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Breaking down the Shanahan coaching tree and offense

Part 1 of this series looks at the coaches in the tree and some of the staples of the Shanahan offense.

Bills v Broncos Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Kyle Shanahan and his offensive scheme emerged in 2016 when the Falcons tied for 8th most points in NFL history, a place the 2016 Falcons offense shares with Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams. In that 2016 season, eventually culminating in a Super Bowl letdown, the Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game, finished 13-3, and vaulted Shanahan into the national conversation as the most coveted future head coach heading into 2017.

The 49ers eventually won out, signing him to a six-year head coaching deal (that was recently extended for six more years), and the rest is history. Year three in 2019 saw the 49ers reach new peaks they had not seen since 2012 under Jim Harbaugh. And though the 49ers spent four straight seasons in the cellar of the NFL as one of the worst teams after parting ways with Harbaugh, the 49ers found themselves right back in Super Bowl 54 seven years after a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl 47.

But if Harbaugh was all the coaching rage in 2011, nothing surpasses the Bill Walsh lineage of coaches being plucked from arguably the most consistent and evolved offense in NFL history. In 2017, Kyle Shanahan’s colleague from their days with the Washington Football Team, Sean McVay, was signed by the Los Angeles Rams to be their head coach. In year two under McVay, the Rams high powered offense, at nearly 33 points per game in 2018, earned a trip to the Super Bowl, where they eventually lost late to the Patriots.

After McVay’s success with the Rams, teams came knocking for even more coaches in that tree. First, to understand the lineage, we need a brief primer from where it all began.

The father of them all, the coach who gave Shanahan his first offensive coordinator job, Gary Kubiak, spent 2019 as an offensive consultant with the Minnesota Vikings. Kubiak is now the offensive coordinator for the Vikings. Before that, the Texans staff of the late 2000s birthed many of the coaches currently serving as head coaches or in bigger non-head coaching roles.

NFL-Dallas Cowboys @ Washington Redskins

In addition to Kyle Shanahan, the 2009 Texans staff featured Matt LaFleur (Packers head coach), John Benton (49ers offensive line coach), Robert Saleh (49ers defensive coordinator), and from 2006-2008, the Mike McDaniel (49ers run game coordinator). In 2005, Mike McDaniel served as an offensive assistant under Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos.

The lineage continued to pick up coaches along the way, with Mike Shanahan taking his son with him to be the head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, for the Washington Football Team. The Shanahans took LaFleur, McDaniel, and hired Sean McVay. Interestingly enough, both McVay (2008) and Kyle Shanahan (2004-2006) got their first official NFL jobs under Jon Gruden with the Buccaneers.

the Washington Redskins play the San Diego Chargers Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

With the Shanahan’s departure from Washington, son Kyle and assistant Mike McDaniel would land in Cleveland for the 2014 season. McVay stayed in Washington until the end of 2016. LaFleur found himself at Notre Dame as the quarterbacks’ coach, but his brother Mike would take an offensive assistant job with Shanahan in Cleveland. The trio of Shanahan/Mike LaFleur/Mike McDaniel has not been apart since 2014, and in 2015 the trio ended up in positions with the Atlanta Falcons. Matt LaFleur would join them.

Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur
Green Bay Packers

During this time, Gary Kubiak (Remember him? Still with me?) would serve as the head coach of the Texans until the end of 2013, would become the offensive coordinator of the Ravens in 2014 for one season, and would then become the head coach of the Denver Broncos from 2015 until the end of 2016. In 2015, he won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning as the quarterback.

Houston Texans v Buffalo Bills Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Through the 2016 season, he was semi-retired due to health issues he had been dealing with since 2013. In 2019, Kubiak took over as an offensive consultant with the Vikings and became the offensive coordinator in 2020 with Kevin Stefanski’s departure to the Cleveland Browns (yet another team implementing the same scheme).

Offensive philosophy

The offense implemented by Shanahan and others in the tree grew out of the West Coast Offense of Bill Walsh in the 1980s and 1990s. The passing offense and its concepts are still very much influenced by Walsh. From Walsh playbooks in the 1980s to Shanahan playbooks in the late 2010s, the passing game is still very much in line with its historical roots.

But schemes never stay the same, and the best coaches learn and adapt and implement new wrinkles all the time. It just so happens that the next big adaptation in the West Coast Offense is one that is still a staple 25 years later. Its current iteration was built on and adapted by Mike Shanahan, who served as a coach with the 49ers from 1992 through 1994, culminating in a Super Bowl win with the 49ers while he was the offensive coordinator.

What set the Shanahan lineage of coaches apart was the addition of the wide/outside-zone running scheme. For this, Mike Shanahan hired Alex Gibbs in 1995 to be his assistant head coach and offensive line coach when the elder Shanahan took over as the Denver Broncos head coach. Alex Gibbs is widely considered the father of the outside zone running scheme. The two clips above in the video are two staple running plays in the Shanahan lineage: the wide zone toss strong, and the wide zone toss weak.

The outside zone is similar to the inside zone, but instead of the offensive line getting vertical in the inside zone, they run their defenders laterally toward the sideline. Gibbs notes in the video above that the offensive linemen from the tight end to the center must get lateral steps toward the sideline, get their head to the outside shoulder of the defender, and lock the defender up with their inside arm and try like hell to keep the defender from spilling back inside.

The runner can essentially take three different paths and make his read based on where the defenders control their gaps. If the #1 read is inside the tight end, the runner will “bounce” it outside. If #1 is outside the tight end, but #2 has worked back inside, he’ll “bang” between them. If both the #1 and #2 reads are outside their blockers, the runner will “bend” it back up the middle.

In the video above from the Falcons 2016 season, you can see how each read develops.

Play action

Building on the foundation of the run game, the play action pass off of outside zone is the other knockout punch this offense is capable of delivering and they can either naked boot the quarterback out to the backside or run a more traditional drop back play action.

The naked boot compliments the outside zone well because the defense is flowing laterally toward the sideline instead of vertically north and south. Defenders caught in the mix have to turn and locate the receivers after running full speed for 7-8 yards. This enables the receivers to get open as defender’s chase.

Leak

Once defenses start to adjust to the timing and route combinations of the regular naked boot play action, the Shanahan lineage will change up the play by adding a “leak” route from the play side shallow across the backside formation then down the numbers.

In the clip above from the Texans (Kubiak) at Washington (Mike and Kyle Shanahan) in 2010, Washington is running the leak play out of 12 personnel. As the defense is rolling their coverage and running with the crossing routes, no one picks up the leak receiver (tight end Fred Davis #86) and he goes for 62 yards.

On the leak play, the leak route is usually run by the tight end (sometimes a receiver or fullback too) and the result is he more often than not wide open the opposite way. It was a big play for Kyle Shanahan’s Falcons in 2015 and 2016 and has been a staple since taking over the 49ers.

In the clips above with the 49ers, Shanahan has run the leak route with a tight end, a receiver, and a fullback. And most of them went for big plays or touchdowns.

Corner post variations

One variation the Shanahan tree will throw at the defense if they sense a naked boot and cheat back across or take away the intermediate crossers is to run a corner post behind the defense.

The initial and second stem of the corner post route makes the play look a flood or sail concept to one side of the field. After the defense commits to the flood and sinks underneath the corner, the receiver breaks his route back across the field toward the far post. The result is he usually gets wide open for a big play.

The 49ers ran corner post for 2 big plays last season.

The corner post can be run with a tight end or a wide receiver. In week 12 of 2019, the 49ers ran a corner post versus Green Bay for a long touchdown pass to George Kittle. The play is designed to look like a three-level flood concept to the boundary with outside zone run action opposite, with Kittle on the corner-post route. The 49ers are in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one receiver).

If the defense drops deep and stays in two-high or quarters, the intermediate crosser should be open. If the defense is in single-high coverage, the corner post should be open. In the clip, you can see Packers free safety Adrian Amos (No. 31) immediately close on the deep crosser.

As Packers cornerback Kevin King (No. 20) starts to run with the corner stem, Kittle abruptly changes direction and cuts to the post and completely turns King around and then sprints to a 61-yard touchdown.

Two weeks later, the 49ers called the same concept but out of shotgun 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and used Kittle on a jet motion to add an element of deception.

The Saints’ defense actually played their coverage pretty well. They were not fooled by the jet motion and covered the crossing routes pretty easily. The deep safety and the deep third corner ran with Emmanuel Sanders on the corner post route, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo let it fly downfield to Sanders.

The corner falls, and the safety is step for step with Sanders, but Garoppolo’s pass is a bit of a floater, and Sanders turns to adjust to it. The safety ends up taking a tumble as well as Sanders catches it. He falls too. But he’s able to get up and sprint to the end zone for the touchdown.

The beauty of the Shanahan tree play-action designs is they can be twisted into other concepts that defenses aren’t necessarily ready for because they spend all their time studying and reacting to the ones they see more frequently. The Saints may have been prepared to see something like the corner post, and Shanahan still stayed one step ahead by utilizing a different personnel grouping and out of shotgun.

Outlook

In part two, we’ll look at the system’s effectiveness under the Rams since 2017, how the some NFL teams responded to their juggernaut offense, and what adjustments Shanahan made in 2020 to keep the offense moving and on schedule.