You can’t draw a straight line from “good NFL player” to “good NFL coach,” but that doesn’t mean a successful playing career doesn’t impress on a résumé.
The San Francisco 49ers brought in two accomplished players to its coaching staff this offseason – wide receivers coach Wes Welker and offensive quality control coach Miles Austin. Welker made five Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro twice during his 12-year career. He caught 903 passes for 9,924 yards and 50 touchdowns, doing most of his damage with the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. Austin was a two-time Pro Bowler who spent eight of his 10 NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. His best season came in 2009 when he amassed 81 receptions for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Kyle Shanahan talked at length at the NFL Combine about why each guy is a valued addition in San Francisco.
“I always try to get someone in who has played the position, which is sometimes tough to do,” Shanahan said. “But, if you can find someone who did it and you feel they’re prepared from a coaching standpoint, it’s kind of the best of both worlds.”
Shanahan had long admired Welker from afar. They played against each other in college (Shanahan was at Texas while Welker played at Texas Tech), and Shanahan always kept tabs on Welker’s ascension to an All-Pro caliber player. After retiring in 2016, Welker spent two seasons as a quality control coach with the Houston Texans in 2017-18 before joining the 49ers.
“That’s a guy who not only was really talented, but made it because of what was upstairs, also, and how he developed,” Shanahan said. “Knowing he’s put in the work and put two hard years in at Houston, going the quality control route, and just talking to him and interviewing him you can tell he was serious about becoming a coach and was ready to put in the work, put in the hours. He’s a talented guy and a good person. I feel fortunate to have him on the staff.”
Shanahan had more first-hand knowledge of Austin as the two crossed paths in 2014 with the Cleveland Browns. Austin also, in Shanahan’s words, “tore us up plenty of times when I was at Washington and he was in Dallas.” Like Welker, Austin also earned Shanahan’s utmost admiration.
“Miles is one of my favorite players that I’ve ever coached just in terms of how on it he was – whether it was the run game (or) the pass game,” Shanahan said. “He really enjoyed football. He was descending at that time in his career, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to like him as much. But, then when I got there and I saw the person – you could see why he was so successful. A guy like that, you’re always like, ‘Hey man, if you’re ever really interested in being a coach, you’d be a hell of one.’”
There are two common obstacles for players who want to make the pivot into coaching. The first is the grind that comes with the profession. It’s one thing to miss the game of football. It’s another thing entirely to willingly embrace the hours that go into being an NFL coach.
The second is your mastery of the game itself as well as your ability to teach.
“The most important thing is that you can coach and you know what you’re talking about,” Shanahan said. “If you’re one of those guys and you played, that’s even better. You can relate in a bunch of different areas and stuff.
“(But) if you hire a person just because they played, that might last the first week. A (player) will listen to a guy just because they remember what he looked like on TV. But, once they realize that they can’t teach them anything, then it becomes a very long year. You’ve got to get the best of both worlds.”
As far as Shanahan is concerned, that’s what the 49ers have found in Welker and Austin.