GamePlan: The Sean McVay Copycat Hires Off the Mike Shanahan Tree Are Paying Off

Two years ago people joked about the teams trying to hire their own Sean McVay. But the Shanahan offensive system keeps spreading throughout the league, and the Packers-Rams game is another sign of its success. Plus, how Zoom is affecting the hiring cycle, likely changes to the combine and divisional round power rankings.
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Chad Englehart mostly remembers the reaction of everyone but Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay on that winter night in Northern Virginia.

This, after all, was a men’s flag football league, the kind that young sales managers, stock brokers or firefighters might play in late on weeknights in their free time. No Lombardi Trophies were won. And McVay came out this one night, eight years ago, in a pinch, with the team LaFleur helped organize back at the office short a guy.

Turns out, no one was ready for what was about to happen. The other team, rostered with a crew of weekend warriors, wasn’t, nor was Englehart, defensive quality control assistant Bobby Slowik, or the video staffers who were playing with LaFleur, once an all-conference college quarterback at Saginaw Valley State, and McVay, an ex–Miami of Ohio slot receiver.

“We need somebody, and Sean’s like, ‘I’ll come out there and play tonight,’” says Englehart, then an assistant and now the head strength coach in Washington. “We get out there, now granted, we did not know this at the time—but we’re all decoys for Sean. They’re running the West Coast concepts. I’m the strength coach. I’m lined up and they’re like, Chad, run a Dino. I’m looking at them like, What’s a Dino, man? Like, what is going on right now?

“Obviously we’re all decoys for Sean. … But we’re paying to play—paying to play. So we just want to get some stats to go home and tell our wives. And I run the wrong route. This dude Matt chastises me. He just yells at me, Are you going to run the right route?! I’m open, though. And the whole time, Sean is getting the ball.”

Englehart’s cracking up now.

“Did we win?’ he says. “Hell yeah. We beat the crap out of this team.”

McVay, by Englehart’s recollection, caught five touchdown passes from LaFleur. The other team had no clue what hit them, and the young coaches’ teammates were volunteering to take their flags off and play O-line by the end of the night, because it was clear whose show it was. It didn’t take long, from there, for the story to make its way through the team facility, down the street from this scene, at the Dulles Sportsplex, back in Ashburn.

“[Englehart’s] like, I signed up for this league, I paid my entry fee and I never get the ball. I don’t know any of the code words or hand signals, it’s just Matt and Sean lighting it up on everybody,” says Kirk Cousins, then a Washington quarterback coming out of his rookie year. “But it goes to show that even when they left work, they wanted to go play and try out their ideas and their hand signals and their plays.

“They lived it, breathed it so much—in their free time, they were joining leagues to do it.”

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McVay (left) and LaFleur (right) together on the Rams staff in 2017.

Saturday, LaFleur and McVay are going to try like hell to do to each other what they did together to that poor, unsuspecting group of amateurs back in the D.C. suburbs in early 2013.

And funny as this story is, there’s a larger lesson to be taken from what happened on that field eight years ago. It was January 2019 when the football world poked fun at the idea that everyone was overreaching to pluck young coaches from the McVay-Shanahan tree in attempts to emulate the progress a couple of moribund California teams had made.

No one’s laughing anymore. In fact, two years later, it sure looks like what the Packers and Bengals did that offseason, and others have done since, was actually … a pretty good idea.

***

The best weekend on the NFL calendar is here, and so is this week’s GamePlan, delayed a day because Thursday I wrote about Urban Meyer. Here’s what you’ll find on this winter Friday …

• A look at how Zoom has impacted the coaching and GM market.

• What the 2021 combine might look like.

• Power rankings!

But we’re starting with that story of two flag-football stars turned playoff head coaches.

***

Regardless of who wins Saturday, next weekend the NFL will be one game from having a third straight NFC champion led by a coach off that Mike Shanahan 2010 to ’13 staff—and if LaFleur gets there, it’ll have been done by three different guys. Over in the AFC, the Browns are coming off their first playoff win in 26 years, with first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who went to football finishing school with Mike’s old top lieutenant, Gary Kubiak, in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s on the doorstep of hiring Arthur Smith, who learned the scheme first from the late Mike Heimerdinger and more recently from LaFleur in Tennessee; the Jets just hired Kyle Shanahan’s defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, who’s bringing LaFleur’s brother, Mike, with him as OC; and McVay’s defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley, could well land the Chargers or Texans job and take Kyle’s top offensive assistant, Mike McDaniel, who may be the smartest of the group, with him to be his OC.

And as the godfather of all this sees it, it’s no mistake.

“To be honest with you, as I told Kyle a long time ago, Your job now as a head coach is to make sure that you talk to your team every day, from an offensive perspective and a defensive perspective, because you’re not only coaching players, you’re coaching the coaches,” two-time Super Bowl champ, and Kyle’s dad, Mike Shanahan said. “Because if you’re good, you’re going to lose coaches. And you have to make sure that every day, you’re trying to groom your assistant coaches to be coordinators, because your coordinators are going to become head coaches if you have success.”

This is where the vaunted Shanahan scheme—with its foundation in zone running and three-level passing—can explain the success of all the guys in it, and why, here on divisional weekend, it feels like that coaching tree is taking the league over. It’s more than the scheme, of course. But the scheme can go a long way to explaining a bigger picture.

Coaching the coaches. The Shanahan offense is steeped not in volume of plays, but volume of detail. The idea is that every play looks like five other plays, which puts the defense in conflict. To make that reality, coaches have to know not just the what but the why and how.

“The stressing of the stride length as you run some of these quick-hitting play-action passes on the stripe routes and the drip routes, the splits, the landmarks on the routes, they’re just so detailed on all that, how it’s going to look and complement one another,” said Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who worked with McVay in 2018. “And they do such a great job with different routes off the same stem, so now the DBs have to honor all angles of cut on a lot of these play-actions.

“And a lot of these guys have really great receivers that can stretch with speed. Then you’ve got to honor all angles of the cuts, and they make them all look the same—a pain to cover.”

Which is where the coaching-the-coaches part comes in. If you’re just looking at all that on tape, you won’t know all that detail. You can see the play and concept, sure. But it’s harder to figure the little pieces of why it works. Which, these guys will tell you, is why it works.

The run game. In an era that’s continually devalued the run game, the Shanahan tree never did—and Cousins is first to concede that the system’s foundation in that area is where so much of this comes from. But even he can’t put his finger on why the success the elder Shanahan had with Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis has transcended football generations like it has. Which caused Cousins to take action.

“I decided this year, I’m going to get an answer. I’m going to go to the O-line coach and say, What the heck? What’s the secret sauce here?” he said. “Because I’ve handed off outside zone my whole career, and some years it’s better than others. Why? And I didn’t really get a straight answer. ... I didn’t feel like I knew it any better than I did before asking.”

So Cousins will go with his own observation—watching the offensive line practice in these systems, he’s noticed that position group spends time on outside zone and combination blocks in the run game that most others spend working on pass sets and picking up blitzes. And that time allocation leads, as he sees it, to very effective run-blocking groups.

In turn, the team then can build passing-game concepts off the run concepts, which allows the offense to keep the defense guessing (which, conceptually, is how offenses as old as the Wing-T are built).

“Defensively, that stuff looks the same. They do a great job,” Taylor said. “Sean, that’s where I picked it up from, and obviously Matt was there. They do a great job complementing everything off the run game, and you get the run game going, people really are stressed by it. Then you’ve got all these explosive ways to exploit it off of that, with those keepers, those screens, those play-actions on the field. It’s a fun thing to be a part of.”

Never staying stagnant. Off the foundation comes innovation—these guys all study each other, and the ball keeps rolling—and never was that more obvious than in 2012 in Washington, where Kyle Shanahan was OC, LaFleur quarterbacks coach and McVay tight ends coach. The team was preparing to draft Robert Griffin III, and having a different kind of quarterback meant crafting a different kind of offense.

That demanded guys who were living their jobs and constantly thinking of ways to advance what they were doing, down to the point where they’d be drawing plays on the backs of pizza boxes in Ashburn during their downtime.

“They were putting in the zone read with Robert Griffin, those guys took it upon themselves and said, Hey, we’ve got a quarterback that’s skills are a little different than we’re used to, so we’re going to have to change some of our running system and our passing system,” Mike Shanahan said. “And do some things with Robert that will help him, and not just the base offense that we have been using over the last couple years.

“So you have some young guys get together and they want to look at everything that’s being done, I thought it was a big credit to them with the things we did offensively in 2012.”

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Knowing what you want. With such a clear plan, personnel decisions become simplified—and that’s something Patriots backup Brian Hoyer experienced with Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland in 2015. Shanahan told Hoyer that year what he really needed to make the offense work. A dominant X receiver. A possession receiver. A burner. A pass-catching tight end. Two pass-catching backs. And a cerebral center.

Shanahan didn’t get that in Cleveland. He did in Atlanta, with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Austin Hooper, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Alex Mack filling those needs, and Shanahan ended up getting out of it an MVP season from Matt Ryan, a trip to the Super Bowl and, ultimately, the Niners job.

Now, Jones can play for anyone. But the rest, save for the tailbacks, were acquired over Shanahan’s two years in Atlanta—and his presence made it easier on GM Thomas Dimitroff and the personnel folks, in that there was no gray area in what the team needed.

And even then, the tailbacks are a good example, too, of how all this works. Most of San Francisco’s backs the last couple of years have run 4.4 in the 40 or faster, the idea being that the scheme will create crease, and the coaches just need players with the ability to make one cut and accelerate into them.

Making it easy on the players. Why did Shanahan need that cerebral center? Because the idea is to take calls, and some of the mental load, off the quarterback—and that’s just a microcosm of a grander philosophy that pervades offenses, and now even defenses, in that coaching tree.

The idea is to make everything easy on the players and hard on the opponent. It sounds simple. But there’s a lot (think of all the motion and shifting) that goes into it.

“The players can quickly understand how different types of plays play off of each other,” Taylor said. “Just picture a three-by-one wide-zone paired with a naked, paired with a play-action, paired with a play-action screen. It all makes sense to them. You can show them back-to-back-to-back-to-back. All these things paired together and how it stresses a defense. But then you can also make them different tempos as well.

“Different cadence tempos, tempos out of the huddle. The Rams do a great job with their cadence as well. That’s one thing. You just get a bunch of different cadences, the defense always has to be prepared for the ball to be snapped at any given time. And you can easily show players how it stresses a defense, so they quickly believe in it.”

All the same, they’re quickly able to learn how to play on it—which puts teams in position to play young guys faster than some other teams might, a huge key in an era when so many college offenses have become simpler and less directly applicable to NFL concepts.

***

Lambeau’s a much bigger stage for all this, of course, than the Dulles SportsPlex or the conference room with the scribbled-on pizza boxes were. But what hasn’t changed, really, is who McVay and LaFleur are, which is a big part of why they’re here all these years later.

All of the above—from coaching the coaches to teaching the details to innovating and building things that are harder on you than those you’re leading—has a way of weeding out those who aren’t smart, passionate or hard-working enough to carry out the system and the programs built around it. Cousins himself got to see that process that McVay and LaFleur survived, then thrived in.

“Just being around them, I enjoyed coming into work,” said Cousins. “I enjoyed installation. I enjoyed talking football with Mike, Kyle, Matt, Sean. It was just fun. It was a thinktank. And they were always looking for ways to be innovative.”

And clearly, that spilled over. One day, it would be in the quarterbacks room. The next, it’d be on a flag-football field. The day after that, it could be anywhere.

“They love football. They just love football,” said Englehart. “The first year I’m in, 2011, that year, after the 2010 season, we were watching the Super Bowl. And they’re arguing the whole time about the game, about what they would do in certain situations. I’m like, Come on, man, can we just watch the game? But that’s just how much they love ball.”

It’s also a big part of why the system, the scheme, the program—whatever you want to call it—works. And it’s why, two years later, what was once a running joke on social media has become the model for building an NFL team.

***

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POWER RANKINGS

1) Kansas City Chiefs (14–2): An interesting fact: Before losing a meaningless finale to the Chargers, the Chiefs had won 10 in a row, but the final seven games of that winning streak were each one-possession matchups, won by a total of 27 points (average margin: 3.86 points). I thought that was relatively staggering, and it made me think really hard about what kind of game we should expect at Arrowhead on Sunday.

2) Buffalo Bills (14–3): The Bills, on the other hand, entered the playoffs having won each of their previous six games by double-digits—and a cumulative 229–110 margin—and then snuck through the wild-card round. So maybe we shouldn’t read too much into regular-season trends?

3) Green Bay Packers (13–3): So now you know how well LaFleur and McVay know one another, and I think it adds an intriguing piece to Saturday’s game, maybe most so in how LaFleur helps Mike Pettine and how McVay helps Brandon Staley.

4) New Orleans Saints (13–4): Drew Brees had close to his full complement of offensive pieces around him Sunday and wound up throwing for 265 yards, two scores, no picks and a 107.3 rating. And it still feels like, however far they go, it’ll have to be the defense that takes the Saints there.

5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12–5): To me, the last game of this weekend is the most intriguing one. And if we get the same Tom Brady that we saw in the wild-card round, the Bucs will be no easy out.

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THE BIG QUESTION

How is Zoom interviewing affecting the hiring cycle?

“How am I supposed to hire a guy I’ve never actually met?” asked one exec Wednesday.

So it is that in a year when new rules were put in place to try to generate more opportunity for deserving candidates, the pandemic is threatening to make things even harder on coaches whose teams keep winning.

The rules, in case you haven’t seen them, clearly draw a line where in-person interviews can’t happen until a coach or GM candidate’s team has been eliminated, with the one exception being for GM candidates who live outside their teams’ home region. And the impact of that is already being felt.

The best example is new Lions GM Brad Holmes, who lives (for now) in Atlanta. Being there was simply a logical move for him and for the Rams, as he served as college scouting director. It put him closest to the biggest percentage of college football talent possible and near an airport that can take him most places he needs to go nonstop.

It also wound up giving him a leg up no one could’ve guessed he’d have even a year ago.

Really, it was a coworker of Holmes’s, Rams VP of business and football administration Tony Pastoors, who laid the groundwork here, lobbying the NFL to allow for off-site scouts to do in-person interviews for GM jobs. It does make sense, of course. If the idea of limiting in-person interviews is to keep people from bringing the virus back into playoff teams’ facilities, then it does seem asinine that someone living away from the team he works for—who won’t be going into, or be near, that team facility—would be subject to the rule.

But that also wound up changing the complexion of the Lions’ search. Because while they liked both New Orleans assistant GMs, Terry Fontenot and Jeff Ireland, they couldn’t bring either in, because those guys happen to live in New Orleans, and the Saints are still in the playoffs. Which meant the second round of interviews really boiled down to Holmes’s having a chance to win the job by meeting in-person with the Lions, which he resoundingly did.

Along those lines, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh got the Jets job, Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is trending toward landing the Atlanta job and Urban Meyer’s got the Jacksonville job, without having to deal with the entanglements that are preventing the playoff coaches and execs from landing. Smith, like Seattle exec Scott Fitterer, had his team eliminated over the weekend. Fitterer, like Smith, got a job in the days to follow—accepting the Carolina GM position late Thursday.

And again, that’s not to say that Smith and Saleh and Holmes and Fitterer and Meyer aren’t great candidates. If you’d told me any of those guys were going to land jobs a month ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least.

But it is a trend to follow over the next week or so. I’d expect Fontenot will buck it in getting the Falcons GM job. We’ll see what will happen with guys like Ireland, Bills OC Brian Daboll, Rams DC Brandon Staley and Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett as a result of it.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The combine!

The NFL’s biggest offseason event is in peril, with postponement or cancellation in play. We hit on this a couple of weeks ago, but I figure this would be a good time to pass along a little more information on where we stand.

• The league has (obviously) been collecting information on what teams want prioritized, and it’s clear that the medical aspect is first. Getting 335 (or so) players through all the testing, from echocardiograms to MRIs, in four days is always a daunting task for the NFL and the combine people, led by Jeff Foster. So if there’s one thing that’ll motivate the league and teams to move the event back, it’ll be an inability to get the medical piece done in late February/early March.

• The NCAA men’s basketball tournament bubble’s being set for Indy complicates things quite a bit if the league wants to postpone, taking hotels and facilities, such as Lucas Oil Stadium, off the table for the league. So if they were to push back into the three-week window the NCAA is using, it’d have to happen with massive adjustments in where certain components of the combine are held. That’s why if it’s pushed back significantly, it’d likely be to April.

• How workouts happen is up in the air. If they can’t be at Lucas Oil Stadium, doing them at other sites in and around Indy (the Colts’ indoor facility, IUPUI, etc.), or just having regional combines to conduct the testing, could be in play. Spacing is an issue, on top of the availability of the dome, since most of the combine events are held like cattle calls, with guys lined up to go through them one after another.

• The event could be stretched, too, to allow more spacing. Normally players are in and out in four days. The idea to make it five or six days to spread out events and split up groups has been explored.

• If the combine does happen on time, I’d expect it to be an incredibly stripped-down version, maybe with only head coaches and GMs in attendance. The reality of that was reflected in the NFL’s decision—as we discussed in the Jan. 4 MAQB—to release the majority of the hotel blocks they had for combine week.

• In-person interviews may be a pandemic casualty. In Monday’s MAQB, we detailed the Senior Bowl’s plan to build infrastructure to allow for safe interviews. I don’t know if that’ll be feasible in Indy, given the number of players and the layout of the buildings downtown. I’ve heard some guys casually refer to “Zoom interviews,” as if they’re already resigned to their interactions with players being limited to that.

• Given all this, Senior Bowl week will take on a heightened importance for scouts, coaches and teams. And even more so with the likelihood that pro days could go by the wayside, too.

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THE FINAL WORD

I have to give Eagles personnel consultant John Dorsey credit here—he had a major hand in building the roster of two teams, as a GM, that’ll be facing off this weekend, and I can’t think of too many other examples like this one. Just look at the Chiefs and Browns rosters. His fingerprints are everywhere on both.

So while there were reasons for his firings in both spots, I think he has a right to feel decent about the job he did for those teams. That’s all.