SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan found out on his way to the 49ers’ facility on Sunday the Cleveland Browns were going to hire Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski to fill their head coaching vacancy.
That, of course, meant Robert Saleh would be saying put as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator.
“I was pumped,” Shanahan said.
Saleh has been arguably the most important figure on Shanahan’s coaching staff since he took the 49ers’ head job in 2017. And after the defense struggled during his first two seasons, Saleh this year presided over one of the best units in recent memory.
The 49ers during the regular season allowed the fewest net passing yards since 2009 and the fifth-fewest since 2006. Their 169.2-yard was the best in the NFL this season and Saleh’s crew continued that trend in the Divisional Round victory over the Vikings.
Minnesota had just 147 yards of total offense, the fewest San Francisco allowed in the team’s long postseason history, and fewest by any team in the playoffs since 2015.
Though Shanahan was excited to ensure continuity on defense for the fourth straight season, he had empathy for Saleh because he knows how tough the process can be for coordinators trying to become head coaches.
“I definitely had some empathy for Saleh,” Shanahan said. “I know anyone who goes through that process, we’re all competitive and you want to win and you want to get that opportunity. But, for Saleh, every year we keep him, we’re going to be very fortunate.
“Saleh’s going to be a head coach in this league. Could have been one this year, mostly likely will be one next year. But he’s going to have the right opportunity come around for him, it’s just a matter of time. Just very happy that we’re going to be able to have him going into next year.”
Shanahan said “there’s always a concern” Saleh may have tried taking other members of the coaching staff with him if he did land the Cleveland job.
Passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur and run game special Mike McDaniel, two of Shanahan’s top lieutenants, both interviewed with Cleveland and were candidates to take over as Browns offensive coordinator had Saleh gotten the job.
“I know we got a lot of good coaches on our staff and we’ve been very fortunate to keep them around here,” said Shanahan. “But yeah, that would have been a concern.
“It would have been tough on our relationship,” he quipped.
Shanahan was asked how Saleh responded to Shanahan being “pumped” he didn’t get the job.
“He knows me well enough to know how I am,” said Shanahan. “But I’m definitely excited he didn’t get it. That’s not just for selfish reasons — because I care a lot about this organization too. And so it definitely helps me, but it helps this whole organization. But I think it’ll help Saleh in the long run. Like I said, he’s going to be a head coach. He just needs the right opportunity. He’s going to get better and better too.”
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