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San Francisco 49ers

The case for and against Robert Saleh returning to Niners in 2019

Jon Chik

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49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh

Keep him or dump him? San Francisco Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh seems to have a tenuous grip on his job, and the final five games might go a long way in determining whether he returns in 2019. Here, we’re taking a look at the cases for and against retaining Saleh for a third season.

Dump him: The results simply aren’t there in 2018

The NFL is a “here and now” league. Players and coaches alike are always under the microscope. It’s a league where your standing with your team never seems to stagnate: If your stock isn’t rising, it’s falling. And Saleh’s is falling thanks to San Francisco’s 2-9 record and a defensive unit that gives up 26.6 points per game, tied with Arizona for sixth-worst in the league.

Most players who were expected to take a leap this season – Solomon Thomas, Adrian Colbert, Reuben Foster (for obvious reasons), Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward, ect. – have simply failed to do so. With a lack of improvement from so many young players, many of whom have actually regressed, it’s fair to wonder why anyone should trust Saleh to get any of these players trending back up in 2019.

On the other hand…

Keep him: He’s less than two years into his tenure as San Francisco’s Defensive Coordinator

There’s no other way to put it: Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch, Robert Saleh and everyone else in the front office and on the coaching staff inherited an utter train wreck of a roster when they joined the organization before the start of last season.

The franchise had been utterly directionless since the team’s loss to Seattle in the 2013 NFC Championship, and ownership seemingly had no idea what kind of a team they wanted to put together. Shanahan and Lynch – and Saleh by extension – came in with a plan, one that was highly unlikely to be completed just past the midway point of year two.

At the very least, Saleh has helped lay the foundation and has a bona fide Superstar at all three levels: DeForest Buckner on the defensive line, Fred Warner at linebacker and Richard Sherman in the secondary. While it’s true that DeFo and Sherm each were outstanding players before their time with Saleh, the second-year defensive coordinator has nevertheless coached Buckner to his best season to date, gotten the most out of an aging corner coming off of a ruptured Achilles, and guided a first-year, third-round linebacker to a strong rookie campaign. So, he’s clearly getting the best out of his top players.

K’Waun Williams and Arik Armstead have quietly turned in solid if unspectacular seasons under Saleh’s watch this season as well. Elijah Lee, too, in limited snaps.

Dump him: Poor fundamental football

Saleh can’t help that the current regime potentially (or in some cases, obviously) over-drafted players like Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tarvarius Moore and D.J. Reed, so it would be unfair to pin that on him (Moore and Reed each have limited playing time this season, so the jury is still out, but neither has burst onto the scene in year one). Even early-round picks such as first-rounder Arik Armstead and second-rounder Jaquiski Tartt from previous regimes have failed to live up to the hype.

However, he can’t be absolved of blame when he’s overseeing a defense that routinely makes mental mistakes, misses assignments is atrocious at tackling. When a team is downright abysmal at some of the most fundamental elements of football, that can almost always be chalked up to poor coaching, and seeing the 49ers give up touchdown passes to egregiously open targets is certainly getting old.

Keep him: He’s had very little help via the draft

With the previous two year’s draft classes looking shaky at best – especially on the defensive side of the ball – Saleh hasn’t had a ton of help from the organization due to what seem to be a pair of subpar drafts.

It’s a bit of a catch-22, as the argument could also be made that Saleh should be getting more out of these players, especially since several flashed at least some promise as rookies, but Saleh certainly doesn’t have the final say on Draft Day.

Perhaps Saleh actually overachieved toward the end of last season when guys like Witherspoon and Colbert were playing well and looking like they would vastly outperform their draft status, and said players simply regressed to their mean this year.

The front office must learn from its mistakes and needs to have its best draft in the Lynch-Shanny era in 2019; if they do, Saleh may have the final few pieces he needs to give the Niners their best defense in the past half-decade. Bringing in Earl Thomas wouldn’t hurt.

Dump him: The Niners could potentially use a shakeup

Sometimes it just doesn’t click, and that could be what we’re seeing with Saleh. And in certain instances, players need to feel the sudden jolt that comes with the removal of one or all of their coaches.

Maybe these players are better suited for a different defensive scheme, such as a move back to the 3-4. Perhaps a new defensive coordinator could run a similar scheme as Saleh but could do so with better communication. Or maybe the new coordinator connects with them on a more personal level and knows how to push the right buttons.

Though there have been a few fleeting bright spots, San Francisco’s defensive output in 2018 simply isn’t good enough to get it done it today’s NFL.

Successful coaches with proven track records could be available after the season. Likewise, up-and-comers may also be interested in overseeing a 49er defense that certainly boasts some enticing building blocks.

Keep him: Do the Niners really want to pull the plug early and start all over again?

San Francisco’s coaching staff has hardly been a model of consistency over the last half-decade, as Shanahan became the fourth head coach in as many seasons when he took over in 2017. Constantly shuffling coaches in and out is not a model for success in the NFL, and at some point, an organization must opt for continuity.

There’s no getting around it: 2018 has been rough for the Niners. It’s one of those uniquely awful campaigns where everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. But there are few, if any, defensive units that could have been won with the hand that Saleh has been dealt: the release of one of his best young defensive players due to domestic violence allegations, injuries across his secondary and the complete lack of an outside pass-rusher. Not to mention, the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo ensured that the 49ers would have a tougher time sustaining drives, meaning Saleh’s defense was guaranteed to spend more time on the field.

San Francisco’s defense somewhat surprisingly ranks 11th in yards allowed per game (350.4). Even if the solid ranking can be somewhat attributed to game script, it also shows that the unit hasn’t been hemorrhaging as many yards as one might think and suggests that it perhaps hasn’t played quite as poorly as perceived.

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