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. 

NFL Week 12 key takeaways: Josh Jacobs is extraordinary

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This Josh Jacobs is a fabulous player. We’ve got 15 more pennant-racy things to talk about today than the 4-7 Raiders—the 49ers haven’t allowed a second-half point in five weeks, no one wants to win the NFC South, here comes Deshaun Watson, here come the Dolphins, Jalen Hurts could seriously challenge Patrick Mahomes for MVP, the NFL can’t be serious in keeping Denver on Sunday night in two weeks, Washington could dump the Giants into last place in the NFC East next week, what should we think of the North Little Rock Jerry Jones?—and I will get to every one, and more. But what happened in Decibelville Sunday, that 40-34 overtime win for the Raiders in Seattle, was extraordinary.

“It all started before the game,” Jacobs, the hero of Week 12 in the NFL, told me from the Raiders’ giddy locker room in Seattle. “This fan, when we came out of the tunnel, held up a sign: ‘3-7. NOT BAD FOR A TEAM WITH NO TALENT.’ And he was screaming at us, all this bad stuff. I just looked up at him and said, ‘Thank you for that. I needed that today. You turnt me up.’”

Jacobs needed it because he entered the game with a sore calf, and the Raiders didn’t know how long he’d last. Oh, he lasted. Never in his college or pro career had he touched the ball 39 times in a game. Never had he gained 303 scrimmage yards in a game. Never had he rushed for a touchdown as long as 86 yards. He did all of those things Sunday, the final winning one on his last touch of the day in overtime.

But there were losses for Jacobs too. This was a gnarly, feisty game. You think when a guy rushes for 229 yards and walks off in triumph that it was a game of joy with few trials. Not so. Seattle’s got a puncher’s defense, a physical Joe Frazier-type of D that makes you earn every inch. Jacobs was waaaay down when he failed to convert a fourth-and-one run with nine minutes left, leaving Seattle a short field; that touchdown gave the Seahawks a 34-27 lead. But the Raiders came back to force OT. And on the first play of the Raiders’ second overtime drive, the call was a Jacobs burst over right guard.

“We were running outside zone a lot, and I saw the linebackers pointing outside. So we ended up running inside zone, and I knew if I got through the line, it was a foot race after that,” Jacobs told me.

I asked Jacobs if he thought he was the best running back in football, and he demurred, saying he loved watching and learning from Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry. Let’s compare the three men who lead the NFL in rushing entering December:

Jacobs: 1,159 yards, 5.4 per rush, nine touchdowns.

Henry: 1,048 yards, 4.2 per rush, 10 touchdowns

Chubb: 1,039 yards, 5.2 per rush, 12 touchdowns.

Yes, Jacobs has a 111-yard lead for the rushing title with six games left. On Sunday, he cared more about the win. He also cared about the fan with the sign.

“He’s the first one I wanted to find after we won,” Jacobs said. “I went over to him and said, ‘Thank you.’”


The 10 stories in the NFL that interest me the most entering the home stretch of the regular season:

The NFL’s Denver problem. With the Broncos locked into one high-profile stinker in a standalone Christmas-afternoon game at the equally moribund Rams, the league has till tomorrow to flex out of the Week-14 Sunday nighter, KC at Denver.

Should Jerry Jones be publicly flogged for a 65-year-old photo? Jones, thanks to some digging by The Washington Post, is smack dab in the middle of a story of race and culture and the NFL’s bad head-coach hiring practices.

Did Odell Beckham wreck his chances to be a rare late-season playoff vaccine for a contender with his weird Florida airplane story Sunday? Probably not. The Cowboys, Bills and Giants will be the judges of that.

Doug Pederson and Brandon Staley made ballsy calls to go for two instead of playing for OT Sunday—or did they? Our sporting society is so messed up. Pederson and Staley are geniuses for going for two and converting and winning Sunday. If they’d failed? My guess is Stephen A. Smith and the Mad Dog would have them on the public grill today for bad calls.

Mike White did Robert Saleh a solid. In seven days, the Jets’ coach went from saying he wasn’t even thinking about a quarterback change from Zach Wilson, to benching Wilson for White, to watching White play the best-quarterbacked game by a Jet this season. Controversy over. There really never was one.

Well now, Jordan Love. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined by thumb and oblique injuries, and the 4-8 Packers out of any realistic playoff contention, the more-than-encouraging performance by Love should earn him a start next week at Chicago. And perhaps four more after that.

Lord, San Francisco’s defense over the past month looks like something out of the Noll days. The Niners had the league’s fourth shutout of the season Sunday. How great a clash of styles would it be to see the Niners against Dallas or Philly or the Vikes in the playoffs?

Matt Rhule’s coaching Nebraska. Mike Rozier’s not walking through that door. But the King of the Reclamation Project should have a chance to make the ‘Huskers competitive. If you can win at Temple, you can win in Lincoln.

Deshaun Watson’s back. With his mates off Monday and Tuesday after the Browns stunned Tampa Sunday, Watson will be in the facility digesting and contributing to the gameplan for next Sunday’s game in Houston. Weird and somehow fitting: Watson’s first NFL game in 700 days will come in NRG Stadium Sunday at high noon CT.

Justin Jefferson cracks my MVP top five. Part of the reason is what he does without the ball.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

What Deshaun Watson return means for Cleveland Browns

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The Browns are 4-7. They’ve lost six of the last eight, but the return of Deshaun Watson gives them a prayer that, if he hits the ground running (certainly no sure thing), they could be a factor in the playoff race. Cool thing that coach Kevin Stefanski gave Jacoby Brissett, who has kept the seat warm for Watson, a game ball for engineering the comeback to beat Tom Brady and the Bucs in overtime.

Brissett’s been an excellent leader and okay player, and 4-7 is about what the public thought the Browns would be when Watson returned. “Y’all feel like I’m about to die or something,” Brissett told reporters Sunday. “I still have a job to do.” But that job now morphs into helping Watson win six games down the stretch. I still think asking Watson to play great after 23 months out of the saddle is a huge ask, but we’ll see. Who sits for two years, then has to play the most important position in the game for the six most important games of the season, and can do it at a winning level week after week?

The players are off till Wednesday. Watson will be in the building Monday and Tuesday working out and getting a start on the gameplan. He’ll take over the offense Wednesday in a 10:45 a.m. walkthrough practice, then a real practice at 1:15 that afternoon. Will the circus be around for the game in Houston—protests or vociferous booing? Likely. And with Cleveland being on the road for four of its last six games (also at Cincinnati, Washington and Pittsburgh), Watson can expect road crowds to remember exactly why he was suspended for 11 weeks in the first place.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column