Shanahan, 40, has reached the high point of his coaching career, with the chance for more peaks to come. In his third season as a head coach, Shanahan has led the San Francisco 49ers to the top seed in the NFC playoffs, in which they will make their debut Saturday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium, in a divisional-round NFC playoff game against the sixth-seeded Minnesota Vikings. The 49ers need three victories to claim the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl.
The last time the 49ers won it, after the 1994 season, Shanahan occupied a different role. He was a 14-year-old ballboy who followed his father, the offensive coordinator for Steve Young and Jerry Rice, to work. During that run, Shanahan wore a Deion Sanders throwback jersey to school every day for a month.
“I felt like I couldn’t get to do homework because I needed a good night’s sleep to get ready for the game,” Shanahan said at a news conference this week.
A joyous staple of his childhood, the Super Bowl provided a forum for heartbreak in Shanahan’s first appearance in February 2017. He called plays for the Atlanta Falcons as they took a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots and then squandered a championship. Shanahan received much of the blame, which those close to him believe was residue from the old-guard criticisms he received on his way up the coaching ladder: He had risen so fast only because of his last name.
There is no doubt Shanahan’s career benefited from his father or that nepotism reigns in NFL coaching circles. But Shanahan also has established himself, on his own merits, as one of the NFL’s best coaches. Few coaches match his offensive creativity, and in three seasons he has shaped a franchise lost in the wilderness into a Super Bowl threat, for both the immediate and foreseeable future.
“Kyle wants to be not only one of the great coaches of right now, but I think he wants to be one of the great coaches of all time,” said NBC Sports analyst and former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, who played with Shanahan at Texas and remains a close friend. “I think those are the things that drive him. He grew up watching his dad do special things and win two Super Bowls. I think he looks at it like, ‘Oh, I can do that, too, and I can one-up him.’ He expects greatness from himself.”
When Shanahan chose to be a football coach, it ensured an early life of being known as Mike Shanahan’s son. It never bothered Kyle, who calls his dad his best friend. Shanahan’s ascent has made the public association fade, and if the 49ers win three games over the next month, it may completely flip.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” said North Carolina Coach Mack Brown, a family friend who coached Shanahan at Texas. “Mike would tell you, ‘I’m Kyle’s dad.’ ”
Mike Shanahan never expected his son to work for him. He believed Shanahan would benefit from building a résumé independent of him. He established a rule: Shanahan could join his staff only if he led a top-five offense two consecutive seasons. He became the Houston Texans’ offensive coordinator in 2008, at only 28 years old. His offense finished third in total yards his first season, fourth in his second.
“Dad,” he told Mike, “I did it.”
After that season, the Washington Redskins lured Mike to become their head coach. Although Shanahan had met his standard and wanted to come, Mike still tried to convince his son not to join him. Mike told Kyle that the team’s lack of salary cap space and draft capital, combined with questions about management, would make for a difficult situation and that his path to a head coaching job would be smoother if he stayed in Houston.
“It wasn’t even close,” Mike Shanahan said. “I told him his future could really go the other direction, going with me. I told him it was a gamble. He wanted to take it because he’s not afraid of a challenge. He loves a challenge.”
It had always been that way. Mike had once tried to tell Kyle not to transfer from Duke to Texas as a wide receiver, that he should focus on education rather than risk trying to find playing time at a powerhouse.
“Dad, I can play,” Kyle told his father, who had played quarterback at Eastern Illinois. “No offense, but you went to a directional school.”
So Shanahan followed his father to Washington, and the trajectory of both their careers changed. In 2012, against Mike’s recommendation, the Redskins traded four picks to move up in the draft and take Robert Griffin III. Griffin’s athleticism and knowledge base, steeped in burgeoning ideas such as the read-option and run-pass options (RPO) but lacking traditional NFL concepts, provided a template. Shanahan would wake in the middle of the night, his mind so preoccupied he couldn’t sleep, and rush downstairs to his kitchen and scribble plays on napkins and tablecloths.
“Kyle, he’s got guts,” Simms said. “He’s not afraid to think outside the box and invent plays that have never been run in the history of the NFL or do something a different way that’s never been done. Most coaches are like, ‘Show me on tape 10 or 20 plays of that play.’ Kyle’s not like that. Kyle just goes: ‘No, I understand this defense, and this play will work. I don’t care that nobody else has ever run it before.’ ”
The offense the Shanahans concocted for Griffin powered Washington to a division title and changed NFL offenses, an effect evident today. The season also led to an unraveling. Griffin tore knee ligaments in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He rushed back too early and chafed at the Shanahans’ system, wanting to be used as only a pocket passer. After a 4-12 season in 2014, the Redskins fired them, both their reputations stained by an ugly end. Championships protected Mike’s legacy, but Kyle was only at the start of his career.
“You always worry about your kids, that’s for sure,” Mike said. “But I knew he was very good at what he did, and it wouldn’t be long before he had a job.”
Kyle did not get over it so easily, believing people inside Washington’s organization undermined his father and painted him unfairly. After the 49ers beat the Redskins at FedEx Field this season, Shanahan announced to his players in the locker room he would save a game ball for his father.
Mike Shanahan displays many of the game balls he collected over his career, which include 178 victories as a head coach. He keeps the ball Kyle gave him out of view.
“I thought it was a joke, to be honest with you,” Mike said. “I’m sitting at home. I said, ‘Why would I deserve a game ball?’ I appreciated the gesture, but it was something I didn’t deserve. But it was very nice of my son to do that.”
By the 2016 season, Shanahan had been a coordinator for seven years, sidetracked by his Washington tenure but still on track to be a head coach. He led an offense that, at the time, scored the seventh-most points in NFL history and lifted quarterback Matt Ryan to an MVP season. The Falcons romped through the playoffs and plastered the Patriots for a half in Super Bowl LI in Houston.
Shanahan is not a person who backs down — not from the challenge of following his father, not from practicing against Broncos defensive backs during summers in college and, to his detriment, not from trying to score as many points as possible while up 28-3 in the Super Bowl.
Atlanta’s aggression enabled New England to stage a historic comeback. If San Francisco reaches the Super Bowl, the loss will surely be revisited — and re-litigated. It was not a surprise Shanahan was blamed after a loss that staggering, but the volume of blame surprised him. If the teams were reversed, would Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have received more culpability than head coach Bill Belichick?
“For some reason in this case, we decided to take the management of the game out of the head coach’s job and we put it on Kyle Shanahan,” Simms said. “There’s this group haters around Kyle that just didn’t want to see him succeed at first. … I didn’t know Kyle was supposed to be the head coach of the team that day as well as the offensive coordinator. That’s crazy to me. It’s always bothered me.”
The Super Bowl didn’t deter the 49ers. They had come to believe only about 10 coaches in the NFL could truly make a difference. They saw Shanahan as one of those.
Shanahan inherited a franchise in disarray. A powerhouse under Jim Harbaugh in the early 2010s that won the NFC in 2012 and returned to the NFC title game in 2013, the 49ers missed the playoffs the next three seasons, bottoming out with a 2-14 disaster in Coach Chip Kelly’s lone season. When Shanahan arrived in 2017, he became San Francisco’s fourth coach in four seasons.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I always believed,” said tackle Joe Staley, a 49er since 2007. “There were some dark years we had in the franchise here.”
Shanahan lost his first nine games before the 49ers traded a second-round pick to the Patriots for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. A 6-1 finish offered promised for 2018, but Garoppolo suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game and the 49ers finished 4-12. Even through the losing seasons, however, Shanahan sensed improvement.
“He was very proud of his football team and how they played,” Mike Shanahan said. “It has nothing to do with the record. It’s putting the football team together.”
The 49ers stormed to a 13-3 regular season, and fans have witnessed why peers regard Shanahan as an offensive mind worthy of studying. San Francisco finished second in points and second in rushing yardage, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens in both categories.
One feature of 49ers games is the frequency with which a receiver finds an expanse of empty turf and, after a massive gain, opposing defenders accuse each other of blowing an assignment. Those moments trace back to Shanahan’s football obsession. Shanahan became an NFL assistant at 25, as an offensive quality control coach for Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When he finished his work, he would sit on the floor in the back of a defensive staff meeting and listen to coaches such as Monte Kiffin and Mike Tomlin break down defense.
Shanahan understands defense on a deep-enough level that he can reverse-engineer an opposing coach’s system from watching game film. He deciphers how a defense will align given his offense’s personnel and formation or how a linebacker will read the movement of his fullback or how a cornerback is coached to react based on a given combination of pass patterns. Shanahan then designs plays to exploit those defensive guidelines, to use a defense’s foundational tenets against it. Defenders seem so confused because following their coach’s orders is the exact thing that opened up a huge gain.
“That’s where Kyle is a genius,” Simms said. “Kyle will know [Vikings Coach] Mike Zimmer’s rules to his defense as well as Mike Zimmer does come Saturday afternoon.”
If the 49ers win, Shanahan will be one victory closer to returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since he called the Falcons’ plays. It has stayed with him. At a news conference after the 49ers sealed their NFC West title with a chaotic finish, a reporter asked Shanahan about his reaction to San Francisco getting the ball up five points with nine seconds left.
“I have experience from the Atlanta game,” Shanahan said. “So I wasn’t ready to celebrate anything.”
A trip to the Super Bowl would be familiar for the Shanahan family. He went with his father more than two decades ago. Soon Mike Shanahan could be tagging along with his son.
“I feel like Kyle is so confident and he loves his dad so much and he’s really, really proud of that name,” Brown said. “He doesn’t have to feel like he’s got to make his own mark. He’s already done that.”