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Mike McDaniel: His path from ball boy to Niners run game wizard and beyond

The latest and biggest change to the Niners coaching staff is Mike McDaniel’s departure to Miami. Here’s how he became one of the league’s top assistant coaches and this cycle’s most sought after candidate.

Event Name: NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

As is customary once the season ends, a number of head coaches were asked to clean out their offices by teams desperate for an invigorating and novel answer at one of the most challenging jobs in the world. This included the Miami Dolphins, who believe that Mike McDaniel is that very answer after two interviews, one that apparently lasted ten hours.

The plundering of coordinators and assistants is nothing to be shocked about, primarily once a team has achieved any level of sustained success in the NFL. Just look at the coaching trees that protrude out from the game's most noteworthy winners like Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, or someone else not named Bill, surely.

At the end of 2020, the Niners lost Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur to the New York Jets, which quite honestly seemed to be a year past due. This dual-exodus prompted the in-house promotions of DeMeco Ryans and Mike McDaniel. They had previously served as LaFleur's foil as the team’s run game coordinator when the Niners employed no OC.

The step-up for McDaniel ensured no competitor could offer him a promotion from his assistant position, an offer that could no longer be blocked after a rule change. Besides the new title and, let’s assume, a pay bump, the man most responsible for the 49ers' continued success on the ground, outside of Kyle Shanahan, would now speak to the media on a regular basis.

It’s this visibility and how he used it that kicked the Mike McDaniel fan club into hyperdrive. Just as the regular season ended when his name initially got floated as a possible head coaching candidate, a deluge of clips that demonstrated his quirky personality and deep understanding of football hit the web. The below soundbite shared by Andrew Hawkins burned through Football Twitter like wildfire.

Seemingly, part of the fascination with McDaniel arose from the cognitive dissonance caused by his appearance and profession. The 38-year-old Yale graduate doesn’t look or talk or behave like your typical “football guy,” particularly one that spent his days preaching good technique and play design to a lineman more than twice his size.

McDaniel has discussed this before and how players would often be circumspect about his bona fides, that is, until he unlocked something that could improve their game. He could see that everyone wants to get better, stay in the league, make more money, and at a certain point, how or who makes them better doesn’t matter. Value is value.

This lesson seeped in at an early age when McDaniel, who grew up in Aurora, Colorado, first became a ball boy for his local Denver Broncos in high school. The team, under Mike Shanahan, would later hire him as an intern after he briefly considered a career in finance post-grad, but like any rational person, decided he should have a passion for his line of work, and he certainly wasn’t passionate about finance.

His value for the Broncos at that time had as much to do with his youth and tech-savvy than anything else. That’s right, the guy who looks like he was more likely to be a Silicon Valley brogrammer than the San Francisco offensive coordinator actually began his career by computerizing the Denver playbook.

At the time, the elder Shanahan wanted each play call overlaid onto the game tape, which was grunt work that other veteran assistants either lacked the skill or inclination to complete. Eventually, his value became such that McDaniel’s time with the team got extended past his summer internship to the regular season.

This isn’t unlike Kyle Shanahan’s beginnings in football down in Tampa Bay during Jon Gruden’s tenure. Also, a seldom utilized college wideout like McDaniel at Yale, Shanahan started by diagramming every play and breaking down reels and reels of film for those Buccaneers teams. Perhaps, these similarities drew him to his newly graduated pupil when they met on Gary Kubiak's Texans staff in 2006.

From that point, the two worked together at all of Kyle Shanahan’s stops as an offensive coordinator besides one lone season. That year, McDaniel joined the Sacramento Mountain Lions, a short-lived and barely remembered UFL, as their running backs coach. The most notable name on that roster fell under his tutelage, John David Washington, Denzel’s son and star of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

Fresh off that experience, he reunited with the entire Shanahan family in Washington as the wide receivers coach, making him the fourth member of that staff to become a head coach. Prepare for more of those team photos from 2011 during broadcasts!

As McDaniel moved with his mentor from Cleveland to Atlanta in the same position each time, he garnered positive marks at every stop. Pierce Garçon loved him. So does the aforementioned Andrew Hawkins. However, one of the biggest boosts in his life took place with the Falcons when he took the steps to become sober.

It was after getting a handle on his sobriety that Dan Quinn proposed him to take on a more involved role in the game planning process with Shanahan. That 2016 season for the Atlanta Falcons ended up being one of the most successful offensive performances in league history, which eventually led to Shanahan taking the head coaching position in San Francisco.

Obviously, McDaniel came over in the transition and slid into his initial position as run game tzar. His input on the rushing attack seems impossible to overstate, especially for the two best Niner teams under Shanahan. The 2019 squad ran roughshod over their opponents on the way to the Super Bowl, and this 2021 version relied heavily on McDaniel to better deploy Deebo Samuel all the way to last week’s NFC Championship game.

His absence as he takes up residence in Miami will certainly be deeply felt across the team. Players like Kyle Jusczcyck have sung his praises and threatened to lock him in the facility if things ever got to this point. However, the hire of Anthony Lynn will help to fill the void, but there’s no guarantee that his press conferences will ever be as fun as this.