3 signs the writing was on the wall for Steve Wilks 49ers tenure

Feb 15, 2024, 2:00 PM | Updated: 3:14 pm

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks of the San Francisco 49ers walks onto the field during team entra...

Ryan Kang/Getty Images

Precursor: When Steve Wilks was hired in April 2023, I was optimistic about the hire. A veteran secondary coach who had experience leading men as both a coordinator and head coach.

The problem was the two sides didn’t mesh well enough, with Wilks having to learn the 49ers’ ways on the fly. He was forced to run the Red & Gold’s system of years past, rather than his own.

Here’s a snippet of what The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami had to say about the decision to fire Steve Wilks:

It could’ve worked, if Wilks developed more chemistry with Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and the rest of the defense in the short time he had, but he didn’t. Wilks, who came up as a defensive secondary coach, was a bit more reserved and much more focused on the defensive backfield than they’re used to. And it became clearer every week that the 49ers’ top defensive players just didn’t fully believe in their DC.

All of this is true and made apparent over the weeks and months of the 2023 NFL season. And while the coach was highly regarded by everyone at the 49ers, Kyle Shanahan’s statement Wednesday was indicative of the outcome in the end.

“It just wasn’t the right fit,” Shanahan said.

The breadcrumbs of an impending split were sprinkled through the 2023 season. Here are some of the key markers that ultimately led to Wilks’ departure.

1. The zero-blitz blunder

The 49ers and Steve Wilks were on good terms through the first six weeks of the season. Then, the three-game skid happened.

SF dropped from 5-0 to 5-3 in only a few weeks, suffering losses to the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals. It was the middle contest that showed the disconnect between Shanahan and Wilks’ play-calling however, with one play in particular.

The cover-zero blitz at the end of the first half.

Down 10-7 to the Vikings, Wilks drew up a blitz for his defense with 16 seconds left on the clock. The idea was to sack Cousins and push them out of range of even attempting a field goal. Instead, the QB diagnosed the coverage, hitting rookie wideout Jordan Addison. The ball took a deflection out of cornerback Charvarius Ward’s hands as Addison raced to the endzone for six.

After the game, Shanahan was visibly frustrated with the defensive scheme and voiced it publicly.

“That’s stuff we’ll discuss throughout this week,” Kyle Shanahan said postgame about the blitz call. “Obviously, I did not like the result.”

A few days later, more public criticism followed from the HC.

“Yeah, he knows he messed up on that call. I have no problem with zero blitzes, especially when people need a lot of yards. If you need to get 20 yards to kick a field goal, I have no problem with a zero blitz. But I do when there’s 16 seconds left,” Shanahan exclaimed. “That’s where he lost track. There was no necessary need for that just because of the time. I have no problem with that play call, but when it’s that time you can’t do that. That’s not an option.”

The 49ers have been a franchise devoid of internal drama reaching the outside, making Shanahan’s comments so uncharacteristic for their philosophy. Possibly, the message wasn’t getting through to Wilks on the matter, forcing Shanahan’s hand at the time. 

A day later, Wilks owned up to the mistake.

“I take full responsibility for that call. I have to do a better job in putting the guys in a better position. We have good players. I know that and can’t really press the issue, and with that moving forward, it’s my responsibility to do that. So, wish I could take it back, but again, I got to do better,” he stated.

It’s not easy to admit your mistakes, even more so after your head coach publicly undermines you to the media. 

From the moment Wilks arrived in Santa Clara, he had to adapt to the 49ers’ way of life. Yes, he was brought in to increase the pressure and blitz packages for the defense, but only under the paradigm of the 49ers’ approval. 

Because of that, Wilks was never allowed to fully embrace his system of defense. That was made apparent in the following quote:

“This defense is a unique defense, and there’s certain things that go with that particular defense. I’m learning that. There’s certain things that you can’t sway away from,” the coordinator stated. “So again, that’s why I’m not panicking. I know we have the personnel. I know we have the talent. I just got to do a better job putting them in a position.”

Cousins would go to torch Wilks’ defense for 378 yards, a season-high. The damage was done before the conclusion of Week 7 however, with that play-call giving the outside world a glimpse into the disconnect of the two coaches.

2. To be or not to be in the booth

A week later, the 49ers played host to QB Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals. Wilks’ defense didn’t improve.

Burrow and Co. cooked the 49ers for 400 total net yards, 283 coming through the air. The 49ers would go on to lose 31-17, dropping three straight games into the Bye week. 

At the time, Steve Wilks was calling the plays from the booth upstairs. However, the 49ers’ defense wasn’t used to this, with predecessors always on the field with the team for better communication. That foreign behavior ended abruptly for Wilks, forced to come down from the booth after the Week 9 Bye.

The main reason for that was communication.

“Just because of the some of the stuff you do in the box, all the advantages to it, which are great, but I kind of want him to be down and be near our players a little bit,” Shanahan explained at the time. “They’ve had that more just with the linebacker communication in the past. I want him to be down there so he can talk to guys a little bit more.”

This was the first time members of the media and 49ers Faithful felt Wilks could be on the hot seat with SF, especially if things didn’t improve quickly.

Meanwhile, the coordinator wasn’t worried, trying to shrug off the decision as only a strategic advantage moving forward. 

“Just very candidly, I think we’re making a bigger deal out of it than it needs to be,” Steve Wilks said. “I just want to be able to communicate with the guys during the game a little bit more. Certain things that I’m seeing, I’d rather be able to talk to them directly than communicate with coaches.”

But most of us knew there was more to the story. 

When Wilks shared that he would be calling games from the booth to start the year, it was because he was too emotional on the sidelines. The coordinator feared he would get too hot at times if things went askew, and wanted to temper the fuse by being away from the action.

Here’s the problem with that: The 49ers are an emotion-based team. 

SF’s defense has the tenacity and passion for football because of the brotherhood between players and coaches. Robert Saleh was a big part of that, as was DeMeco Ryans, and got the most out of their players with that fire.

Wilks on the other hand, was more reserved, sticking to the growth of the secondary rather than the growth of the whole unit. His inability to connect with defensive leaders in front of the secondary was damning, and a big reason why he had to come down from the booth in the first place.

The 49ers would come out of their Bye week with their hair on fire, smoking their first four opponents in big ways. Wilks’ emotion on the sideline was a part of that but felt more manufactured and forced than that of his predecessors. 

Like Shanahan said at the top, not the right fit for what his defense needs. A leader of all men, not just the DBs.

3. Run game regression in the postseason

The final straw for Shanahan and Wilks’ co-existence was an ongoing issue for most of the season: Run defense.

The 49ers dropped from first and second in 2021 and 2022, to 26th overall by the end of the 2023 season. San Francisco made the interior defensive line a priority by signing Javon Hargrave to a four-year deal last offseason. But instead of the unit getting better with more talent, they got worse, with Wilks’ scheme most at fault.

The 2022 49ers allowed only 77.7 rushing yards a game, the third-fewest in team history since 1970. A year later, that number jumped to 89.7 yards per game, with 4.1 yards per carry for the season. Additionally, teams ran for more than 100 yards in a game on six occasions. That only occurred four times in the prior year.

The run-game woes were exposed in the postseason, allowing a whopping 448 rushing yards in three contests. That’s simply unacceptable for a unit comprised of high-end talent on the interior.

The last straw came in Super Bowl LVIII when Steve Wilks continuously played preventive defense against Patrick Mahomes in the fourth quarter. Faced with a second and six in overtime, the DC called a zero blitz that made Shanahan livid, forcing him to burn a timeout.  

And it wasn’t the first time that series Wilks was calling soft coverage.

The preventive defense mixed with an all-out blitz allowed Mahomes to dissect the 49ers, marching downfield on a 13-play drive that ultimately won the Chiefs the game.

Maybe that play-calling would work against lesser QBs, but not Mahomes, with 49ers players giving damning reviews of what happened after the fact.

“The zone read got us a couple of times. We could have been more prepared there. We have to know in crucial situations who is going to have the ball, and obviously it’s [Mahomes],” Nick Bosa said Tuesday.

The “We could have been more prepared,” line is more indicative of the DL group’s thoughts on Steve Wilks. 

Just as Kawakami said at the start, they stopped believing in the coordinator, leaning on DL coach Kris Kocurek for much of the year. That kind of disconnect isn’t sustainable for even the most structurally sound franchises, including the 49ers.

Because of all those reasons, Shanahan was forced to make the tough call of reliving Wilks of his role a year into the pairing. SF will now search for another prominent defensive mind that can either ingratiate themselves better with the 49ers’ ways or present a more additive approach to maximizing this group’s potential. 

How all that will unfold remains to be seen.

Key offseason dates for the San Francisco 49ers

  • Tuesday, Feb. 20th – Teams can begin franchising players until Tuesday, March 5th
  • Tuesday, Feb. 27 – NFL Combine begins
  • Thursday, March 13 – The 2024 free agency signing period begins at 1 p.m. PST

Thank you for reading Follow us on Twitter and Google News, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.


San Francisco 49ers

Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers works out during training camp at SAP Performance Facili...

Amiliano Fragoso

San Francisco 49ers release 2024 Training Camp dates

The 49ers announced their 2024 Training Camp open practice schedule this week, spanning from July 25th to August 7th.

14 hours ago

Tashaun Gipson Sr. #31 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates an interception during the third quart...

Amiliano Fragoso

Former 49ers S Tashaun Gipson accepts six-game PED suspension, vows to make NFL return

Former 49ers S Tashaun Gipson shed light on his six-game suspension, taking full responsibility for taking a banned substance unknowingly.

2 days ago

Tashaun Gipson Sr. #31 of the San Francisco 49ers lines up against the Philadelphia Eagles during t...

Amiliano Fragoso

NFL suspends former 49ers S Tashaun Gipson Sr. for six games

Reports Tuesday say former 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson is suspended six games after violating the performance-enhancing substances policy.

10 days ago

Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divi...

Amiliano Fragoso

3 Trade Scenarios for Brandon Aiyuk IF 49ers decided to part ways

The 49ers and Brandon Aiyuk haven't been able to work out a new deal. What if they did trade him? Here are three possible destinations.

18 days ago

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 11: Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers heads to the locker room ...

Amiliano Fragoso

Adam Schefter: 49ers were ‘never serious’ about trading Brandon Aiyuk this offseason

The 49ers have long wanted Brandon Aiyuk to remain in Red & Gold long-term, with Adam Schefter stating that outright on The Pat McAfee Show.

20 days ago

Ricky Pearsall #14 of the San Francisco 49ers works out during mini camp on June 05, 2024 in Santa ...

Amiliano Fragoso

Official: Ricky Pearsall signs rookie deal with San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers rookie WR Ricky Pearsall has put pen to paper on his four-year rookie deal, with the team announcing it Friday.

21 days ago

3 signs the writing was on the wall for Steve Wilks 49ers tenure