Kyle Shanahan’s life work has led him to Super Bowl LIV

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With due respect to the defenses, and the defensive bosses, this Super Bowl is a Mensa match between Reid and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. Though nearly 22 years younger than Reid, Shanahan is on his level as a play-caller and play-designer, a brilliant young coach with a great base of knowledge on both sides of the ball. “Facing Kyle,” said veteran NFL defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who just retired as the Titans’ defensive boss last week, “the big thing is you’ve got to be disciplined all day, every play. He’ll runs plays that you’ve seen before, but they never look the same because he might have a different formation, or different motion.”

Shanahan has a lot of Bill Belichick in him. (Sacrilegious? Maybe, but true.) Belichick spent time in his youth hanging around his dad, Navy assistant coach and scout Steve Belichick, and soaking up football knowledge from the great Roger Staubach and other players at Navy practices. Shanahan spent much of his youth hanging around his dad, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, and soaking up football knowledge from the great John Elway and others at Broncos practices.

When Shanahan was a backup receiver at Texas in 2001 and 2002, quarterback Chris Simms said he brought techniques from Denver wideouts Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith to practice. Shanahan caught 14 balls in two seasons with the Longhorns, but, like Belichick (an overachieving center at Wesleyan University in Connecticut), it would be the X’s and O’s that distinguished him after college. Two years after they hung around together at Texas, Shanahan and Simms were reunited under Jon Gruden with Tampa Bay. Shanahan was the offensive quality-control coach, Simms and Brian Griese the quarterbacks. In Austin, Shanahan needed Simms to throw him the ball. In Tampa, Simms needed Shanahan to advance his pro career.

“Kyle was crucial for me,” Simms said Saturday. “What he was great at was being a middleman between the quarterbacks and Jon Gruden. Jon was a psycho—in a good way. More plays! Big plays! That was Jon. Details would get lost. Maybe you were supposed to run the slant at seven steps, and the receiver would run it at six, or five. Kyle would make hard and fast rules. Receivers knew precisely what they were supposed to do. Kyle was great in the little nuances and clues and coverages. I’d come off the field, and I wouldn’t know if what I just saw was cover 4 or cover 2. Kyle would say, ‘Look at the nickel slot in coverage. If he’s inside, it’s cover 4. Outside, it’s cover 2.” Next series, you’d get out there and you’d see it.

“That was a great time for Kyle to learn the whole game. Our defensive coaching staff was just incredible then—Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli, Mike Tomlin, Joe Barry, Raheem Morris. I’d be leaving the facility, 7 or 7:30 at night, and I’d be walking by the defensive team room and there, sitting on the floor in the back of the room, all the time, was Kyle. Sitting there, elbows on knees, taking it all in, learning how to stop what offenses did. If the offense was predictable, that defense would win, all the time.”

Shanahan, in those two seasons, took the “tip sheets” created by Marinelli and Tomlin—keys to look for against that week’s opponents—and learned the thought process of the defense. So in those two years, it wasn’t just getting a ph.D in the Gruden passing game; it was about learning how the defense thought too.

Moving on, Shanahan learned disguises too. At 29, as the precocious offensive coordinator of the Texans under coach Gary Kubiak, Shanahan invented a play he loved but Kubiak was dubious. The play had a seven or eight-man offensive front, with two receivers (or a receiver and a tight end) at the end of the line on the right. The quarterback would take the snap under center, run play-action, then roll right as the mass of bodies up front would roll left, and one of the two receivers/tight ends would leak out of the mayhem to a spot up the left seam that by design should have been wide open. Shanahan never ran it with the Texans. But when he got to Washington in 2010 to be coordinator under father Mike Shanahan, Kyle put it in the game plan in Week 2 . . . against Houston. Late in the second quarter, from the mayhem on the right side of the line, tight end Fred Davis snuck out and behind the tackle, up the left seam, and no Texan went with him. Donovan McNabb lofted an easy completion to Davis, totally uncovered. Gain of 62.

Fast forward to 2019. Week 2 again . . . at Cincinnati. Now Marquise Goodwin was one of the two receivers on the right, and now it was play-action by Jimmy Garoppolo, who faded to the right with the line mosh-pitting left, and Goodwin snuck behind the masses up the left seam. Garoppolo threw it, no one within 15 yards of Goodwin.

The ball was three feet out of Garoppolo’s hands and . . . “Touchdown,” Chris Spielman said on the game broadcast.

Nine Septembers apart, the two plays are the same, run just the way Shanahan drew them up — 2010 | 2019

Why does that play work, and why has it worked for Shanahan for 10 seasons? Because if the defense is not disciplined, and if you take your eyes for a split second off a Davis or a Goodwin, you’ll lose the play. The receiver will come clean out of the mosh pit, and Shanahan will scheme a totally open area so they can be wide open.

And that, those who know Shanahan well, can happen four or five times a week with different plays, if they’re run properly. “That play you’re talking about,” Pees said, “I’ve had to defend against it. We saw it four or five times this year. It’s really smart. I told our defense all week, ‘You CANNOT take your eyes off your man for a second or we’ll get burned.’ “

One of the things that’s going to happen in the Super Bowl is that one of the defensive coordinators—Robert Saleh of the 49ers or Steve Spagnuolo of the Chiefs—is going to look up at some point in the game, probably early, and say, Never saw that coming. That’s a commonality when teams play both of these coaches. Every week in game prep, several times, Reid has three or four offensive coaches on the white board in his office and prods them to come up with stuff they might not have run all season that might work in the next game. By the end of the week, Reid’s white board looks like an inner-city screen of MapQuest, with different-colored lines zigging everywhere. Many of those lines represent plays Reid loves, plays he’ll use in the game. But Reid is not stubborn. The Chiefs had lots of RPO stuff in the game plan last week against Tennessee, and came out with RPOs on the first two snaps. Mahomes pulled the first one, and lunged for two yards. Mahomes pulled the second one, and got sacked for minus-two. Two plays, two RPOs, zero yards. The rest of the game: 62 plays, zero RPOs, 35 points, 404 yards.

Shanahan is just as inventive, and flexible. If his quarterback is on, this game could be a chess match for the ages.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.