoffs he was 10-5, a 67% winning percentage. He was 98-30 in regular season, a 77% winning percentage.

    I don’t understand why he doesn’t get full credit for the Super Bowl win following the 1989 season. If it was so easy to repeat, Bill Walsh would have had SB wins following the 1982 and 1985 seasons.

    Walsh won 3 SBs; he’s #1. But Seifert is definitely #2.

    1. The ‘88 team was one the rise, restocked with talent from Walsh’s draft in ‘86.

      Seifert was gifted 2 Hall of Fame QB’s and the best roster in the NFL when he took over, along with an OC who would go on to win a Super Bowl of his own, making it 3 times.

      1. Belicheck was gifted a Hall of Fame QB for 20 years.

        Actually, TWO of Siefert’s OC would go on to win Super Bowls; Holmgren and Mike Shanahan.

        But what’s Seifert supposed to do? Use substandard OC coaches and personally coach up the offense himself?

  7. My list;
    1. Walsh; Three SB Rings
    2. Seifert; Two SB Rings… Rings matter.
    3. Harbaug; Three Championship games ,one SB, lose.
    4. Shanahan; Two Championship games, one SB. lose.
    5. Mariucci; One Championship game.

    1. Harbaugh got to those games in four years compared to Shanahan’s six.
      Your list rings true to me. Just not sold on Shanahan or his ability to get
      the Niners another SB.

  8. That’s some serious disrespect to Seifert there Jack. I’m disappointed in you. I know you used to be a die hard Montana fan to the point where you discounted Young beyond reason….(it still cracks me up that you didn’t know your backup QB was a cousin of Young). But that was 30 years ago. I think the pain of the losses to the Cowboys in the NFCC has colored your perception of Seifert and the 49ers.

    Seifert held together Walsh’s team for the 1989 Super Bowl season win. Should Seifert get full credit for that Super Bowl win? No. But he gets some credit. By the 1992 and 93 NFCC games; Walsh’s QB Coach/OC has moved on and they’re working with a new OC; Mike Shanahan…..who btw…isn’t a WCO protégé at that point. Seifert still ran the defense but he had trusted lieutenant Bill McPherson running things for him. So much of Walsh’s staff on the offensive side of the ball had moved on by the early 90’s. Later Seifert would have Ray Rhodes and Pete Carroll manning his defense…both future head coaches in the NFL.

    To me, it’s incomprehensible to not have Seifert ranked right behind Walsh.

    1. I watched every game when Seifert was coach. I never thought he was all that good. I though Holmgren and Mike Shannahan were great OC’s for him. Even in the year he won the Super Bowl, if Aikman didn’t gift him 14 points in the NFC Championship game, they probably would’ve lost. Dallas was making a comeback in that game.

      Look at Seifert’s record as a HC in Carolina. That says all you need to know. 1-15… come on man.

  9. This list is wrong. Just totally wrong. How could you even put this in writing? This is the only correct list.

    5. Steve Mariucci (0 Superbowls)
    4. Jim Harbaugh (1 Superbowl Appearance – 0 Championships)
    3. Kyle Shanahan (1 Superbowl Appearance – 0 Championships)
    2. George Seifert (2 Superbowl victories)
    1. Bill Walsh (4 Superbowl victories)

    This really isn’t even debatable. You can twist yourself into logic pretzels about roster rebuilds all you want but you still have to win the games. Walsh and Seifert are the only coaches in 49er history with Superbowl victories and both have multiple victories.

    1. Shanahan is #2, imo.
      At face value, Seifert’s 2 SB wins far outweigh Shanahan and Harbaugh SB loses. But, I can’t get past the fact that Seifert had SB ready teams that were handed to him. And unlike Shanahan, Seifert couldn’t build a winning team with a less talented team in Carolina, the way Shanahan did here with the 49ers.

      While two SB rings that Seifert won can’t be debated, how and why he won certainly could.
      I put Shanahan at #2 because his overall body of work to build the 49ers talent base far exceeds Seifert’s.

    2. 1.6, It is debatable and that’s exactly what we do on this blog. I look at Walsh and Seifert as being in a different era because of the salary cap which was a huge advantage for them as they had Eddie D as owner. I look at Seifert’s teams as put together mostly by Walsh. Seifert inherited a great team and a system. He was a good coach and I rank him 4th just slightly ahead of the Mooch.

      1. Felix,
        I agree. I put Jon Gruden in the same category as Seifert being SB winning head coaches that won with teams built by previous head coaches.
        While Gruden is regarded as a good head coach, he never won another SB after his 2003 Superbowl win against the raiders.

        Shanahan has already proven that he could take a trash heap team at the bottom of the food chain and make a winner.
        Only thing missing in Shanahan’s resume is a Ring and he certainly has the ability to get one and possibly more.

          1. Fair enough, Coach.
            But if both Seifert and Shanahan were up for a head coaching job today, I would choose KS without question.

            1. AES,
              So would I. I believe it is easier to find a good D coordinator than a good O coordinator. Defensive minded HCs are always at the mercy of their OCs leaving.

      2. Felix,
        Your comment about pre cap football and Eddie D. is absolutley true to one degree but your not taking into consideration that in the pre cap days of the 80s and early 90s the NFL was jam packed with great teams. Winning a SB was far more difficult in those days. In the NFC alone you could face the Giants, Redskins, Bears, Cowboys, Jim Mora led Saints and the G.B. Packers all in a 6 week period. Winning from 70-94 was a much bigger accomplishment than it is since then.

          1. Felix,
            My point was that winning 2 SBs during that era was far more difficult than winning two in todays football. Meaning that Seifert was a better coach than any of the 49ers post cap era coaches. imho

              1. You really have little knowledge of football history or for that matter the history of your favorite team. Its not a criticism you are just a Johnny come lately to the sport and your team. I really should remember that when I attempt to respond to your posts.

      3. Walsh benefited from DeBartolo’s spending on players as much or more than Seifert did. Yet you’re willing to discount Seifert?

        I don’t get any of this reasoning. What’s Seifert supposed to have done….directly coached the offense and defense himself?

        Btw. Seifert was a gd dmn defensive innovator. Walsh created a new paradigm for offensive football. But Seifert tinkered and innovated his defensive scheme and tactics. Even though he came from a DB coaching background he and Dwaine Board were some of the early coaches that moved around pass rushers to get favorable match ups. That kind of thing is common in today’s defensive tactics….but it was innovative back int he day. Playing at times primarily in a nickel defense was the kind of thing Seifert did and was considered innovative back in the 80’s But when facing a prolific passing offense….these days we don’t even think about seeing more Nickel than base defense…..but back then it was innovative.

        Marriccuci is like a line cook that learned to implement the West Coast Offensive passing game and a pretty basic run game. The coaches under him weren’t that innovative either…..the best maybe being Jim Mora Jr?

        Harbaugh basically simplified the passing game, initially implemented a 1970’s Bo Shembechler run game and rode Vic Fangio’s defense to some championships. I question weather or not he and his football coaches could develop offensive talent.

        Kyle has done some great things and even has a knack for picking defensive coaches. But he also has to take the blame for some bad seasons too…..whatever the circumstances.

          1. 80’s during the time of the Montana/Lott 49ers, 85 Bears with Singletary and Richard Dent, Lawrence Taylor/Carl Banks/Pepper Johnson Giants, Art Monk/John Riggins Redskins, Randall Cunningham/Reggie White Eagles…..good god was the NFC stacked back then!

            Btw. Seifert’s defensive work against Marino’s Dolphins in the Super Bowl was a master class.

            I think that after years of being a bad team that 49ers fans frame of reference has changed when they consider Shanahan and especially Harbaugh. Both good coaches but not in the same conversation with Walsh and Seifert.

  10. Jack
    * NFL Combine starts tomorrow (02/28/2023).
    * Top 9er position needs: RT, DT, S, C and CB Back up QB
    * Who are your (pre combine) draft prospects the 9er should be interviewing?
    * Who are free agents, from other NFL teams, the 9ers should be interested in signing?

      1. A late to UDFA RB wouldn’t hurt either.
        ASU, Zaxavian Valladay might be good RB to look at in day 3.
        I haven’t paid much attention to college football over the past few years, but I heard Valladay’s name mentioned on another sports show and checked him out and was impressed.

  11. Felix,
    My point was that winning 2 SBs during that era was far more difficult than winning two in todays football. Meaning that Seifert was a better coach than any of the 49ers post cap era coaches. imho

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