NFL Analysis


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Kyle Shanahan Changed the NFL, But Will He Finally Win League's Ultimate Prize?

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan waves to fans after winning the NFC Championship football game against the Detroit Lions at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Atlanta Falcons are the embodiment of Kyle Shanahan. 

Under young Shanny's guidance, the 2016 Falcons had an earth-shattering offense, the likes of which we arguably haven't seen since. Matt Ryan elevated to an MVP level, Julio Jones left no doubt he was the best receiver in football, and the two-headed backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman randomly became the most terrifying duo in the sport. 

Every part of the offense was efficient and explosive, a combination made possible by Shanahan's unique marriage of the zone running scheme and the play-action passing. One play call would set up another, which set up another, and so on, and players executed to near perfection.

The Falcons were a ruthless machine of an offense. 

It was all for naught in the end. The infamous 28-3 comeback in Super Bowl LI erased everything. Shanahan's offense didn't allow the New England Patriots to score 25 points, of course, but the unit did stall out in the second half. At the end of the game, Shanahan's offense failed to chew clock and get into field goal range to salvage the mess, a failure punctuated by a second-and-11 sack followed by a third-and-23 holding penalty that moved the Falcons to the Patriots' 45-yard line. 

That season — and that moment — was an omen for Shanahan's career to this point. Since that point, no other offensive mind has placed as many fingerprints all over the sport as Shanahan has. 

Shanahan's Influence Is Everywhere

His ideas and former staffers are everywhere. The entire league is obsessed with finding the "next Shanahan." And yet, Shanahan himself, despite all the influence in the world, hasn't won the big one. Success at the highest level escapes him — no matter how many times he comes close. 

Recent Shanahan Disciples

CoachCurrent TeamYears With ShanahanRecord
Mike McDanielDolphins2011-2120-14
Matt LaFleurPackers2010-13, 2015-1656-27
Robert SalehJets2017-2018-33
DeMeco RyansTexans2017-2210-7

Shanahan's legacy, though far from complete at just 44 years old, is complicated for that reason. The most revered coaches in the sport's history were influential and successful. No coach in the sport has been as innovative or influential as Shanahan since Pete Carroll's Legion of Boom. Still, without a single ring — even as a coordinator — there will always be a section of fans and analysts who discount Shanahan's career to this point. 

It's impossible to deny Shanahan's ability to call an offense and be at the forefront of offensive football, though. He has been calling some of the league’s best offenses for at least a decade, a stretch that's only rivaled by Andy Reid and Sean McVay. 

More than that, Shanahan has managed all types of quarterbacks and personnel, always bending the core principles of his offense to meet the task at hand. 

The Early Years

Shanahan got started as an offensive coordinator under Gary Kubiak with the Houston Texans in 2008 and 2009. However, it wasn't until the second half of Shanahan's 2010-13 run with Washington that his potential started to show. 

Washington drafted Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft, a completely different quarterback from anyone else in the league and a player who was coming from a spread-out, vertical offense that bore zero resemblance to a pro offense. 

Griffin was nothing like what Matt Schaub was for Shanahan in Houston — or like any other Shanahan-esque quarterback, for that matter. 

Shanahan found solutions anyway. He adapted the offense to play more from shotgun and pistol formations. The pistol not only allowed Shanahan to maintain the zone running looks and play-action he wanted from under center but also allowed him to incorporate zone-read elements he was using in the shotgun. Griffin — prior to injuries — flourished by showcasing his athletic ability and booming arm strength. 

When Shanahan left the following year, he spent the 2014 season turning Josh Gordon into the league's leading receiver with Brian Hoyer and, briefly, Johnny Manziel at quarterback. 

Shanahan's two-year run with the Falcons came after that. He then took the San Francisco 49ers job in 2017, riding the high from producing the 2010s' best rendition of "The Greatest Show on Turf" in Atlanta. 

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan talks during the second quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Bay Area Journey

The seven years Shanahan has spent in San Francisco almost feel like two distinct eras, though. There's the Jimmy Garoppolo era and now the Brock Purdy era — one of familiarity and one of adaptability. 

Shanahan brought in Garoppolo immediately to run a stock-standard version of the offense. The early portion of Shanahan's 49ers tenure was defined by the core principles we all know of his offense: under center formations, heavy personnel, zone running game and play-action throws over the middle of the field. 

He put together a dominant run game with almost exhausting consistency, and Garoppolo, imperfect as he was, threw the hell out of those play-action in-breakers. 

At a certain point, Shanahan recognized that the formula was stale. The 49ers sought out Trey Lance in 2021 and stumbled upon Purdy in 2022 to change that. Throw in the trade for RB Christian McCaffrey, a far more versatile player than the typical dime-a-dozen Shanahan backs, and the offense underwent a huge makeover within 18 months. 

>> READ MORE: How McCaffrey Unlocked 49ers' Potential

Shanahan started to mess with the formula in 2020, but it never crystallized until recently. His offense now operates from the shotgun more than it has since the RG3 days. 

The 49ers operated from shotgun on fewer than half their snaps from 2017-19 but have been over 57 percent each of the last four seasons. Likewise, San Francisco operates from empty formations now more than ever. Of the 49ers’ dropbacks this season 20.7 percent were from empty formations, per TruMedia. That number was just 13.3 percent in 2020. 

The overall structure of the offense has followed, in large part because of McCaffrey. Gone are the days of spamming in-breakers over the middle off the back of a zone running game. The run game is far more diverse now, incorporating counter and power runs into the menu. McCaffrey's ability to read and execute on those plays is far superior to any other back Shanahan has had in San Francisco. 

McCaffrey changed the passing game, too. The offense still enjoys its in-breakers over the middle, but the team has traded some of those out for true, full-field dropback concepts that let McCaffrey feast underneath. His dominance on option routes gives San Francisco's passing offense an easy button that doesn't require Shanahan to find another way to get a drift route running wide open. 

Hell, McCaffrey's pass protection skills have even allowed the 49ers to do more dropback concepts rather than having to game up the protection with play-action. 

This ever-evolving version of the Purdy-McCaffrey offense is Shanahan's best work since the 2016 Falcons. The unit is efficient, explosive and versatile. 

Few other offenses have as many stars at the skill positions, and Shanahan finally has a quarterback who brings his own spark to the offense instead of just being a passenger. The fact that Shanahan could change his stripes again on the fly is one of a thousand testaments to his unique offensive mind. 

Shanahan just needs the accolades to solidify it.

Anyone who watches and studies the sport could gush about Shanahan's offense for hours. But without any hardware to show for it, he'll continue to be labeled as someone whose football acumen outpaces his ability to lead a team. It's unfair and wrong, especially if you consider Shanahan's growth in player management in his San Francisco tenure alone, but winners get to write history.

For at least the next few days, Shanahan is not a winner. 

With that idea in mind, it's important to remember past failures don't preclude a coach from winning. Look no further than Shanahan's opposite in this game: Andy Reid. 

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid greets San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan after Super Bowl LIV. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Reid's Similar Path

Reid was a highly successful offensive mind and head coach for two decades before securing a Super Bowl victory. He consistently found ways to create explosive passing offenses and win with the Philadelphia Eagles during his first stint as a head coach, going so far as to get them to the Super Bowl in 2004. 

Following the 2012 season, Reid started anew in Kansas City, immediately turning the downtrodden franchise into postseason regulars. 

All the while, Reid was revered for his offensive creativity — while being chastised for his penchant for passing too much and his horrific clock management. Those criticisms were always levied against Reid as evidence he could never win the big one despite his unending streak of producing good offense. 

He was fortunate enough to land Patrick Mahomes, though, and all of that went away. Reid has guided the Chiefs to six straight AFC championships, four Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl wins (so far). Mahomes was clearly the nudge needed to get Reid over the finish line. However, it says something that his past teams were always in contention. Things just kicked into overdrive with Superman at quarterback. 

Purdy is in nowhere near the same stratosphere as Mahomes, but he's at least the best quarterback Shanahan has had in San Francisco. He's more dynamic than Garoppolo and far more put-together than Lance. 

Purdy is kind of the best of both worlds: efficient enough to run Shanahan's offense at a high level but just athletic and chaotic enough to spark the offense outside of structure. That extra bit of creativity could be all that's necessary to get Shanahan across the finish line this time. 

Sunday Isn't the Finale

Sunday's Super Bowl won't be the final chapter in Shanahan's legacy. Regardless of the outcome, he has 20 more years to write the rest of his story. We can't know how his story ends... until it does.

At the same time, this is his best chance to get the monkey off his back. Shanahan has done everything a great coach can do — except bring home a Lombardi trophy. He's been innovative and influential; he's constantly kept up with the times, if not forced the times to change. 

The league has come to be shaped in his image.

There aren't more than a handful of other coaches in modern history who can say that. A win Sunday would be a validation of his impact and would create even more of a scramble for others to find the "next Shanahan."