Robert Saleh is such a hot item on the NFL’s prospect list for 2021 head coaches that a bipartisan contingent of state legislators recently sent a letter to Detroit Lions ownership advocating the hiring of San Francisco’s fourth-year defensive coordinator as the Lions next head coach.
Now, that’s hot.
When you’ve got three dozen politicians in your corner, that’s absolutely sizzling. Naturally, with games still to coach and defensive game plans still to devise this year with the 49ers, Saleh downplayed the incident as San Francisco prepared for the final quarter of its 2020 season of struggles that has been highlighted once again by the strong play of Saleh’s defense.
“I don’t know what to make of it or anything like that,” Saleh said after a Week 13 practice. “So, it’s just whatever, I guess, you know.”
Yes, we know. Everybody knows.
Saleh is almost certainly a goner once San Francisco’s season ends after building one of the greatest defenses in franchise history last year and keeping that unit at a high level again this season despite experiencing a steady stream of devastating injuries to several of his most essential defenders.
Somehow, someway, Saleh’s defense has managed to carry a team that has threatened to collapse to the weight of adversity this season on practically a weekly basis. Saleh has received a great deal of credit for the performance of a unit that ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense entering the second week of December — about where San Francisco’s defense has been located in the NFL rankings throughout most of the season.
That development has pushed Saleh high on the list of top candidates for head-coaching positions that will be available during the NFL’s upcoming hiring cycle. Saleh joins Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy among the leading names mentioned atop that list.
It’s no surprise to 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan — who recruited Saleh to be a first-time coordinator when Shanahan was assembling his first staff of San Francisco assistants in 2017 — that Saleh is likely headed elsewhere next year.
In fact, Shanahan appears almost resigned to losing the leader of a defense that pushed San Francisco into the Super Bowl last season. He just feels fortunate it didn’t happen last year after Saleh guided a unit that finished the season ranked second in the NFL in total defense while leading the league in passing defense.
“I’m always concerned. I never want to lose Saleh,” Shanahan said. “He deserved (a head-coaching position) last year. It’s just a matter of time before he becomes one. I keep telling him don’t be mad at me, because I know he’s going to become one eventually. I hope he stays here as long as possible. He needs to be in no rush. So, hopefully, people don’t figure it out and he stays here for a little bit.”
That’s not going to happen. Saleh is headed out of San Francisco in 2021 as soon as he decides on the team of his choice among the open head-coaching opportunities.
And there already appears to be a strong leading contender for his services.
“He has to get the Detroit job,” said four-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, a future Hall of Famer who has praised Saleh and his defensive system ever since Sherman joined the 49ers in 2018.
“Homegrown,” Sherman continued. “I expect him to be a head coach next year because of what he’s able to do. He’s able to rally men. He’s a leader of men. And that goes a long way.”
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