The Wide-Reaching Impact of Mike Shanahan on the NFL Conference Championships

Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur, two members of the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, are facing off this weekend in the NFC Championship. The author spoke with a number of coaches back in August to shed light on how this system has spread and developed.
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As the Rams prepared to play in Super Bowl LIII a year ago against the Patriots, everyone was talking about the head coach in Los Angeles, a young wunderkind named Sean McVay. The joke was that anyone who had shaken his hand could secure a head coach interview for one NFL team or another. But that wasn’t exactly right.

I had numerous conversations with either established or up-and-coming coaches who had all come from the same coaching tree—the one started by Mike Shanahan, who hired McVay back as an offensive assistant in 2010. The branches went back way further than McVay. In August of last year, wanting to write a story on Shanahan’s offense and all the young coaches his tree had started to produce, I went to see many of those football minds at the QB Collective camp in Southern California. After maybe a dozen conversations there, I went home with 75 pages full of interview transcripts.

Ultimately, this story came out of that reporting. (I love the headline—“The Forgettable Years of a Coaching Staff to Remember.”)

Matt LaFleur, Kyle Shanahan

Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan after their teams’ Week 12 matchup,

In the NFC Championship on Sunday, two of those coaches, Kyle Shanahan (Mike’s son and the head coach of the 49ers) and Matt LaFleur (head coach of the Packers), will face off against each other for a berth in Super Bowl LIV. With that in mind, I wanted to look back at what I found in that visit this past summer and see how it applies to this season and how they both arrived here. Here are some things that stood out upon reflection:

• The dynamic between the Shanahans really changed in Washington, where Mike was the head coach and Kyle was the offensive coordinator from 2010 to ’13. The Redskins posted only one winning season in those four seasons, and they lost in their only playoff appearance, against the Seahawks, in Jan. 2013. 

That marked the first time the Shanahans had worked together. Kyle had always wanted to learn under his father, but Mike had laid out specific conditions for that to happen: Kyle had to become an offensive coordinator somewhere else first, he had to be in charge of calling that team’s plays and the offense for which he called said plays had to finish in the top five in the NFL. Kyle did all that in Houston, with LaFleur by his side, back in 2009 (the Texans finished fourth in total offense). His father stopped worrying that others might see nepotism if he hired Kyle. And not only did Mike hire him, but he essentially put Kyle in charge of evolving their scheme. Mike remained heavily involved but this marked an important shift.

“Kyle was the kind of the leader back then,” LaFleur says in August. “Mike oversaw everything, but Kyle had great foresight. He has got an uncanny ability to anticipate things.”

• Mike McDaniel, the 49ers run-game coordinator, explained in August how Kyle Shanahan evolved his father’s offense: “Our whole offensive system that Kyle’s created comes from two principles. Really it’s his understanding of outside zone and keepers, which he learned from his dad. Then he inherited his dad’s system and tightened with his verbiage to own it himself. And then his understanding of football from a one-on-one-route-running standpoint, which he learned as a wide receiver.” (Kyle played wideout in college at Duke and Texas.)

• McDaniel says he knew the system would work for multiple teams as long as it was adapted based on the personnel for each. He learned that during his first season immersed in the Shanahan philosophy, when he interned for Mike in 2005, with the Denver Broncos. That team went 13-3, despite lacking overall depth.

“Our greatest strength has been our weakness, where our longest tenure at a place has been three years,” McDaniel says in August. “And we’ve had to do it with not always elite players. Some of the biggest shortcomings, the worst things that can happen to a coach, is the system that’s set up for failure. How do you get jobs? You win. People that win in the same place, those people get promoted. Well, often times those people—there are compounding variables for success. And they won because, Tom Brady, for instance.”

He continued: “What getting fired but still being the league allows you to do is you have so many different things where you have to figure out a way to make sh-- work. And that has made us night-and-day a thousand times better; the best years we’ve ever coached have been the years where we had to scratch and claw for everything. To lose a ton and stay in the NFL—that was the perfect storm for us to expand and innovate.”

• Apparently, McVay is loud. LaFleur worked in a shared office next to Mike Shanahan, and he can clearly recall hearing McVay interview for the quality control position in 2010.

“I was sitting there, just listening, super impressed with him,” LaFleur says in August. “Like, wow, this guy’s pretty sharp, man. He can’t be 23 [years old].”

• Mike Shanahan on the innovation done by the young coaches: “I don’t care what type of business you’re running, you’ve gotta have guys who love what they’re doing, they’re passionate and take it to the next level. That’s what Silicon Valley has always done. That’s why the people make what they make over there. There’s a reason for it. They’re the top people at what they do. [I] figured it was no different than what we were doing. Just trying to find people who were really passionate about what they did.”

• McDaniel wasn’t alone when he described the coaching rooms in Washington as similar to tech incubators. “It was competitive,” he says in August. “I remember the first day I came in and it was, this Sean McVay guy is smart. And every pass play, it was like Sean and Matt were competing for who’s the most guru. And we were just young and ambitious and trying to evolve.”

• We forget that LaFleur was on the coaching version of injured reserve to start the season—he tore his right Achilles’ tendon playing basketball. When we sat in the shaded part of the bleachers at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, he was still wearing a cast.

Right away, he pointed out that it was Mike Shanahan’s offensive system—heavy on zone runs and play-action, with a real emphasis on running the ball, period—was the baseline for what he, Kyle Shanahan and McVay were running.

“It all stemmed from that system,” LaFleur says. “We were so young; you don’t know what you don’t know. Shoot, I was 30. Sean was like 23 or 24. Kyle was 30. We did have a lot of young coaches, but there was always a philosophy there.”

They’re still young, but they’re not longer derided as “The Fun Bunch” the way they were back in the Redskins days. Even last summer, vacationing in the Cayman Islands, McDaniel was asked by fellow pool-goers how players could relate to him, when he’s so much closer than most coaches to their age. He looks that young. He is that young. 

“I know very well that when I walk in the room expectations are not met,” he says. “And I thrive on that. Listen, players have a dream that they want to realize. If you show them that you can help them, they don’t care what you look like. You’re an asset.”

• McDaniel, on what separates his boss, Kyle Shanahan, from the other coaches in the tree. “Kyle can do the most at one time,” he says in August. “Like there’s a lot of different influences. But he can stay true. You can tell he has the most reps at thinking like a head coach and a decision maker. And his brain. I’ve never seen someone process information like that.”

He continued: “Kyle has OCD to a degree. This is one thing about him that is unparalleled when compared with anyone—he has anxiety out the a-- of what happens when people take something away. It never is good enough to say that this play will work. It’s always, how will they take it away? And then: how will we make them pay for that? He’s that paranoid.”

• LaFleur, in August, on the “rivalry” between the three friends who have become head coaches and, after Sunday, will have all coached in a conference championship game in the last two seasons: “It’s no different than how we used to compete within the office. Now we’re just competing on different teams. There’s definitely a healthy competition. You want to come out on top.”

• Almost every quarterback who has played in the Shanahan system, from Matt Ryan to Jared Goff to Brian Hoyer, has stitched together some of their best seasons. I asked LaFleur how that happened. “There’s just a consistent approach in terms of how we teach the guys to really read with their feet,” he says. “This goes back to Bill Walsh days and when Mike learned from Bill Walsh. Reading with your feet. It leads to more consistent quarterback play.”

What does that mean, read with your feet? “Every play has a timing,” he continued. “You have to play within the timing. Does stuff happen that’s off schedule? Of course. But it’s OK to take a check down. Every play has a timing, whether it’s no hitch, first hitch or second hitch. But it allows you to get through a progression, eliminating negative plays like sacks.”

How does that play into quarterback efficiency? “That goes back to the foundation of quarterback play,” he says. “Playing with a good base. Reading with your feet. Being able to get through your progression. You start with the foundation, coach them all the same. Once you learn the system, they give a little bit more freedom.”

• McDaniel and others lauded the Shanahan system for its adaptability. The core remains the same, but year to year the system changes in various places based on the coach involved and the personnel they have to work with. When Kyle Shanahan first arrived in San Francisco, back in 2017, for instance, he molded much of his offense around George Kittle, the 49ers supremely athletic tight end. That had not happened often in a Shanahan-based offense. “We never had a tight end who could run like that” is how McDaniel explains the shift. “It’s not rocket science. It’s, oh, he’s really hard to tackle. We need to get him the ball in different ways.”

In August, McDaniel noted that not only had the 49ers signed, drafted or kept four of the fastest running backs in the league—Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and the now-injured Jerick McKinnon—but they had done so on purpose. That would be the next step in the offense’s evolution. “There are maybe four guys in the league who run a true 4.4 at the halfback position,” McDaniel says, “and we’ve got four of them.”

• When the Packers hired Matt LaFleur, he called his brother, Mike, who works for Kyle in San Francisco as the 49ers pass game coordinator. Mike happened to take the call inside a cell phone store, where he was shopping for a phone for his wife.

Matt: You can’t tell anybody.

Mike: What????

The Verizon guy was listening.

Matt: I got the job.

Mike: Holy s---! The Packers!

Mike, to the Verizon guy: Can I step out?

Verizon Guy: Of course.

Mike went outside and spoke to his brother for 10 minutes. He came back in and the Verizon guy asked him if someone in his family had gotten a new job.

Mike: Something like that.

Matt bought the phone, and by the time he made it home, the news had started to spread all over. The LaFleur brothers flew the next day to Maui with their wives to celebrate, their first vacation together without kids in years.

• All the coaches who worked for Mike Shanahan hold him in the highest esteem. Most argue that he belongs in the Hall of Fame, alongside other coaches who changed the game and innovated and introduced offensive concepts that have spread across the league.

“I would say he’s had as much influence as anybody on football,” LaFleur says in August.

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