In early 2010, Kyle Shanahan had just turned 30 years old and was headed into his eighth season of coaching. His dad, Mike Shanahan, knew how smart his only son was, knew his personality like a father would and knew Kyle’s chosen profession better than anyone else could.
But until he saw it with his own eyes, he didn’t really know.
On a March morning 10 years ago, Kyle addressed the Redskins players as their offensive coordinator for the first time. Maybe that was when Mike really knew that Kyle, a second-generation NFL coach, was capable of everything that we’ve seen happen over the last four months.
“He took control of the room,” the elder Shanahan said from Cabo Wednesday afternoon. “When he talked through the installation schedule, when he talked about how they'll play on offense, and then he could start to relate to the players, I saw it very quickly. Once I saw him handle the room as an offensive coordinator, before anything in the passing game, is the first time I could actually say, 'Holy cow, I have to wait for him a little bit.'"
So the father let his son run the show, knowing he’d done the right thing in hiring him for the Washington staff. Mike also knew there would be bumps ahead, and there were—from things going sideways with an aging Donovan McNabb to the rise and fall of Robert Griffin to a weird year in Cleveland and through early fits and starts with a loaded Falcons offense. And Kyle himself has told me that he needed those.
But what Mike saw in that room on that day was what couldn’t be taught.
Kyle always had the makings of an offense savant. Now, his father could see that he had real presence too.
“You have to be able to take over the room,” Mike continued. “When you're in the National Football League, people know it. Players know very quickly if you know what you're talking about. And you have to be able to talk about everything: Offense, defense, special teams. And then you have to say it the right way. Because you're dealing with a lot of personalities.
“He had that command of the room and he felt very comfortable talking about all phases of the game. And that was impressive to me. Especially being someone's dad, because you don't know, because I'd never been in that environment with him before."
The most interesting thing about that scene? There were two other guys in that room had what it took, too.
Conference championship weekend is here, and so is the Game Plan. This week, we’ve got …
• A look at two players on every team who’ll be key in the Watch List.
• Scouting reports on two prospects playing in this weekend’s all-star games.
• A new No. 1 in my power rankings!
But we’re starting with a central figure ahead of the NFL’s conference championships who’s spending the week leading up to it in … Mexico.
The two other coaches I referenced were quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur and offensive quality-control coach Sean McVay. The latter won the NFC title last year as the Rams head coach. The former will lead the Packers into this year’s title game against Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers. And if that’s not enough, the bones of the Tennessee offense are Mike Shanahan’s scheme—LaFleur installed it last year as the offensive coordinator, and new coordinator Arthur Smith has taken it to another level this year.
Simply put, Mike’s fingerprints are all over championship weekend.
As you might expect, Shanahan—who was in Santa Clara, Calif. for last weekend’s divisional playoff game, is spending the week at his place in Cabo and will fly back to the Bay Area on Sunday—had some interesting things to say as he’s watching his son take his own team to the biggest stage in professional sports.
Mike Shanahan knew that group of coaches in Washington was good. He let Kyle help steer the process, and there have been coaches who Kyle has brought with him from place to place, a group that really started to come together in Houston and was made up of guys right in his age range. Matt LaFleur was one of the originals.
“Kyle just told me, 'Hey, at Houston, [LaFleur] knows exactly what I was trying to teach,’” Mike said. “He said he's a very conscientious guy. A very smart guy. And he said, 'You'll love him. He's attentive to detail, everything you look for.' And [LaFleur] was good. We interviewed him, brought him in, and hired him.”
Likewise, Kyle had connections to McVay because both had served, at different times, under Jon Gruden in Tampa. “When I interviewed Sean, it was the same thing,” Mike said. “I was like, 'Holy cow. This guy's perfect. … It was the same thing with [LaFleur]. Being around him and interviewing him to start off just on defense or on offense in general. I just liked him as a guy and I felt like he was a perfect young guy to bring in at that time."
There’s a reason why that offense is everywhere in 2019—because of how difficult it is for other teams to deal with. Titans coach Mike Vrabel sought out a coordinator to install it when he got to Nashville two years ago, for that reason. New Browns coach Kevin Stefanski brought Gary Kubiak to Minnesota last year, so he could learn it better, and he installed it when he became the Vikings offensive coordinator.
And as for why the offense is perfect for today’s NFL, Mike reasons that the adaptability to different kinds of players, and how it marries different concepts together, makes it tough for defenses to decipher.
“It’s believing in a good running game and a good play-action game off of it,” Mike said. “Being able to go with quarterback keeps, use their legs as well as a good play-action game between the tackles, being able to do it with tight splits, wide splits, a lot of formation variations to attack different personnel. There are so many different things you could do. So, coordinators, they're able to look at things a little bit differently.”
Which is to say you could retrofit it, week-to-week, as that Redskin staff did in 2012, to work for Griffin one week and Kirk Cousins the next, without flipping the apple cart for the other 10 guys in the huddle.
“I mean, that's what good coaches are,” he continued. “Good coaches have to adjust with their personnel. And if you can't, usually you're not in the business very long. But you have to have the flexibility to look at the people you do have and see what they can do and what they do well. And then see if you can win games with that philosophy with the talent that you have. To me, that's what separates a coach.”
Mike Shanahan’s input now. Last year, the head coach’s dad was more involved. The 49ers brought him in to work with Jimmy Garoppolo while Garoppolo worked his way back from ACL surgery, a story that we told in August. This year, he hasn’t been around as much, but he gets his football fix with the ability to access pretty much whatever he wants via his iPad, while serving as a resource to Kyle as needed.
“I haven't been in the office at all,” Mike said. “I watch on my iPad. I don't have to be in the office. I'd been with Jimmy just because he'd been on the IR. He got hurt three games into the year. We had a chance to spend some time talking about football in general. That was a lot of fun. But that was something that the coaches didn't have time to do, because you have only a week for a game plan. For me that was fun. This year’s been different.
“The one thing you don't want to do as a father is be around too much. I've been excited just to watch him from afar on my iPad. And I'm just very proud of the job they've done and I'm hoping they can finish it the right way."
Do you know who the last offensive play-caller to win a Super Bowl in San Francisco was? I asked Shanahan.
"I do,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, I do."
The elder then said he “felt so lucky” to be there that year as the 1994 49ers OC, with the monster team in San Francisco, the quarterback he was coaching and guys like McVay’s grandfather, then-49ers VP John McVay, around (“I thought the world of his grandfather”). And yup, it sure is crazy that his son now is in that sort of spot, only as the head coach.
But when Mike looks at Kyle from a suite on Sunday, he says what he’ll be most proud of won’t have anything do with any play he calls. Moreso, it’ll be what he went through to be in position to call those plays in the first place—and all that’s happened since he saw his kid take over that room in Northern Virginia a decade ago.
People cried nepotism when things went sideways in D.C., even though Kyle purposefully stayed away from coaching with his dad over his first seven years. Navigating what Mike called “an almost impossible situation” in Cleveland, and helping have the team, at one point, at 7-4. Riding out the bumps early in Atlanta and getting to a Super Bowl. And then working through an 0-9 start in Year 1, and a quarterback injury in Year 2 with the Niners.
“You have to understand, in football, there's a lot of adversity,” Mike said. “You got to take advantage of your experience. Guys got to practice hard, you got to do things the right way, make sure the next year, you're not only keeping the right guys, but you're growing as a football team, Kyle did all that. He's been in some tough situations and worked through it and learned through experience."
Kyle’s command of that meeting room showed Mike 10 years ago that he had this in him. And as we’ve found out since, Kyle wasn’t the only one in that room that did.
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP WATCH LIST
49ers DE Nick Bosa: San Francisco scored five sacks against the Packers in November, and that was without Dee Ford in the lineup. I’d expect the Niners to vary their fronts and move their defensive linemen around, meaning this could wind up being a big stage for the presumptive Defensive Rookie of the Year. Packers RT Bryan Bulaga’s status will be key.
Titans CB Adoree Jackson: Jackson’s return to the lineup for the playoffs has been huge for the Titans, and he’s the corner on the team’s roster most capable of running with the Chiefs’ fleet of burners. How Tennessee DC Dean Pees deploys Jackson will something to watch early in the game at Arrowhead.
Packers RB Aaron Jones: Jones didn’t get much traction when these teams faced off earlier this season (13 rushes, 38 yards), but he figures to be key if Green Bay is going to slow down San Francisco’s fierce pass-rush. Watch in the first few series for unblocked defenders—the 49ers messed with the Vikings’ run scheme (since it’s a cousin of Kyle Shanahan’s) last week and got guys free. The Niners’ staff has the same institutional knowledge of the Packers’ offense.
Titans LT Taylor Lewan: Chiefs DE Frank Clark was an absolute menace in the win over the Texans, and it’ll be Lewan tasked this week with not allowing that to happen again. And Lewan is, of course, also a big piece of the Tennessee run game, which would be central to slow the game down and keep the ball out of Patrick Mahomes’ hands.
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes: This isn’t too complicated. The guy rung up seven straight touchdown drives against Houston – finally finding the stride that he hit a bunch of times last year. And it left a lot of people, myself included, wondering if that was just the beginning of a run for the Chiefs offense. (I’d say one Titan to watch in how Mahomes is defended will by safety Kevin Byard.)
Packers LB Blake Martinez: The Niners’ run game didn’t tear through the Packers on Nov. 24, but it was fairly productive, and is always a challenge for opponents – putting the defensive signal-caller, in this case, Martinez, in the crosshairs. Martinez could also play a role in trying to prevent TE George Kittle from going off like he did the first time around.
Chiefs DB Tyrann Mathieu: If the Titans try to jam the ball down the Chiefs’ throats like they did in November (26 carries, 225 yards as a team), then the Honey Badger figures to be important as the extra defender in the box. And Mathieu’s been key from a communication standpoint all year for a much improved Kansas City defense.
49ers LT Joe Staley: Staley draws Za’Darius Smith on Sunday, who has emerged as a real game-wrecker and seems to be getting better the deeper the Packers go. Smith was a major problem for the 49ers back in Week 12, even though the Packers got blown out, registering a sack-and-a-half and three quarterback hits, and leading his team with six tackles.
SI Gambling: Check out this week’s best bets against the spread from SI’s gambling experts for the conference title games.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
Western Michigan RB LeVante Bellamy (East/West Shrine Game, NFL Network, 3 p.m.): The fifth-year senior rushed for 1,472 yards and 23 touchdowns this year, and WMU (which has a bit of a rep for, um, exaggerating testing number) proclaims in his bio that he blazed a laser-time 4.28 40-yard dash. Whether or not that’s true, the 5' 9", 190-pounder can scoot and plays bigger than his size, and word on the ground in Tampa is he bulked up a bit for this week.
“Ton of production and he can fly,” one NFC exec texted. “Short guy that added some bulk for this game. They throw out some ridiculous testing numbers at the school, which you always have to take with a grain of salt, and he has to prove it in Indy but I imagine he runs 4.3 and jumps 40ish. He has a history of long runs and you see the finishing speed on tape. If he finds a small seam, he accelerates and not one can catch him. Should be a solid role player at the next level.”
Another NFC scout affirmed the assessment, saying that Bellamy is “not very big but runs big.” Should be interesting to see if he shows that with a step up in competition on Saturday’s all-star stage.
Ole Miss DE Qaadir Sheppard (NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, NFL Network, 7 p.m.): Sheppard’s case is fascinating. He started his college career at Syracuse, transferred after one year, and most believe that, even as guy who played all the way through his fifth-year senior season, there’s still a lot of untapped potential here. And that’s showing up this week in Southern California at the NFLPA game practices.
“He’s stood out,” one AFC exec said. “His film was pretty average but you knew there was something there. You know it’s in there, he’s an SEC player. And since he’s been here, he’s performed like an SEC player. He’s winning as a pass-rusher. He’s been very difficult to block in drills. And he’s also shown strength and push, and he’s not getting knocked back in the running game.”
Yet, over three years as a Rebel, he registered just a sack-and-a-half, and was held sackless this year. That’s why he went into the process as a likely undrafted free agent. Now? If he can back up the week he’s had in L.A. with more in Indy and at his pro day, the 6' 3", 252-pounder could rise into the front end of Day 3 of the draft, or maybe sneak into Day 2.
1. San Francisco 49ers (14-3): The best team in the better conference probably deserved to be here earlier, but they lost the head-to-head with previous No. 1 Baltimore. The Niners dominated the Vikings, and have a blowout win under their belts against the team they’ll play for the NFC title. So it’s easy putting them here.
2. Green Bay Packers (14-3): Time for the Packers to get the credit they deserve, after beating back a Russell Wilson comeback bid. The roster’s more talented than most realize, and Matt LaFleur called a fearless fourth quarter to get a return bout against his old staffmate Kyle Shanahan.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (13-5): Patrick Mahomes rung up touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions, and 51 points in about 30 minutes of game action, and suddenly Vegas sees Andy Reid’s team as the favorite to take home the Lombardi Trophy in 17 days. It’s not exactly hard to see that happening either.
4. Tennessee Titans (11-7): I almost feel like I’m disrespecting the Derrick Henry Express here by not having a tough, rugged team higher after wins in Foxboro and Baltimore. But who do I bump from the Top 3 to get them in? Not easy.
5. Baltimore Ravens (14-3): One bad night doesn’t erase all they accomplished. But that one’s gonna sting for a while.
THE ONE THING NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
The job Mike Pettine’s done in Green Bay.
The Packers were top 10 in scoring defense this year for the first time since the team’s championship season of 2010, and the coaches have done a nice job the last two years of developing young players like Darnell Savage, Jaire Alexander and Kevin King, and melding veteran additions like Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos into the mix.
And consider this: Of the eight guys who got the most playing time against Seattle, only three predate Pettine’s 2018 arrival in Green Bay, and one of those three is King, who was a rookie in ’17 (and missed half that season due to injury).
Even Pettine’s run in Cleveland doesn’t look as bad in retrospect. The year they had Shanahan as coordinator, they started 7-4. And that team’s 7-9 finish (things went off the rails when Johnny Manziel went into the lineup which, uh … might not have been a decision made by the coaches) was the actually the franchise’s fourth best mark since coming back into the NFL in 1999.
He then served the post-Browns purgatory that a lot of ex-Cleveland coaches have, with a couple years off, a time during which did some work as a Seahawks consultant, before Mike McCarthy hired him two years ago in Green Bay.
Could all of this be a precursor to Pettine’s second shot as a head coach again? Maybe not. But he’s certainly shown his chops in the two years he’s been back.
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