Steve Wilks Fired, 49ers Begin Search For New DC

Three days removed from a crushing loss in the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers fired defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Wilks, a former head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, lasted just one year in the Bay Area as the team’s DC.

“This morning I relieved Steve Wilks of his duties,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said in a conference call Wednesday that was scheduled just 10 minutes before it happened. “[We’re] going to end up making a change here at defensive coordinator. A really tough decision, because [it] really says nothing about Steve as a man or as a football coach. I mean, he’s exactly what we wanted as a man. He is a great football coach.

“But just where we’re going and where we’re at with our team from a scheme standpoint and things like that, looking through it all throughout the year to these last few days, I felt pretty strongly that this was a decision that was best for the organization.”

One day earlier, Shanahan questions about Wilks’ potential continuation as defensive coordinator for another season. He mentioned needing additional time to assess his sentiments toward his coaching staff, though he did express anticipation for the majority of his staff to return.

By Wednesday morning, Shanahan had realized that a “different direction” was necessary, acknowledging it as a decision he had to make.

During Wilks’ sole season with the Niners, the defense experienced its fair share of fluctuations. While the unit had excelled under DeMeco Ryans in 2022, leading the league in various categories such as the fewest points per game allowed and defensive expected points added, it encountered setbacks in 2023.

Despite San Francisco still ranking third in points allowed in 2023, the team slipped to ninth in defensive expected points added. Notably, the defense struggled against the run in the playoffs, conceding notable yardage to opponents like the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, and Kansas City Chiefs.

Shanahan acknowledged his role in some of these challenges, expressing his desire for Wilks to maintain the same defensive system established by Ryans and Robert Saleh before him.

“I knew that was a challenge,” Shanahan said. “It was real tough losing DeMeco. It was tough losing Saleh the year before. We had committed to not just the system, but the players that had been in the system, from our D-line or linebackers. They had played in it for such a long time.

“It was my goal to not have to change all of them, and bringing in Steve, who was unbelievable how loyal he was and him trying to do it, but it just ended up not being the right fit. And it hurt for me to do this, but that’s exactly why I had to.”

With the departure of Wilks, the 49ers find themselves searching for their third defensive coordinator in three consecutive seasons. Shanahan indicated that he would explore candidates from both within and outside the organization. The advantage of internal candidates lies in their potential familiarity with the defensive scheme, potentially aligning seamlessly with the team’s ethos, akin to Saleh and Ryans in the past.