With Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch tied down for the long term as head coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, the success of a storied franchise is firmly in the hands of two men who have shown themselves to be astute leaders through their first three years in charge.
After the Niners signed Shanahan to a contract extension to keep him with the team through 2025, they followed suit with Lynch, inking him to a deal through 2024.
It begs the question, what constitutes success for Shanahan and Lynch now they have committed for the long haul? Bonta Hill posed that query on 95.7 The Game in the wake of the news of Lynch's extension.
"What is the next step? Obviously hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, but if they don't get that Lombardi Trophy, how are these contracts justified? Do they have to be in contention every year? Do they have to be in the thick of it? What is the next step for Lynch and Shanahan? Because now the bar has been set high."
The extensions will not be justified if Shanahan and Lynch do not deliver a Lombardi Trophy as they were seven minutes away from doing back in February. However, beyond that, success for Shanahan and Lynch will be measured by their ability to reinvent the team to ensure they remain legitimate title contenders each year.
Bill Belichick has proved a master of reinvention with the New England Patriots. Each year, the Patriots have lost players or members of their coaching staff, and each year Belichick has made changes to combat those losses and help his team find new ways to win.
Belichick's proficiency for adaptation was illustrated by the marked contrast in the Patriots' Super Bowl LIII win from their previous two appearances in the title game. New England went from a team involved in two of the most memorable shootouts in Super Bowl history to one that relied heavily on its defense to defeat the Los Angeles Rams in a game unlikely to live long in the memory.
While Belichick excels at reinvention, many in the NFL have seen the formula that propelled them to the Super Bowl quickly go stale. The Denver Broncos have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons following their Super Bowl 50 triumph. Shanahan's exit derailed the Atlanta Falcons as a genuine threat in the NFC, while the Philadelphia Eagles – not helped by Carson Wentz's injury struggles – have never looked like rediscovering their 2017 vintage.
Even perennial contenders like the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks have had an air of predictability about them in recent years as they have struggled to climb the mountain again.
That is what Shanahan and Lynch must avoid, and their ability to keep the Niners in the top tier of the NFC through significant changes looks set to be tested next offseason.
Indeed, should the Niners' defense again excel in 2020, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is likely to be in the mix for a head coaching job once more. Passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur and run game coordinator Mike McDaniel also figure to be in demand.
The 49ers have the added issue of a plethora of players being set to hit the open market in 2021. They are negotiating with George Kittle to ensure he is signed well before he is scheduled to enter free agency, but Trent Williams, Richard Sherman, K'Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt, and Kyle Juszczyk are among those on the long list of players in the final year of their contracts in 2020.
With the salary cap floor for 2021 to be set at $175 million – around $40M less than what had been expected prior to the pandemic – San Francisco will have little wiggle room when it comes to re-signing players and some hard decisions will need to be made next offseason.
Shanahan and Lynch could find themselves faced with the task of replacing staff and key players in 2021. The good news is they demonstrated a flair for doing the latter this offseason. The trade for Williams arguably gave them an upgrade at left tackle after Joe Staley's retirement while the departures of DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders were followed by the draft picks of Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, who will look to replicate their respective impacts on much cheaper contracts.
The bulk of San Francisco's roster and coaching staff remains the same, however.
The changes may have to be more sweeping in a 2021 offseason in which the Niners face the distinct possibility of losing several coaches and players pivotal to their return to prominence. Come the end of the 2020 season, devising ways to combat those potential exits while keeping the 49ers near the top of the mountain will be a significant challenge for a head coach and general manager duo for whom reinvention is the key to vindicating their extensions.
(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)