Kyle Shanahan; Problem Instead of Solution?

By: Stefán Krüger (@jav_95)img_1386
Final Edit: (@Zachhernan)

Ugh.

This is basically my very first expression every morning I wake up, look at the calendar and realize that we are still in the NFL’s no-man’s-land. The length of an NFL off-season is unbearable, especially the time between OTAs and training camp seems to be never-ending (which is why I’m quite excited for the American Flag Football League to be honest, but that is something for another day). For comparison – I am from Germany and my league number one is the Bundesliga – European soccer clubs went into summer break the first week of June. First trainings started July 1st. Between that, some players even played in international tournaments. This is the schedule I am accustomed to. There is hardly any break and I can enjoy a sport I love year-round. I sadly cannot do that with the NFL. While one half of the year drowns in action, the other half is just a waiting game for August to come.

As you probably all remember, our new player-turned-broadcaster-turned-general manager John Lynch said in January during Atlanta’s playoff game against Seattle that (the then still Falcons offensive coordinator and front-runner for the 49ers head coaching position) Kyle Shanahan was rumored to be arrogant sometimes. With no news and a lot of time on my hands, I decided to go through some old stories about the former offensive coordinator and I found some, well, interesting things.

Before I get into any more detail, I want to make absolutely clear that I am a huge fan of the Shanahan hire and that I like his attitude from what I have seen so far. What follows, though, is a quick history of Shanahan’s troubles and criticism he has faced with other teams and regimes. The situation now is fairly different, but starting in 2011, there is somewhat a trend to be noticed. I will give a quick recap of some of the articles written at the given time and, at the end, compare that to the current situation. Without

further ado, let’s get started.

 


Although Kyle Shanahan’s coaching career began in 2004, there were no negative reports whatsoever about him at first; not in his two years in Tampa Bay under Jon Gruden, not in his four years in Houston under Gary Kubiak, despite being in the spotlight more often from 2008 on, serving as Kubiak’s offensive coordinator. In 2010, however, his father Mike Shanahan, Super Bowl winning coach with the Broncos, was hired to be the next head coach in Washington. He brought in Kyle to be the offensive coordinator. During the next four years, reports would start surfacing about his personality.

 

It all started in the offseason of 2011. Washington had finished the previous season at 6-10 after having traded for an aging Donovan McNabb. He then was on his way out and Rex Grossman was about to take over.


Jun. 7, 2011

Grossman gives an interview in which he details how Shanahan operates his offense and training. This leads Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio to publish an article with the subtle headline “Kyle Shanahan emerges as full-blown control freak.” In it he points out the OCD-like behavior Shanahan showcases when it comes to executing the offense, calling him a silver-spoon assistant coach. He even goes as far as to declare that “Shanahan has developed into football’s answer to Veruca Salt.” For those who aren’t familiar with this; she is a character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a main antagonist; basically, a greedy, bratty, demanding, manipulative, spoiled child.
Granted, this article was an outlier at the time, but it was a first indication of what would ensue.
Veruca-Salt

 

In the offseason before the 2012 season, the Washington team acquired Robert Griffin III in the draft. They also landed Alfred Morris and the next season the offense took a huge step forward. These two players carried the offense basically by themselves with Griffin posting a passer rating of 102.4 for the season, winning AP Rookie Of The Year, and Morris rushing for over 100 yards per game. They also combined for 40 touchdowns. Still, not everything was sunshine and rainbows.


Sep. 23, 2012

After their second loss in just the third game of the season, things got heated. Less than two minutes to play, Washington trailed Cincinnati by 7 points, but managed its way into the Bengals Red Zone. Then several penalties and confusions caused by the referees ensued, the team lost the game and the younger Shanahan his cool. He stormed from the field to face the referees in the halls of the stadium. The language was R-rated.
This is what ESPN 980 reported afterwards:

 

The season once more did not appear to be a great one with the team record being 3-6 just before the bye week in early November. Then a major turnaround happened and Washington finished 10-6, winning 7 straight, and the division to end the regular season, scoring 30 PPG on the way. However, supposed franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III suffered a knee injury in Week 14 which ultimately led to a full ACL, LCL and meniscus tear, respectively, in the playoff game against Seattle.


This injury was the beginning of the end of the Shanahan tenure in Washington. I think it is well-documented how that was handled by the parties involved.


Griffin rushed back from the injury and played through the first 13 games of the 2013 season, leaving Washington with a 3-10 record before being shut down. This was an ugly last season for both of the Shanahan’s in Washington, and as expected (because it always happens) some people came out criticizing the regime.

 

Dec. 15, 2013

Jason La Confora publishes an article annihilating Kyle Shanahan. He interviewed “numerous team sources” and cites “current and former staff members”, all falling into a similar tone when it comes to Shanahan’s personality. In the article Shanahan is depicted as Veruca Salt from PFT’s article earlier. Some say he is the de facto head coach, just no one knows; he is whining about everything and anything, even the food in the cafeteria; he surrounded himself with his “buddies” in the coaching staff so no one would challenge him because he is not that confident; he has entitlement-syndrome and holds grudges over small stuff because he is so petty; he bitches about everything and then his father goes out and fixes it for him.


 

After this tumultuous last season in Washington Kyle Shanahan was hired to be the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator. At first everything was fine, now 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer led the team to a 7-4 record with the offense scoring 22 PPG. However, Hoyer didn’t play well in his last starts from Week 10 through 14, averaging out a completion percentage of below 50 % (49.69) while throwing for only 2 touchdowns compared to 9 interceptions. The front office then pushed for Johnny Manziel to become the starter, much to Shanahan’s dislike.

 

Oct. 26, 2014

Before Manziel was named starter and Hoyer had his bad stretch, though, the latter had some good games; among them the Browns victory against the visiting Oakland Raiders. Before Hoyer threw his first and only touchdown pass of the game, there was an interesting sideline exchange between HC Mike Pettine and Shanahan in which Shanahan gave Pettine that overconfident I-know-it-all look.

 

 

 


Jan. 8, 2015

 

Shanahan’s contract with the Cleveland Browns is terminated. He requested a release after continuous front office meddling with football decisions. As Mike Silver so eloquently put it:

 

 

 

According to La Confora it took some deliberation and negotiation among lawyers to free Shanahan from the Browns. He even pitched a 32 sheet Power Point presentation to Pettine, detailing why he wanted out of Cleveland.


Kyle Shanahan did not stay unemployed for very long. He was rumored to become the Buffalo Bills new head coach, but instead he was hired to be the Atlanta Falcons offensive-coordinator under new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who had just won the Super Bowl as defensive coordinator for Seattle. The team started fiery, going undefeated in the first five games. However, as hot the team was in the first five games, as fast it flamed out, losing 7 of the next 8 games and finishing 8-8 overall. Again, criticism arose. In the midst of it? You guessed correctly, Kyle Shanahan.

Nov. 15, 2015

A petition to fire Kyle Shanahan emerges. Falcons fans everywhere come out and blame Matt Ryan’s regression on the offensive coordinator and his unwillingness to adapt to his quarterback. “The dude is terrible”, “How Kyle Shanahan continues to find work amazes me”, “Dan Quinn fucked up extraordinarily with this hire and I honestly think he is the main problem why Atlanta is so bad” are common opinions. Even Matt Ryan reportedly criticized his coordinator for implementing a scheme too complicated to grasp.
Amid this heat Dan Quinn stuck to his guy and decided not to fire Shanahan after the 2015 season. Criticism ensued, especially from one franchise-great who believes he was disregarded the season before.

Mar. 7, 2016

 Roddy White’s agent stated:

“There is one reason Roddy is no longer with the Falcons and it is Kyle Shanahan. Kyle forced the Falcons to choose between him or Roddy. This was not Roddy’s choice.”


Mar. 13, 2016

Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jeff Schultz:
“My view on Shanahan is that while he’s not nearly as bad a coordinator as he has been painted, he gets overly married to scheme, like most OCs, and he struggles to accept input. He seemed to mentally close the door to [Roddy] White’s potential role in the offense from Day 1. He tends to hear only one voice — his own — which Quinn didn’t exactly deny and certainly doesn’t embrace.”
What ensued, though, after years of much criticism and little praise was a phenomenal 2016 season. There is no doubt that it was the Shanahan play-calling and scheme that propelled the Falcons to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1998. Matt Ryan finally grasped the offense in its entirety and the results were astonishing. The team scored the 8th most points in the history of the NFL in a regular season (540) and Ryan was voted AP MVP after posting a 116.8 passer rating. The offense was able to outperform itself in the playoffs, dropping 36 points on the feared Seahawks defense in the Divisional Round and 44 points on the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

Feb. 5, 2017

The Falcons do what they did all season; crush opponents with their seemingly unstoppable offense and play with a speedy defense. They storm out to a 21-3 halftime lead and even extend said lead to 28-3 with just over two minutes to play in the 3rd quarter. However, the Patriots recover, the Falcons players get more and more exhausted and Tom Brady and Co. manage to fabric the biggest comeback on the biggest stage, winning 34-28 in overtime. Quickly someone had to be found to put the blame on and since Kyle Shanahan continued to call plays aggressively, he was the one called out for losing the game for the Falcons.
“In the biggest moment of his professional career, Shanahan blew it. He got cute, and it cost the Falcons dearly.”

Jul. 19, 2017

Even months later the quarterback Shanahan made into an MVP openly criticized his former coordinator. He suggested Shanahan took too long to get his plays to the QB so that Ryan didn’t have any time to change them,
if necessary: You’re talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines. He also implied he would have changed a call to a run in one of the fatal pass plays in the fourth quarter that took the team out of field goal range: “We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I’m all for it. But there’s also winning time. You’re not being aggressive not running it there”.

Conclusion

To summarize, Kyle Shanahan has faced lots of criticism at every stop in every year since 2011, much of it not just about his play-calling and scheme, but rather about his personality and alleged pettiness and arrogance. In my opinion, most of it is uncalled for, though. Yes, he is a little bit arrogant, but he also gets rave reviews about his football knowledge and is by now called the best offensive mind in all of football.
Other than that, I don’t see a lot of criticism holding up. Rex Grossman in his interview rather praised Shanahan for micro-managing him because that would help him on gameday. Florio then once again twisted these words into a head-scratching criticism. As these two comments perfectly sum it up:
comment1
comment2
As to the Jason La Confora piece; he is a hypocrite and obviously does everything for a story because just one year later he wrote an article about Shanahan, praising him, painting an entirely opposite picture. Maybe some of the allegations are true, but to me it shows that Shanahan is a meticulous coach and doesn’t complain for the sake of complaining, but to elevate the standards. We also need to keep in mind that most of the interviewees were former (and more importantly anonymous) employees which is an explosive mixture and not necessarily the best source for accurate reports. However, Shanahan was also criticized for bringing too many of his buddies on the staff and not a lot of established coaches. He indeed had some first or second-year guys under him, but as it turned out he wasn’t entirely wrong. Shanahan’s TE coach Sean McVay was named youngest head coach in the history of the modern NFL at just 30 years old at signing; QB coach Matt LaFleur is now also with the Rams, serving as offensive coordinator. Mike McDaniel is still with Kyle Shanahan now on the 49ers, having followed him to Cleveland and then Atlanta previously. All these position coaches still serve in the league years later having been on several coaching staffs, so it speaks for a certain capability they all possess. Lastly on this piece: Shanahan’s recent appearance on the Simms and Lefkoe podcast. They asked what his “24-year-old-I-can’t-believe-I-just-did-that moment” was back when he started as a coaching assistant on Jon Gruden’s staff in Tampa and this was his response:
“I’ve been called into rooms and told to keep my mouth shut and didn’t do that. You learn and you move on, but those guys were never expecting it, too. I am now in a position where I have guys like that and you want guys to challenge you, you want guys to challenge what you say because you’ve been doing things a certain way and you’re always looking to improve. When you have people of different views you want to hear it and you don’t want ever to discourage those people from [speaking] up because it’s only going to hurt your team in the long run.”

I think I’ll keep it short on the Cleveland chapter, until their most recent front office changes it was one big dumpster fire and I don’t fault anyone for wanting out of that situation, and if it takes a 32 sheet Power Point presentation.


The one last thing I want to tackle, though, is the situation in Atlanta. Shanahan got a lot of flak for his scheme and play-calling and also the handling of the Roddy White situation. Yes, White wasn’t a big part of the 2015 offense, but he was nearing retirement and Shanahan felt he could have more success without him. White slowly fizzled out in Atlanta and it was somewhat telling that he could not continue his career anywhere else. I must add that his agent’s statement earlier was vehemently denied by Dan Quinn who said he and Dimitroff alone were responsible for roster moves.


Back to Shanahan’s offense, though. Yes, it is a complex scheme to learn, that is public knowledge by now. However, the learning curve is very much worth it, evident by the first five games of 2015 for the Falcons and the entire last season, averaging more than 30 PPG and producing busted coverages or missed defensive assignments see mingly every play. It might or might not be very pretty this year, but judging from the past we can expect to see huge improvements in year two the latest.


Regardless of the execution, Shanahan remains – for me at least – the best play-caller the league has to offer at the moment. Even the two plays that were criticized earlier were blown up by individual mistakes by Devonta Freeman and Jake Matthews, respectively. On the first play (8:32 to play, 3rd & 1, 28-12 lead) Shanahan called a deep shot to 49ers free agent addition Aldrick Robinson who had beat the Patriots secondary. Freeman missed the pass blocking pick-up and just as Matt Ryan started throwing, Dont’a Hightower hit the quarterback for a sack and fumble which New England recovered. Here are visuals to the play.

Hightower strip sack

Hightower strip sack


One might say calling a run would have taken away the possibility of a sack, but there is a risk involved in every single play. Who knows if Ryan had not fumbled the exchange, or Freeman the ball running. Plus, the Patriots completely dried up the run game in the second half, after being run over in the first half (Freeman: 1H 12.17 YPC, 2H 0.80 YPC, Coleman: 1H 5.00 YPC, 2H 2.60 YPC). In my opinion, the play-call was correct and had Freeman picked up Hightower, it would have been instant game over.

 

The second scrutinized play came on Atlanta’s next possession. On 1st and 10 from the NE 22 Freeman rushes and loses a yard. Shanahan calls a pass on second down to make it a manageable 3rd down. Ryan gets sacked and loses 12 yards. It is now 3rd and 23 from the NE 35 and the Falcons need some more yards to make it a more manageable field goal for Matt Bryant. Shanahan calls another pass and Ryan connects with Mohammed Sanu for 9 yards. However, Jake Matthews gets penalized for a hold on a Patriots pass rusher which negates everything. Again, here are visuals:


Jake Matthews holding

Jake Matthews holding


I do not fault Shanahan one bit for it. As play-caller you expect your players to execute the called play and both times I would rather blame Freeman and Matthews because they were the reason the plays did not work out.

As you can see, I do not see anything specifically that causes me major concern. I think Shanahan is a brilliant offensive young mind who has immense knowledge of the game. I also do not see the micro-managing accusations as a concern moving forward. Keep in mind, Chip Kelly was heavily criticized for being way too controlling. When he came to San Francisco, though, he said everything he was criticized for was standard practice there already. It is usually the innovative or great minds that rub established, old-school people the wrong way which then gets way overblown in the media. And since we are talking about former 49ers coaches; Jim Harbaugh was criticized by ex-49ers for making them work hard. Judging from all that I refrain from taking every bit of criticism too seriously.

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