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Analyzing Kyle Shanahan’s offense in season openers

Should we expect a slow start?

San Francisco 49ers v Houston Texans Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 2021 season kicks off this Sunday in Chicago for the 49ers as they take on the Bears at Soldier Field with a Trey Lance/Justin Fields matchup at the center of attention. With Lance under center, it’s not fair to tie offensive expectations to this opener from previous openers for the 49ers. Still, it’s an interesting conversation, given how previous teams have performed under Shanahan.

There are two parts to this study, with Shanahan being an offensive coordinator for far longer than a head coach. Some teams were downright bad, and others were absolutely loaded.

Season openers, for Shanahan especially, don’t foreshadow his team’s success with wins or statistics. However, two things become apparent as you dig into the games. First, Shanahan’s offense doesn’t exactly hit the ground running, and plenty of familiar names will be littered through these descriptions.

Here are some quick numbers before we dive into each game.

Shanahan as an offensive coordinator for Houston, Cleveland, and Atlanta:

4-5 record
23.2 PPG
333.1 YPG
238.5 passing yards per game
94.5 rushing yards per game and just a shade over one turnover per game
Seven penalties with 59.4 penalty yards per game

Shanahan as 49ers head coach:
2-3 record, 22.2 PPG
321.6 YPG
223 Passing Yards Per Game
98.6 rushing yards per game and two turnovers per game
7.2 penalties with 62.8 penalty yards per game.

The statistics are very similar, but the most considerable similarity is the number of penalties. Seven penalties per game signify a team still working through kinks. In fewer games as a head coach, Shanahan’s offenses averaged fewer points, total yards, and passing yards while rushing for more yards with an increase of turnovers per game. Not all of these numbers can be attributed to Shanahan, but let’s contextualize each game for a more straightforward explanation.

2008 as Houston’s offensive coordinator @ Pittsburgh:

Shanahan’s first season as an offensive coordinator and Matt Schaub under center saw the Texans finish 17th in points scored, third in total yards, fourth in first downs, fourth in passing yards, and 30th in turnovers. A challenging situation for a first-year OC with Steve Slaton and Ahman Green as the two primary running backs and only Andre Johnson as a true playmaker. On the defensive side, DeMeco Ryans had a fumble recovery, 12 tackles, eight solo tackles, and two tackles for loss in this contest.

Houston’s first four drives resulted in a turnover on downs, punt, interception, and interception. Then, after a field goal drive, the Texans punted three more times. Two garbage-time touchdowns helped clean up the score, but Houston fell to the Steelers by a score of 38-17.

Important to note that this Steelers defense was loaded. Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Larry Foote, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Ryan Clark headlined the unit. The game was out of hand quickly, but Houston’s defense wasn’t exactly dominant.

2010 as Washington’s offensive coordinator vs. Dallas:

Shanahan’s first season as OC in Washington starts with a win against the rival Dallas Cowboys. In his lone season in Washington, Donovan McNabb started for Washington following a trade from Philadelphia. McNabb would start 13 games in 2010, and Washington ranked 25th in points scored, 18th in total yards, and fourth in passing attempts.

McNabb wasn’t sharp, finishing the game at 15/32, 171 yards, and zero touchdown drives. DeAngelo Hall had the lone TD for Washington right before halftime on a fumble return. Washington still managed a win, with Dallas playing sloppy football. Twelve penalties for 81 yards and a fumble lost is not a recipe for success. Dallas managed seven points despite being loaded with offensive talent highlighted by Dez Bryant, Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Roy Williams, and Jason Witten. Washington wins 13-7.

2011 as Washington offensive coordinator vs. Giants:

The carousel of quarterbacks under Shanahan continues, with Rex Grossman starting this one. Washington took a step back in points scored, falling from 25th to 26th and passing attempts from fourth to fifth, but improved from 18th to 16th in total yards.

Ryan Kerrigan returned an interception for a touchdown, but Grossman drove Washington to victory, finishing at 21/34, 305 yards, and two touchdowns. In addition, 2In addition, 1 points from the offense, outgaining the Giants (332-315), converting more first downs (21-15), and winning the time of possession battle (32:36-27:24) all led to a fairly convincing win. Back-to-back wins for Shanahan in season openers.

2012 as Washington’s offensive coordinator at New Orleans:

Robert Griffin III’s arrival couldn’t have been more spectacular. Griffin became the first player with 300 passing yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions in an NFL debut. Although Washington hadn’t scored 30 points in a game in 2011; they reached that feat at halftime in an absolute track meet with the New Orleans Saints. Pierre Garcon scored on an 88-yard pass from Griffin, the first in Griffin’s career, and finished with four receptions, 109 yards, and a touchdown. Washington prevailed 40-32 in the Superdome.

Twelve penalties in a game aren’t ideal, but both teams committed that many, with New Orleans turning it over three times to Washington’s zero.

Washington would finish the season fourth in points scored, 30th (!) in passing attempts, third in rushing attempts, and first in rushing yards. This rushing attack made defensive coordinators stay up at night before games, led by Alfred Morris, RGIII, and Trent Williams at left tackle. 49ers fans can point to this year and rankings as a possible first-year goal for Trey Lance in terms of passing attempts and rushing yards. Three consecutive opening game wins in a row for Kyle Shanahan calling plays.

2013 as Washington’s offensive coordinator vs. Philadelphia:

After a devastating injury in a 2012 playoff game against Seattle, RGIII was back under center to take on the rival Eagles. The game started promisingly for Washington with DeAngelo Hall returning a fumble 75 yards early in the first quarter, but it was all Eagles after that. Philadelphia would score three unanswered touchdowns before an Alfred Morris rushing touchdown with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.

However, two touchdown throws to Leonard Hankerson with a two-point conversion to Aldrick Robinson weren’t enough to come back to win after going down 33-7.

Griffin finished the game 30/49, 329 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Penalties (10) and turnovers (3) were at the forefront of problems for Washington’s offense, while the defense had trouble with Chip Kelly’s explosive first-year offense. Washington would fall 33-27 to Philadelphia and finish 23rd in points scored, ninth in total yards, ninth in passing attempts, and 13th in rushing attempts. This would be Shanahan’s final season as OC for Washington, and the last time Griffin would play 10+ games in his career.

2014 as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh:

Kyle Shanahan joined Cleveland to join Mike Pettine in the 2014 version of “The Odd Couple.” Talk of Shanahan sticking it to Pettine in practices is well documented, with a viral video of Pettine telling Shanahan which play to run in the red zone with Shanahan giving a “are you serious” look to Pettine. Brian Hoyer was the starting quarterback for the Browns, with Johnny Manziel waiting in the wings.

Pittsburgh would jump out to a 27-3 lead at halftime, leaving Cleveland with little hope of coming back and win. Two Isaiah Crowell rushing touchdowns in the third quarter followed by a Billy Cundiff field goal and Travis Benjamin receiving touchdown in the fourth quarter brought Cleveland back to a tie. Unfortunately, a Shaun Suisham field goal at the buzzer gave Pittsburgh the win, 30-27.

Cleveland would finish the year 27th in points scored, 23rd in total yards, sixth in rushing attempts, and 26th in passing attempts.

2015 as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator vs. Philadelphia:

Joining Atlanta’s staff was a natural fit for Shanahan. Matt Ryan was a good, young QB, and Julio Jones was in his prime, and it showed in this first game. The Falcons would fall to the Eagles in this one, but Ryan would throw for 298 yards, two touchdowns, and interceptions, with Julio Jones going nuclear for nine receptions. One hundred forty-one yards, and both touchdowns from Ryan.

The Falcons would jump out to a 20-3 halftime lead (where have I heard that before?) before Philadelphia would mount a furious comeback led by Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray. The Eagles would take the lead with 8:37 left in the fourth before a Matt Bryant field goal with 6:27 left gave Atlanta back the lead and won 26-24. DeMeco Ryans would even chip in with two tackles for Philadelphia. Penalties (7) and turnovers (2) were a problem in this one, but Atlanta made enough plays down the stretch to secure the win.

Atlanta would finish 21st in points scored, seventh in yards, eighth in passing attempts, and 16th in rushing attempts.

2016 as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator vs. Tampa Bay:

First in points scored, second in yards, third in passing yards, 26th (!) in passing attempts, 12th in rushing attempts, fifth in rushing yards, one Matt Ryan MVP, and a Super Bowl berth. The common misconception with this Falcons team was how much they threw the ball. People generally say, “Kyle wants to get back to airing it out like in Atlanta.” Well, with data points starting from this season, we can see that’s not the case. The only thing 49ers fans should take from this is it’s possible to have a deeper passing attack with fewer passing attempts overall.

Atlanta struggled to run the ball in this game, and Jameis Winston played out of his mind throwing four touchdowns. The game was evenly matched statistically, with total yards ending in favor of the Falcons 374-371 and first downs nearly identical, with Tampa Bay ahead 20-19. Mohamed Sanu scored a touchdown and two-point conversion, but Tampa Bay prevailed, giving them their first winning record since 2012. Seven penalties for 74 yards and going 3-13 on third downplayed a big hand in the loss for Atlanta.

The head coaching years with the 49ers:

2017 was a time of enthusiasm and excitement for 49ers fans, the most coveted coaching candidate was brought in with Hall of Famer, John Lynch as GM, to usher in a new era of 49ers football. The 49ers held the third selection in the 2017 NFL draft and selected Solomon Thomas. Fans weren’t exactly thrilled with the pick, but it was a preview of how this team would build which is in the trenches. The draft yielded Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, but Shanahan had eyes on Kirk Cousins eventually coming to Santa Clara. We know how that plan went, and the season began with Brian Hoyer under center. The 49ers would eventually trade a second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo.

The team would finish 20th in points scored, 12th in yards, second in pass attempts, ninth in passing yards, and 22nd in rushing attempts. Immediately, you can attribute the high passing attempts to a team constantly behind in games. Couple that with a less than stellar opening roster, and bad things were bound to happen.

The 49ers would lose Shanahan’s debut as head coach to the Panthers by the score of 23-3. 13 first downs, four sacks, two turnovers, ten penalties, and 2-11 on third-down tell the story very well.

2019 at Tampa Bay:

Year three for Shanahan would prove to be a memorable one. You guys know why and I won’t reiterate to keep the vibes immaculate today. Nick Bosa was drafted second overall with Deebo Samuel and Dre Greenlaw to headline the draft class. Enthusiasm was high with the additions and Jimmy Garoppolo returning from his ACL injury and ready to go.

The 49ers’ offense would rank second in points scored, 29th (!) in passing attempts, and second in rushing attempts and rushing yards. The team would leave with a 31-17 win over Tampa Bay, but let’s look a bit deeper.

Jameis Winston was in rare form, throwing two pick-sixes accounting for 14 points while Garoppolo threw one of his own. 11 penalties for the 49ers and two turnovers showed a team working through rust, but with all of that the team still won. The offense accounted for 17 points, but the team was so balanced that it wouldn’t always need its offense at its best. Still, not the best effort from the offense to start the year.

2020 vs. Arizona:

I feel this game needs a proper disclaimer for how unorthodox the season unfolded. Covid-19 erased the entire preseason with teams playing in empty stadiums during the pandemic. So how much rust was at play in this game? I’d say a ton. Everything about this game felt strange. Fake crowd noise and empty seats? 2020 was a year to forget for 49ers fans.

The offense started hot going up 10-0, with a 76-yard pass to Mostert being the big splash play. Then a blocked punt shifted momentum, and it felt like the team was in mud for the rest of the contest. Garoppolo wasn’t particularly sharp, going 19/33, 259 yards with two touchdowns. A miss to Kendrick Bourne in the corner of the end zone on the 49ers’ final possession was a fitting end to a game that had completely flipped once Arizona got rolling. On a fourth down at the goal line, an offensive lineman got pushed back into his running back, effectively ending the play. 0-2 on fourth down and 2-11 on third down isn’t good. Arizona would prevail 24-20.

Garoppolo would lose his season to an ankle injury, and the team would finish 21st in points scored, 15th in total yards, 16th in passing attempts, 14th in rushing attempts, and 12th in rushing yards.

2021 at Detroit:

No disrespect to the Lions, but after Dan Campbell opened his tenure with Detroit with the infamous “kneecap” speech, 49ers fans looked to a first-game win even more. The 49ers would score 41 points (the most in any opener for Shanahan), which should have led to a blowout win. Well, it led to a win, but it was way too close for comfort towards the end of the game.

Dre Greenlaw had a pick-six, Deebo Samuel had a 79-yard touchdown reception, and rookie Elijah Mitchell ran for 100 plus yards in his NFL debut. Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 314 yards, and the team was up 38-10 at one point. A score here, a score there, a fumble, and an onside kick recovery led Detroit back into the game as they led a furious comeback. The offense came out firing, but the sloppy play in season openers continued with a fumble on the first offensive snap, seven penalties for 79 yards, and a special teams miscue on an onside kick. The 49ers won 41-33, but it should have never been this close.

On the way to another NFC title game berth, the team ranked 13th in points scored, seventh in yards, 29th (!) in passing yards, fifth in rushing attempts, and seventh in rushing yards.

In conclusion, the trends that jump out at you are Shanahan’s teams tend to come out a bit flat or undisciplined, Shanahan’s rotation of “trusted guys’, and whenever a Shanahan offense ranks 29th in passing attempts, the season ends in a super bowl berth or NFC title game.

Even if there is a trend for sloppy beginnings at times, it’s not indicative of his teams' season. Great opening performances haven’t led to successful seasons, and not-so-great opening performances don’t mean the season is finished. Just something I found interesting when recapping Shanahan and his opening game performances.