Brandon Staley embracing 'reset' with 49ers as assistant head coach

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Thursday, May 23, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the weeks after parting ways with the Los Angeles Chargers in mid-December, Brandon Staley spent his days trying to unpack all that had transpired in his nearly three seasons as head coach.

Staley was reading books, working out and hanging out with his family. Throughout that period, he wanted to be sure that whatever job was next for him in the NFL made sense.

That opportunity arose in early March, when the San Francisco 49ers hired Staley to coach Kyle Shanahan's defensive staff. On Tuesday, Staley's title -- assistant head coach/defense -- was revealed.

"I don't think looking at it as a reset is a bad thing," Staley said Wednesday in his first interview with Bay Area media. "I think about playing quarterback when you reset. It's giving you a pause to move on to the next thing. And I was really excited about the role. I think talking to Kyle and [general manager] John [Lynch], there's just a lot in common ground and how to lead a football team.

"And that's what I was looking for more than anything -- an opportunity where you feel like you're going to be aligned with the right people who do things the right way and where you have a chance to improve and where you also have a chance to affect a team that can compete for a championship. I think all those stars kind of aligned, and it's been energizing."

Staley's addition came after the Niners fired defensive coordinator Steve Wilks following an overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in February's Super Bowl LVIII. Upon firing Wilks, Shanahan said he wanted the defense to get back to the principles that made it one of the league's best units under previous coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans.

While Staley doesn't have a background in that scheme, Niners assistant Nick Sorensen does, which is why Sorensen was named the new D-coordinator. But an interview with Staley left Shanahan and Lynch intrigued by what wrinkles he could bring to the mix.

Schematically, Staley is a disciple of Vic Fangio, the former 49ers defensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh from 2011 to 2014 and current coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. The Niners hope that experience can translate into Staley adding some wrinkles to the defense while also tying the pass rush and coverage together more cohesively.

"I think Brandon is in a real good spot, just leaving from being a head coach and how he can help us in a number of roles," Shanahan said. "I think Nick feels very excited to have a guy on the staff who has called plays, who has done it at a number of different places and things. I think he's helped him a lot in those ways.

"Brandon is helping him on a lot of things, just like all the other coaches do on the defensive staff. With Brandon's expertise just in other areas than just defense, with his expertise as a head coach and things, I thought he was a real benefit in the draft and helps me in a number of areas also."

Shanahan and Staley knew each other well from previous meetings when Staley coached the Chargers or was coordinating the Los Angeles Rams' defense in 2020. The Niners and Chargers held joint practices together in Costa Mesa, California, in 2021, which gave the pair another opportunity to see each other work up close.

Staley said Wednesday he has long admired Shanahan and, even with Sorensen getting the coordinator job, their mutual admiration eventually led to the creation of the role for Staley.

"I've seen since Kyle became the head coach here and John became the general manager here -- when they came here together -- how far they've really brought this team and organization since 2017 to now," Staley said. "And I think every year that I've been in the NFL, I've competed against this team, so I've seen the growth of this football team, of this organization, and I think that's where the respect comes from.

"I think a lot of people see the Niners as what they are, but it wasn't like that at the beginning. And there was a journey to get there, and I know how hard they've worked to get it to this point."

According to Shanahan, Staley's role will continue to evolve. He will help Sorensen put together the game plan. And though it's unclear where he will be coaching on game days, Staley could have some input into game management, as well. Staley also offered input for Lynch and his staff in draft preparation.

During the team's OTAs on Tuesday, Staley was even seen playing the role of quarterback in the defensive install portion of practice. It's something Shanahan has mostly done since his arrival in 2017, with Shanahan noting that his arm was a bit sore and joking that Staley "wanted to show me that he could do it better."

It's all part of a new start for Staley after he went 24-24 with one playoff appearance in two-plus seasons with the Chargers before he was fired following a 63-21 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 15.

For now, getting back to a head-coaching job isn't on Staley's radar.

"The longer you coach, you realize this is one day at a time," Staley said. "The longer you do it, the more you're focused on today. And so, the longer I do it, the more that I'm just focused on being as good as I can be today for these guys. And if we pour into the players, good things will happen."