Mike Shanahan spent a portion of the 2018 49ers season with the team helping out the head coach, his son Kyle. He would wake up early every morning to get a workout in. It was in the gym where Robert Saleh, the 49ers defensive coordinator, made an impression on him.
“I would see Saleh in there every day at 5:30 in the morning,” Shanahan told The Post recently. “That’s when you know, and it’s not a big deal relative to working out, but the discipline to do that on a daily basis … I was really impressed.”
That discipline along with his football acumen, ability to relate to players and willingness to adapt are reasons why Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls as the coach of the Broncos, believes Saleh can turn the moribund Jets around.
“I really believe the Jets have got the right guy,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan watched Saleh and the 49ers closely over the past four seasons with Kyle in charge. He spent time with the team and spoke with Kyle often about what was going on with the team. Shanahan is tied with Tom Coughlin for 14th in NFL history with 170 regular-season wins with the Raiders, Broncos and Redskins. He said he could tell early on that Saleh had the makings of a head coach.
“The thing that is really great about Saleh is he’s an emotional guy. Players love him,” Shanahan said. “He’s a real guy. Players catch on to that very quickly. There’s no bull [crap] to him. What you see is what you get. He’s going to be the same every day. He will keep on top of all three phases — offense, defense and special teams — because he understands the big picture.”
The Jets are coming off a 2-14 season and have had five consecutive losing seasons. Shanahan said it reminds him of the situation that Saleh and Kyle were in when they went to San Francisco in 2017. The 49ers had been 2-14 the year before and had gone through two head coaches in two seasons.
The 49ers have struggled with injuries during Saleh’s time there, but they made the Super Bowl during a healthy 2019.
“He’s not afraid. He’s a real guy,” Shanahan said. “But he understands there’s a lot of hard work that has to be done by everybody in the organization. If you’re not one of those people, you’re not going to last long. Robert knows that.”
Saleh showed his ability to adapt last season when the 49ers were ravaged by injuries on defense. His unit still finished fifth in the league in total defense and fourth in passing defense, getting major contributions from unexpected players like Jason Verrett and Kerry Hyder.
“You have to be willing to make changes. Some coaches aren’t,” Shanahan said. “Robert liked what he was doing but wasn’t afraid to make changes because it was in the best interest of the football team. I think over the last couple of years, the reason the defense did so well is they made those changes and made them quite well.”
Saleh is going to face the challenge that every first-time head coach does of adjusting from life as a coordinator to life as the head coach. Shanahan said Saleh will be prepared.
“I think Robert will be a guy that will be on top of knowing the decisions a head coach has to make and studying the heck out of it in the offseason,” Shanahan said, “knowing he hasn’t done it but he’s going to have to make those decisions and make the right ones very quickly. He’ll be studying this whole offseason. He’ll put himself in all the situations a head coach faces during the season. I’d be surprised if he’s not doing it right now.”