Now we’re a family, and we’re all right now,
We’ve got some money, and a little place to fight now.
- the White Stripes, “The Hardest Button to Button”
The NFL is a fairly tight-knit community, especially in the coaching ranks, but it’s going to be hard to find a game where two teams have tighter links than Monday night’s game against the Broncos. Even the multi-Harbaugh Super Bowl probably falls short.
Kyle Shanahan literally grew up with the Broncos organization, since his dad Mike coached them during Kyle’s high school and college days. But before that, Mike Shanahan was the Niners’ Offensive coordinator, and Kyle was their ball boy.
Denver’s new coach Vic Fangio was San Francisco’s defensive coordinator from 2011-2014 (and, some think, should have succeeded Jim Harbaugh as a coach in 2015). Fangio’s OC is Rich Scangarello, who interned with Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta and was the Niners’ QB coach for the last two years, and his QB coach is TC McCartney, who coached under Kyle in Cleveland as well as San Francisco.
On the other side of the coin, Fangio gave San Francisco DC Robert Saleh his first coaching job as a quality control coach with the Houston Texans. (h/t Kyle Posey for that nugget)
John Lynch finished his playing career with four years in Denver and is in their Ring of Fame. He told reporters Saturday that Broncos GM John Elway was a key voice encouraging him to leave the broadcast booth and take a front-office job, and added a curious detail:
“ I used to try to walk pigeon-toed, so I’d be more like him and all of those things.”
I’m confused. Is that a metaphor? Or is he saying he admired Elway so much that he walked pigeon-toed to “be like John”?
Anyway, it goes on and on. These guys are going to have to marry a set of sisters to get their family ties any closer.
Lynch even quoted Fangio as kicking off joint practices by telling “his guys ‘Hey, these are our teammates for the next couple days,’ and Kyle reiterated it.”
Does that mean the teams won’t hit hard Monday night? Is this going to be some sort of cooperative game where they help each other score?
No. Lynch went on, “That doesn’t mean that you’re not competing your tail off, but it means let’s respect each other.”
It’s hard to know what this thick nest of bonds is going to mean. All the good feeling hasn’t stopped scuffles from breaking out during joint practices, and the defenses have not been shy about stuffing their opposing offenses. With players like Von Miller and DeForest Buckner on these defensive lines, no one gets a free pass.
Teams are notorious for not game-planning in pre-season games, but it still matters that these teams play the same offense. These defenses have both scrimmaged against it plenty. If the coaches aren’t fully engaging in a chess match, the players still will be, hoping to jump routes and find tells for play- action fakes.
Will the friendships and histories together cause the teams to pull punches? That doesn’t seem likely, especially not by Fangio, a famously old school defensive grinder whose rise to head coach was “long overdue,” in Lynch’s words.
Fangio has a little something to prove after getting passed over for the Niners coaching job in favor of Jim Tomsula, and it would take almost inhuman zen self-mastery for him not to take at least a little pleasure in beating the 49ers, or at least shutting down their offense.
There is clearly respect between key people in these two organizations, and they might share a couple of extra soda pops after the game, but when the clock expires, one team will have won, and the other won’t. Scrimmages matter even less than preseason games, but when Friday’s scrimmage was about to end, the Niners still raced to kick a last-second field goal and win.
Knowing your opponent well — and even respecting their integrity and skill — is a two-edged sword. It can make you like them better, but it can also give you another way to beat them — or for them to beat you. Kyle Shanahan makes it clear that he knows the danger, at his Friday press conference.
A reporter asked if he talked a lot with Vic Fangio, maybe discussed areas where one team has a surplus of talent, and the other has a need. Shanahan responded warily:
“We talk a lot, but you’ve also got to be careful. He’s also very smart. No, we want to help each other out, but you also always want to win, too. You’ve got to think of your team first, but anytime you have someone that you can be close to like that and is in a different conference, it does give you an advantage to communicate a little bit more.”
The question is, did he mean an advantage in friendship? Or an advantage in beating Denver?