Following the Super Bowl loss, the 49ers fired Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator

The San Francisco 49ers have come close — very close — to recapturing the franchise's glorious past in recent seasons. Their most painful miss came Sunday in Las Vegas, where it took them nearly five full quarters to fall to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.

But as the 49ers begin to regroup from their latest postseason disappointment and make another attempt at their first Super Bowl victory in three decades, they're hoping things will work out better next time, rather than just holding on to the status quo.

Coach Kyle Shanahan announced Wednesday that the team has fired defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. The exit didn't come entirely without warning, as the 49ers experienced some growing pains on defense during the regular season and struggled on that side of the ball during the NFC playoffs after Wilkes took over for DeMeco Ryans. But it's certainly surprising for a team to make such a big change to its coaching staff three days after coming so close to a Super Bowl victory.

No team has ever won three consecutive Super Bowls. Here comes the principals.

“We felt very strongly that this was the best decision for our organization,” Shanahan told reporters, according to the team's website. “Even though it's something I don't want to do, it's something I feel. … Another direction is better [the] system.”

The 49ers hired Wilks after the Houston Texans hired Ryans as their coach last season. Ryans served as the 49ers' defensive coordinator for two seasons after taking over for Robert Saleh when the New York Jets hired him as their coach following the 2020 season.

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Wilkes has been the interim coach of the Carolina Panthers. He made a strong bid to be retained as a full-time coach. But he was passed over last season by Panthers owner David Tepper, who hired Frank Reich to replace him — and Reich only pitched 11 games this season.

Wilks, formerly the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, joined a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the NFL and teams in February 2022 by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. Last March, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni ruled against Wilkes' claims. The Cardinals must submit to arbitration under the authority of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, based on the terms of his employment contract.

With Wilkes in charge, the 49ers ranked eighth in the NFL in total defense during the regular season. They led the league in total defense under Ryans in the 2022 season. Shanahan criticized Wilkes' poor all-out-blitz call during an October loss to the Minnesota Vikings, part of a three-game skid following the 49ers' 5-0 start. Wilkes said at the time he wanted to “take it back.” Wilks, at Shanahan's urging, made an offseason move to call defensive coverages from the sidelines rather than from the coaches' booth.

The Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions combined for 52 points and 318 rushing yards against the 49ers during the NFC playoffs. In the Super Bowl, the 49ers played mostly well on defense, limiting quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to 19 points — thanks to four field goals and a touchdown by the 49ers — in regulation.

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But in overtime, after the 49ers took the ball first and got a field goal, they allowed the Chiefs to drive for the winning touchdown. Shanahan called a timeout during the Chiefs' decisive drive, and while expressing his belief that the 49ers' defense was tired, later admitted that he didn't like the “look” of the 49ers' defense on the play.

Standout pass rusher Nick Bosa told reporters Tuesday that the 49ers have “had some issues all year” on defense but are “finally playing our best ball.”

By Wednesday, Shanahan had announced the change. Shanahan said he's trying to give the team a better chance next season, and suggested that Wilkes' successor might be familiar with the 49ers' defensive scheme that existed for the past few seasons prior to Wilkes' arrival.

“I feel like when you have a group of guys that have done certain things a certain way for a while and played at a high level, that's going to be the best for them,” Shanahan said. “But if I can find something I believe in and sell it, I'll never hesitate to do it.”

The 49ers have reached four of the last five NFC Championship games. But they've lost two Super Bowls — to the Chiefs — and two NFC Championship games in that span.

They haven't won a Super Bowl since January 1995 when George Seifert was their coach and Steve Young was their quarterback. It's a franchise that was once thought to have won the Super Bowl its birthright. It was a team of Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.

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These 49ers are getting close. General manager John Lynch and Shanahan were hired in 2017. In the third year of their reign, they created an annual tournament. The roster is one of the most talented in the NFL. The 49ers will have to deal with salary cap issues this offseason, given the star power on their roster and the cap impact of those players' contracts. But they at least have quarterback Brock Birdie on a cap-friendly rookie deal.

“Obviously we're hurting,” Shanahan said Sunday night in Las Vegas. “Our team is hurting. But that's how it goes when you put yourself out there. I'm very proud of our guys. No regrets for our team. I thought our guys played really hard today. Everything just wasn't right. , by no means. … Let's take some time. We'll finish this and get ready for next year.

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