What makes 49ers' Robert Saleh such an attractive head coach candidate

Matt Maiocco
·5 min read

What makes 49ers' Saleh such an attractive coaching candidate originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Your team fired its head coach.

You’re seeing names of assistant coaches from around the NFL connected to the opening.

Your team has a young quarterback who just needs to be in a suitable system, supported and nurtured.

Or, perhaps, your team is in position to draft one of the top quarterbacks coming out in the draft.

Or, your team already has some legitimate quarterback options. The next head coach must come in, chart a new direction and find a way to get the most out of the quarterback position and those players around him.

Your first thought — maybe your only thought — is the next head coach must come from a background on the offensive side of the ball.

That’s a rational way to look at it.

And Robert Saleh might not seem like the right choice. After all, Saleh has been the 49ers’ defensive coordinator the past four seasons.

Saleh’s defense was the main reason the 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl last year. Yet, his better coaching job came this season when injuries decimated the roster and the 49ers’ defense still ranked among the league’s best in nearly every statistical measure.

Saleh, 41, is a known candidate for six of the seven NFL head-coaching vacancies. Whether it’s over Zoom or in-person like his reported interview Tuesday with the New York Jets, one of the main topics is his plan for the offensive side of the ball.

And this is where Saleh could actually thrive.

He is a very good defensive coordinator. But his attention to detail and rare ability to earn the trust of those around him could make him an even better head coach.

Saleh was a tight end at Northern Michigan, where he earned a degree in finance while being a four-year starter and all-conference player at tight end.

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In his words, he chased the money after college. He sat in a cubicle and worked as a credit analyst at Comerica Bank. When his brother, David, barely escaped the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Saleh had an epiphany to follow his dream.

He quit his stable job and entered the coaching ranks. In 2005, with a boost from best friend Matt LaFleur, he landed an entry-level job with the Houston Texans as a defensive intern.

During his six seasons with the Texans, he would wander into the meetings of then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He often sat in the back of the room to help him gain a better understanding of the offensive side of the ball.

Saleh did the same on occasion with coordinator Darrell Bevell’s offense when he moved to Seattle to serve as a defensive quality control coach.

Saleh has the genuine belief that the background of the head coach should make no difference. The skills of the head coach have to be a lot more basic. The coach must create a positive culture at all levels of an organization.

“Offense, defense, special teams, it doesn’t matter,” Saleh said late in the season when discussing his leadership philosophy. “It’s the mindset of the person in charge that creates an atmosphere in which players compete and players fight for one another, and players have a genuine love for one another.”

Sure, the success of Saleh’s defense with the 49ers has helped him land a few Zoom invites. But his preparedness, people skills and overall vision are truly what make him one of the prime candidates of the NFL hiring season.

Back in 2017, Shanahan wanted Saleh on his staff. The initial plan was for him to join as linebackers coach. But when Shanahan was unable to hire Vic Fangio or Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator, he began to consider Saleh.

Saleh said back in 2017 he was going to help Shanahan any way possible. But, in his mind, he knew all along that he was the best candidate for the job.

“Giving me that opportunity to interview, there was no way in heck, in my mind, he’d have any other choice,” Saleh said.

Saleh presented Shanahan with a blueprint for how he would approach and carry out his job.

He revealed a detailed offseason plan, including how the coaches would conduct their own 7-on-7 walkthroughs to get on the same page and eliminate any gray areas or misunderstandings before they even got together with the players.

Everything was taken into account, and no elements of the defensive philosophy, adjustments and lesson plans were omitted.

Shanahan was blown away by the level of thought Saleh had already given to a job he had not yet been hired to fill.

If Saleh put all of that work into becoming a defensive coordinator, you can only imagine how well-prepared he is for an opportunity to become an NFL head coach.

And about that whole offense-defense thing? Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin are the active coaches with the most wins. Only Reid comes from a background on offense.

Saleh, undoubtedly, has a plan to account for the possibility that his offense thrives and whomever he hires as his offensive coordinator would move on to become a head coach. He believes continuity can be achieved even with comings and goings on a coaching staff.

The head coach must have a strong relationship with the general manager. That is one thing Saleh has recognized in his career. But it is equally important for the head coach to work well with the quarterback to create that shared vision.

RELATED: Why DeMeco Ryans is best fit to replace Saleh, if he leaves

Saleh might have a background in defense. But his biggest strengths are connecting with people, forming unions and giving support to individuals to play fast and thrive.

Those skills, not his acumen for running a defense, should make him so attractive to any organization with an opportunity to bring him to their side.