© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
MIAMI — There are three Kyle Shanahans on the 49ers coaching staff, two of whom are named Mike. They are at the core of the 49ers’ coaching excellence, which is set to be remembered as one of the great staffs in coaching history.
Where Mike Shanahan’s Washington Redskins staff in the early 2010s will be remembered for having three head coaches in Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur, his son’s coaching tree will extend that legacy.
Barring an unforeseen incident or a preference to stay under Shanahan, there are at least three future head coaches on this 49ers staff.
I want to be like Mike
Mike McDaniel and Mike LaFleur represent wunderkinds number two and three; attached to each other as much as they’ve been attached to Shanahan for the last 14 and six years, respectively. McDaniel, the run game coordinator, and LaFleur, the passing game coordinator, are effectively co-offensive coordinators to the NFL’s best in Shanahan.
As is natural for proteges of the NFL’s latest great offensive mind (see Mike’s brother, Matt LaFleur, and Zac Taylor’s coaching hires after a year of making the Super Bowl with Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams), the Mikes squared have piqued interest as potential head coaches.
The biggest knocks against McDaniel are that he doesn’t “look” like a head coach and has struggled with alcohol abuse, and Mike LaFleur — as he admitted Thursday — might lack enough experience to be a comfortable hire just yet.
McDaniel’s alcoholism is the reason his coaching path has a less-than straightforward trajectory. He earned a letter of recommendation from Mike Shanahan for his hustle as a two-hour-a-day bike-commuting intern with the Denver Broncos and joined Gary Kubiak’s Houston Texans staff as an offensive assistant working under Kyle Shanahan in 2006.
But his frequent, alcohol-related oversleeping for meetings in Houston saw him released from the team and spend two years in the United Football League as running backs coach for the Sacramento Mountain Lions. In 2011, he rejoined Kyle and Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins, and has stuck with Kyle Shanahan ever since, though struggled with alcohol addiction. He’s been sober since Jan. 4, 2016, the day he had his last beer, according to Tom Pelissero.
The clever thing the 49ers have done is make the pair — who (especially McDaniel) are hyper-loyal to Shanahan — coordinators after their first season, when McDaniel was the run game specialist, and LaFleur was the wide receivers coach/passing game specialist.
Shanahan said Wednesday that because LaFleur hadn’t been a position coach before and McDaniel hadn’t been a coordinator before, he didn’t want to put too much pressure on them in their first season in San Francisco, because he knew the process of building the roster would be a long slog.
Because of their coordinator promotions, the allure of an offensive coordinator position doesn’t have quite the same sheen as it would if the two were position coaches. Shanahan has and will block any interview requests for that don’t include play-calling responsibilities. It’s a fact Shanahan reminded the media of, in a way that revealed just how much he’d like to keep the pair around.
“It’s funny, everyone asks every year where they’re going to go. They’re our coordinators,” Shanahan said. “So they have coordinator jobs. That’s what I tell people, but we don’t have those guys forever. They’ve got the capability to be head coaches. They’re very smart at what they do and we’ve put a lot of time in together and that’s not something you can just teach someone, that’s something you got to go through.
“I think we all know how each other think and when it’s like that, it’s not that that messy. If someone knows what I’m thinking, what I’m expecting, then I can talk to someone. I know how they’re going to go relate it to someone else. That doesn’t happen just from liking someone or being together for a year or so, that happens together by going through a lot of stuff together.”
Shanahan has admitted that in his first two years, he struggled, as the obsessive person he is, to relinquish much of his responsibilities. In year three, he and his coaches have acknowledged that he’s learned better to delegate.
It’s a truth made most evident by McDaniel and LaFleur taking over most of the team’s game plan on Monday and Tuesday.
“I know I get a lot of credit for stuff that happens on offense, but those guys, they take a lot of it over,” Shanahan said. “The majority of the game plan on Monday and Tuesday, I got to dabble in a bunch of stuff but I’m spread a little more thin earlier in the week, which is something I used to stress about a lot, but giving these guys those responsibilities, they’ve grown so much more in that way and that’s why I don’t stress about it that much anymore. By the end of the week, we’re on the same page and it really helps me.”
The attachment at the hip and philosophical similarities of Shanahan’s top two lieutenants is comical. When McDaniel was asked what, if any, areas he differed philosophically with Shanahan, he paused for three seconds.
Another five seconds of silence passed, as McDaniel scanned his Yale-educated brain, drew a pensive look across his face and tilted his ball cap skywards:
“That’s a hard question because quite honestly, I mean, I was with him as a quality control in his first position job,” McDaniel said. “And every job that he’s had, I’ve been instep with. He became the quarterback coach and I got to work with the quarterbacks. He became the offensive coordinator and then I got to do some run game stuff.
I think that’s one of the cool things because philosophically, I would say we’re instep. I think there’s certain things, him being the boss for a decade plus, he’s one to challenge. And quite honestly, it’s been some of the best stuff that we’ve evolved to in our offense is because he’s put pressure on his assistant coaches to say, ‘Hey, we need to do this.’ And sometimes he’ll get pushback.
So probably along the way, we’re like, ‘Woah dude that’s a little risky.’
And then sure enough, every single time, damn guy has to be right. I think we all try to do our best to see the game like he does because if we’re doing that, we’re probably going in the right direction.”
It’s never a bad idea to say you’re philosophically near-identical to the NFL’s best play caller.
McDaniel is clearly the most cosmetically similar to Shanahan. The Colorado native has a similar laid-back disposition, incisive and often comedically astute style of responses. Even his fashion sense is “instep,” as he’d say.
He sounds like Shanahan, and if isolated to his responses, could easily be mistaken for the head coach. So could LaFleur, though his Michigan accent is a giveaway. LaFleur admitted he and Shanahan are similarly expressive: “Kyle and I, we definitely wear our emotions on our sleeve.”
With all those similarities comes a comfortability. And with Shanahan’s penchant for challenging his assistants for excellence, there comes the frequent opportunity for arguments, which, as Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle have said, comes to the delight of players.
“When they make fun of each other, it’s like, you’re kind of making fun of yourself,” Garoppolo said. “They’re so fun to be around and they’ll keep it light, but at the same time they know when to work and it’s a rare combo.”
“I try to fuel the fire, and I’ll try to say something that gets them to yell at each other more,” Kittle said. “I love it. They’re like brothers out there and they just argue about things. Listening to them yell at each other definitely makes my life a lot more fun.”
Because both McDaniel and LaFleur have spent so much time with Shanahan, they know his tendencies and cadences. Both watch the 49ers games from the press box and know when Shanahan is looking for feedback on the headsets, and when they should stay silent.
LaFleur said he and McDaniel sometimes have to remind each other to back off when Shanahan is in that “different rhythm.”
The relationship is one defined by an almost telepathic understanding built upon years of working together and building the offensive scheme, founded on perfecting the outside zone, and working play-action passes off of that.
As Shanahan said, it’s not going to last forever. For the moment, though, neither McDaniel nor LaFleur seem interested in leaving. That will likely change, especially if the 49ers win a Super Bowl this year, and a head coaching job opens up next season, or in the following few years.
Their responses to being asked about coaching aspirations were perhaps the most clear representation of how Shanahan-like they are.
“I think you’re obliged to your teammates and the players that you coach to do your best for that not to come in your mind,” McDaniel said. “I’ve been trained by the most OCD, extreme guy of all time. So I feel Jedi in terms of, I haven’t thought about it for a second. Until you get questions from people and then you try to explain the boring crusty answer of like, ‘You know what, I really haven’t.’
“To be honest, I’m very proud of the fact that, I know that being a head coach, being an offensive play caller, it’s a dream of mine to call plays. Quite honestly, haven’t even thought about it for a second, because I feel so fortunate to be in the situation that I’m in on this team. This is a special team. And the fact that I get to work in a specific phase, I want to do the best that I possibly can in that phase for the team, for the guy that’s made my career, and the owner that decided that it was OK to hire me.”
For his part, LaFleur cut out a slice of humble pie.
“I don’t think of it right now and I tell my brother and my wife the same thing: I don’t feel ready for it,” LaFleur said. “I feel like I’m ready for the spot I’m in right now and continue to grow. Getting back in the quarterback room this last year from receivers has helped me grow tremendously. Just getting back in that room and I grew so much being with the receivers and learning how to be in that room and how to coach receivers, so I know I’ve got a lot of growing to do and if that time comes, I hope I’m as prepared as can be, but right now, it’s not my focus.”
Praising a team as having a selfless identity tends to feel like a vapid compliment. It’s one of those common praises that players will sing for their teammates and coaches, and it’s a difficult thing to pinpoint as valid early in the season.
But with the 49ers having reached the Super Bowl, it’s clear that the careful cultivation of talent, both from a player and coaching perspective, by Shanahan and the John Lynch-led front office, is paying dividends. Careful in the sense that the 49ers have a standard of principles and behavior they take seriously. Kendrick Bourne was nearly cut in his rookie year before Kyle Shanahan had a “no more second chances” type of meeting with him.
It’s why Reuben Foster was released after a domestic violence-related arrest, and why CEO Jed York pinpointed that decision as a “defining moment” for the franchise. There is a conscious effort to acquire players who aren’t problematic off the field and who commit themselves to be part of the collective. At the same time, there aren’t discernible old-school restrictions on how players express themselves.
That starts with Shanahan: the Yeezy and flat brim-wearing, hip-hop loving, younger-than-40-at-heart head coach who encourages his staff to challenge him, and has fits over sub-perfect performances.
He’s admittedly leaned more on his staff for help this season, and their approach mirrors his. As you might expect, the titles of “run game coordinator” and “passing game coordinator” aren’t so rigid. McDaniel and LaFleur have their hands in both pots, and when Raheem Mostert is running for six yards a carry, LaFleur is the one calling for that to continue.
“Sometimes Mike LaFleur is the number one guy pounding the table to run the ball because he can feel it because he’s called plays in college and knows when a defense is on their heels,” McDaniel said. “I don’t think anyone takes specific credit for anything.”
That extends through the defense with Robert Saleh, and his defensive lieutenants of Joe Woods (defensive backs), Kris Kocurek (defensive line), Johnny Holland (outside linebackers and run game specialist), DeMeco Ryans (inside linebackers), Daniel Bullocks (safeties) and Chris Kiffin (pass rush specialist).
Richard Sherman said he sees myriad similarities to the Seattle Seahawks’ coaching staff, pointing to Saleh, Ken Norton (Seahawks’ defensive coordinator), Todd Wash (Jaguars’ defensive coordinator), Marquand Manuel (Eagles’ defensive backs coach), Gus Bradley (Chargers’ defensive coordinator), Gus Bradley (Falcons’ head coach), Kris Richard (Cowboys defensive backs coach) as successful alumni of the Legion of Boom era.
“I think there’s gonna be a lot of people that come off this coaching tree and end up being coordinators and head coaches, similar to the one that we had in Seattle early on,” Sherman said. “It was a great staff, and that’s just the defensive side. The offensive side had their own tree, but I agree that I think it’s special…
Because there’s no ego. You’d think for how good of a staff this is and how talented they are, that there would be just be a natural confidence about them and kind of hierarchy and I don’t think they see it that way. They’re just willing to do whatever it takes to to get the job done. They don’t care if it’s the run game coordinator and we throw it 42 times or it’s the pass game coordinator and we’re running it 47 times. And I don’t think they care who gets the credit, and that’s unique about the staff.”
Saleh and co.
Shanahan made no attempt to hide his satisfaction when Robert Saleh missed out on the Cleveland Browns head coaching position to Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. He was “pumped,” saying that the 49ers will be lucky every year they keep Saleh (Shanahan would also prefer not to lose staff to the Browns, who he’s not particularly fond of) and that he expects Saleh to be a head coach by this time next year.
Saleh has every quality you’d look for in a head coach; a committed schematic identity built from experience under some of the NFL’s great minds, a demanding but calm, understanding disposition, in-game flexibility and a conscious open-earedness to his staff. Sherman, who was with Saleh in Seattle when Saleh was a defensive quality control, said he’s taken some of those names — Bradley, Quinn, Richard, Norton, even Shanahan — and built his scheme from those foundations.
If (when) he leaves for a head coaching role, he’ll likely take along some of the 49ers’ staff, with LaFleur the most likely offensive coordinator choice.
The most enticing part about Saleh is his approach; the fact that he makes a concerted effort to listen to his players and staff, and when a game plan is faltering, as it has at multiple points in the season, he figures out what isn’t working and makes an immediate adjustment.
Perhaps the clearest example of that was in Week 6, when the Los Angeles Rams opened the game with a seven-play, seven-run touchdown drive, only to never score again. Saleh isolated himself on the sideline, examining the tape on a tablet for five minutes before consulting his staff. After that first drive, the Rams had a combined 109 yards of offense the rest of the game.
“We just had to get a grasp of what kind of runs we were getting and then what we could do without disrupting the structure of the defense,” Saleh said after that 20-7 win. “The adjustments we made in between series, we’ll keep it in house, obviously, but I think the guys did a great job executing it, the coaches did a great job coaching it and we were able to put all that stuff to bed.”
Nick Bosa explained that the Rams were running a “belly cut” rushing play every single time (tight end pulls to the backside, running back is handed the ball off to the strong side, before turning and running with the tight end to the new strong side). The 49ers adjusted to an eight-man box, and had their linebackers cue in on the B-gap hole that was opening up.
Part of that adjustment was masterminded by the not-oft discussed Chris Kiffin, who Bosa described as the “brains” of the 49ers’ defensive line. Kiffin is the brother of University of Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin and the son of legendary NFL defensive coach Monte Kiffin, who founded the Tampa 2 defense.
“He helps Saleh a lot out with just the scheme and stuff. He’s a really, really smart coach,” Bosa said. “He’s like the behind-the-scenes guy, he’s not the screamer like Chris [Kocurek]. Kiff’s more quiet, but he’s like the brains behind the operation and Chris gets it done… He’s got the iPad, he’s got his mic on and he’s getting everything from what people see upstairs and yeah definitely the big adjustment guy just telling Chris what he sees and going back and forth.
“That [Rams game] was cool. That was the first game when somebody really found a flaw in our defense, and the first drive they just ran the same play over and over again and it kept working we were trying to figure it out. And once we figured it out it was over with.”
Kiffin represents those minds working under the radar to assist the rightfully-credited position coaches like Kocurek, who brought the wide-nine alignment to the 49ers from the Miami Dolphins and has been praised for his style that “eliminates grey area,” as Saleh termed it. He’s “the definition of black and white,” telling his defensive line group exactly what to do, and what is and is not working.
His “raccoon on meth” disposition is evident from practice, when you’ll hear him frequently yelling “run through that motherfucker!” among other motivational favorites. That clarity, combined with his requisition for dominance from his players, has seen Arik Armstead (career-high 10.0 sacks) have a career season and led the 49ers to a fifth-best NFL sack total (48 sacks).
“He won’t sugar coat anything,” said DeForest Buckner. “If you mess up, he’ll let you know. If you do something better, he’ll let you know. If you do something really well, he’ll let you know. There’s no in between. He doesn’t sugar coat anything. That’s what you really want in a coach. If you’re a player and you can take criticism and strive to get better each and every day, he’s the type of coach you want because he’ll tell you how it is.”
Schemers in the secondary
Much of the credit for the 49ers’ defensive success has been given to the fact that Nick Bosa was drafted, Dee Ford was traded for, and Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward got healthy. That combination of talent acquisition and improved health is undoubtedly the main factor in the 49ers’ defensive improvement. When healthy, they’ve had arguably the best pass rush and best secondary in the NFL.
That success is also a product of a comfortability with a scheme adjustment. The 49ers made some fundamental scheme adjustments in the offseason, and have stuck to them almost religiously. Kocurek brought the wide-nine alignment and Saleh and defensive backs coach Joe Woods made the switch from mainly Cover 2, to Cover 3, and have used nickel packages as the main defensive package over standard 4-3 alignments (about a 70/30 percentage split, according to Saleh).
Woods is set to be the beneficiary of Saleh’s snub by the Browns. He was offered the defensive coordinator position in Cleveland under Stefanski, who Woods spent seven years with in Minnesota. Most signs point towards Woods accepting that offer after the Super Bowl. As he told KNBR on Wednesday: “I know where I stand with Kevin.”
After defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley (now head coach at Boston College) left the 49ers this season for the defensive coordinator position at Ohio State, Woods was brought in on a one-year deal after being fired following two years as defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos. He summed up his approach as being a “medium menu guy,” who doesn’t want to overcomplicate things with his players, while simultaneously being receptive to making adjustments.
It’s why the 49ers almost never brought blitzes until their defensive line suffered from a barrage of injuries (to Dee Ford, D.J. Jones, Ronald Blair III and Damontre Moore) and needed to create pressure in other ways.
“I don’t feel like we have to try to trick people. So if you have so much defense that your guys can’t execute it, it’s not worth it,” Woods said. “So what I try to tell people is I try to run enough defense, where the quarterback has to beat you on Sunday, not the coordinator during the week. So I’m kind of to that point so I’m like a medium menu guy, but we want to make people one-dimensional, you want to stop them, make them throw the ball and then get after them and rush.”
As every 49ers coach that was interviewed did, Woods pushed credit away from himself, and towards players and safeties coach Daniel Bullocks. Bullocks has overseen the most unsung and crucial part of the 49ers’ defensive overhaul, manned by a healthy Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, who have been playing together since their days at Davidson High School in Mobile, Alabama.
Bullocks pointed both to their knowledge and positional flexibility — Ward, who played nickel earlier in his career, to cover slot receivers, and Tartt, to cover tight ends and play single high or effectively as a fourth linebacker — as aiding the schematic options. Because Ward can function as a second nickel, the 49ers don’t need to run many speciality coverages, and they can disguise man as zone by not following motioning receivers across the formation. The same goes with Tartt, who can drop into coverage, act as a traditional linebacker, or come off the edge.
“It’s just given us that that flexibility to open up the scene a lot more where the corners can stay at home,” Bullocks told KNBR. “So teams can’t really get a bead on man or zone.”
Heads of the Hot Boyzz
The intermediary between the 49ers’ prolific pass rush and secondary is the jack-of-all-trades linebacker corps of Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw. It’s a group defined by wisdom disproportionate to its youth.
With two rookies in Greenlaw (age 22) and Azeez Al-Shaair (age 22), the second-year Fred Warner (age 23), third-year Elijah Lee (age 23) and Kwon Alexander (age 25), special-teamer Mark Nzeocha (age 30) is the only true veteran in the group.
That group has been the energizer of the defense, providing tremendous coverage in the hook/curl and flat zones and filling gaps with speed in the run game.
Leading that group is 21-year NFL coaching veteran Johnny Holland (run game specialist/outside linebackers) and DeMeco Ryans (inside linebackers). Ryans told KNBR he wasn’t been surprised by how effective that group has been given what they’ve been through in their personal lives to get to this point.
Warner grew up with a single mother, Alexander’s younger brother, Broderick Jr., was murdered in his rookie year, Greenlaw was abandoned by his birth family and lived in group homes before being adopted, and Al-Shaair and his seven siblings spent most of their life fighting homelessness in Tampa, Florida. A fire that burnt down Al-Shaair’s home led to seven years of legal troubles for his mother, Nahaira, and an arrest warrant that was dismissed two weeks ago.
For as tight-knit as the 49ers are collectively, there’s a discernibly unique bond in that Alexander-titled “Hot Boyzz” linebacker group. Al-Shaair said Ryans is demanding of his players, especially him and Greenlaw.
“He’s really hard on you. Especially me and Dre being rookies, I know there were times where I’d be so frustrated, even just dealing with him because obviously as as a rookie, you think you’ve got a hard work ethic, you think you’re doing stuff the right way,” Al-Shaair said. “And you get to the league and everybody has different ways of doing things, might have a better way of doing things and you kind of just have to like, submit yourself to just the process of learning everything… He demands a lot from you, but at the same time we have fun as a group, and he definitely looks out for you.”
Al-Shaair found out about Ryans’ empathetic side before the season even started, when he and Ryans had a meeting. Al-Shaair, who rides his bike to work each day, had a repeat of his freshman year of college. He bought a new bike for training camp, and just like in that freshman year at FAU, had his bike stolen outside of his apartment. He mentioned that to Ryans in that pre-preseason meeting, just as you’d tell anyone that your bike was stolen.
“After we’re done talking and watching film whatever, this man gives me the money to go get another bike,” Al-Shaair said. “That just speaks for the type of person that he is to me. That’s one of the biggest memories I remember from him. It was just pretty cool for a coach to do something like that, especially at this level in the NFL. Like, I didn’t ask him to do that.”
That extends to Holland, who coached Ryans as the Houston Texans’ linebacker coach in 2006.
Holland told KNBR he knew when he coached him that Ryans would make a fantastic coach, and Al-Shaair said it’s evident that Ryans draws from Holland. Before the season, Al-Shaair said he spent time at Holland’s house with him, his wife and children.
“It really felt like a family atmosphere,” Al-Shaair said. “I don’t know how it is on other teams, but I know it’s not like that. It didn’t feel like I was actually in the NFL. It felt like I was in college almost, just the way that the bond was at such an early point… Just a lot of respect for [Ryans], and a lot of respect for for coach Johnny. To me, they’re family.”
Holland said that’s a conscious approach by him and Ryans, and he urges his players, as Al-Shaair said, to realize this situation is unique. Most coaches aren’t nearly as involved in their players’ lives.
“Young players like Azeez and Greenlaw, they’re away from home for one. They’re young players, and you want to be a father figure, a brother figure to them away from home,” Holland said. “And we promise our players that when they come here that we’re going to treat you like our own. This is family here. And so, whatever is going on in their life, we’re willing to listen and help.
And I’m so proud of them and I tell players that, ‘You’re privileged to come here and play for our organization and get to play for a guy like DeMeco and myself to mentor you. It’s not like this everywhere.’ And these guys are eager to learn and they’ve accepted it, and I’ve seen a lot of growth in them.”
Al-Shaair described the Holland-Ryans dynamic as like “yin and yang,” where Holland is the “old head” who provides balance, and Ryans is the demanding, still physical presence who can run drills and demonstrations on the field and urges attention to detail. Holland also said Saleh, formerly a linebackers coach with the Jaguars, is “highly involved with the linebackers.”
Ryans — who was given his first coaching opportunity with the 49ers in 2017 as a defensive quality control before being promoted (like McDaniel and LaFleur were) to inside linebackers coach — is still in the mindset of a linebacker. Al-Shaair said his energy during reps, and desire for them to be perfect, sometimes results with him jumping in excitement “like in Mario Kart.”
“They kind of feed off each other,” Al-Shaair said. “Sometimes Meco might be seeing things a certain way. Johnny is just kind of like the old head that keeps everything balanced in the room. We all just look to him for that balance and guidance because he keeps the whole room sane.”
Seeing that Super Bowl payoff for his players — something he didn’t experience as a player — is uniquely cherished by Ryans.
“It’s special for me because it’s a very special group,” Ryans told KNBR. “Not just football, but for me it’s all about off the field. Being a former player and having an insight being where these guys were and just being able to see them over the year, grow and develop as pros. I’ve been more proud of that just seeing those guys grow as pros, from where they where they started where they are now. It’s just been a huge blessing a huge honor to coach those guys.”
The next protege could be Garoppolo’s translator
If you don’t know the name Shane Day, that’s not your fault. Hired this offseason as quarterbacks coach following the departure of Rich Scangarello (the now-fired Broncos offensive coordinator), Day might be the most crucial under-the-radar member of the 49ers’ offensive coaching staff.
While this is technically his first time under Shanahan, Day has been around Shanahan, LaFleur and McDaniel since his days as quarterbacks coach at the University of Connecticut. It’s also his second stint in San Francisco, after getting his first NFL gig as a quality control coach with the team from 2007-09.
He told KNBR the group has “kind run in the same circles for a long time.” At UCONN, Day would frequently go down to Virginia to recruit and frequently interacted with the then Washington Redskins-tenured trio. Day met Shanahan and chatted with him at the NFL scouting combine and said he, McDaniel and LaFleur have “been friends for a very long time.”
That began with Day’s close friendship to Matt LaFleur, who introduced Day to Mike LaFleur, who connected him with McDaniel. Both McDaniel and Day drew runs for Chris Foerster (who is a game planning assistant for the 49ers) – McDaniel with the Redskins, where Foerster was the offensive line coach from 2010-14, and Day with the Redskins and Dolphins.
“We’d always talk at the combine and talk over the phone and we’re interested in the same things,” Day said of McDaniel. “We kind of were always talking on the phone about different stuff.”
When Scangarello left for the Broncos, Day said all three contacted him.
“Kyle reached out, both Mikes reached out and it was like, ‘Hey, I think you’d be a really good fit for the job,’” Day said. “And then when I interviewed, we just kind of all hit it off and then Kyle called the next day after the Senior Bowl. It was actually on the Sunday after the Senior Bowl and offered me the job.”
Shanahan’s offense is notoriously complex.
“There’s a lot to digest,” Day said, adding that the mass of new information was part of the excitement and enjoyment of the new job.
But Day was able to pick the brain of Scangarello before he arrived; an experience he credited as being invaluable in preparing him.
“I talked to him a lot before I took the job,” Day said. “And then after I took the job, I talked to him a lot because he was able to kind of convey, ‘Hey, these are the roles and responsibilities.’ This is how you can help most.’
“Especially on the side of learning the offense with Kyle because he’d been with Kyle for a couple of years, and he was really instrumental and really helpful in getting me a head start on that stuff. Because trying to learn the whole system in one year, it’s a challenge and he was unbelievably helpful.”
Day’s job is mainly to streamline the offense for the quarterbacks. In essence, he’s Garoppolo’s cheat sheet to know the most crucial, quarterback-related details of the offense. He works with the “four-headed monster” of Shanahan, LaFleur, McDaniel and offensive assistant Bobby Slowik, who — along with special teams coordinator Richard Hightower — worked with Shanahan in that four-year stretch in Washington.
“As the quarterback coach, I try to look at the offense and the playbook, and say, ‘Okay, how does this translate to the quarterback position? What is most important?” Day said. “And we kind of prioritize, ‘Hey, these things are what you need to know as a quarterback.'”
That duty represents the 49ers’ fourth-most important offensive role. It’s held by a first-year coach in arguably the NFL’s most complex system; and one that’s run by Shanahan, who’s tightly wound.
“He really demands perfection, but it’s really interesting coming in for the first year and he’s been doing it forever with these guys,” Day said. “But he’s been an unbelievable teacher from day one. When I first got here we went through all the passing game with me and Wes [Welker] and Miles [Austin] and all of us got together and he kind of installed the entire passing game and it was just phenomenal how good of a teacher he is… He is extremely demanding and I think that’s what all good coaches want.
“They want to be pushed, they want to be the best and he brings that out in all of us.”
Jon Embree and the two wise men
Most of the 49ers’ coaching staff will be remembered for starring in San Francisco and using it as a launching point for bigger jobs. Jon Embree (assistant head coach, tight ends) could well work his way to a promotion, but his other two veteran offensive cohorts likely won’t be recalled in the same regard.
That’s more a result of their specific expertise than any lack of knowledge. John Benton (offensive line coach) and Bobby Turner (running backs coach) have a combined 40 years of NFL coaching experience isolated at their positions and are beloved by their players.
The 70-year-old Turner has spent 24 years as a running backs or assistant head coach in the NFL, and most of those years were with one or both of the Shanahans.
After 20 years as a college football coach at Indiana State, Fresno State, Ohio State and Purdue, Turner took his first NFL job with the Denver Broncos as running backs coach in 1995 and stayed there until 2009, along with Mike Shanahan, who took the Broncos’ head coaching job in 1995 and hired Turner.
Turner stayed on in Denver in 2009 after Mike Shanahan was fired, but when the Washington Redskins hired him as head coach, Turner followed, both as an assistant head coach and running backs coach. Just like with the Broncos, Turner was a holdover the year after Shanahan was fired (just like Chris Foerster) in 2014.
When Kyle Shanahan was hired as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator in 2015, Turner joined him as the running backs coach there, and came to San Francisco when Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job.
“We call Bobby the O.G. of coaching,” said Kyle Shanahan.
When Turner joined the 49ers, he said he looks for toughness in a running back more than anything, outside of the obvious characteristics of speed, foot quickness, patience, and openness to and retention of coaching, all qualities exemplified by Mostert.
Turner’s 24th season concluded without an individual 1,000-yard rushing season, but it represented the hydra backfield of Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida (and even Jeff Wilson Jr.). Most importantly, it saw Mostert develop into an elite feature back.
The “O.G.” has had quite a few of those. He’s coached Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Alfred Morris and Devonta Freeman to 1,000-plus-yard seasons. In his 24 years, Turner’s had 15 seasons with 1,000-yard individual rushers, and his rushing offenses have been in the NFL’s top five 13 times (and cracked the 2,000-yard mark 12 times).
That success is largely dependent on the execution of Shanahan’s zone blocking (sometimes gap blocking) schemes. That’s where offensive line coach John Benton is called upon. In his 16th year, Benton has excelled with a group composed largely of veterans in Joe Staley, Weston Richburg, Ben Garland, Mike Person and Laken Tomlinson. Person, who nearly retired, and Tomlinson, who was effectively given up on by the Lions, are now key cogs in the 49ers’ offense.
There’s also been that equal balance of youth provided by Mike McGlinchey and the two rookie standouts of Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill. Benton told KNBR that Brunskill, who played both tackle spots and right guard for a hobbled Person (neck injury) in the final two games, “might be our MVP.”
Benton’s style as a coach is far more reserved than his defensive line counterpart in Kocurek. During drills, Benton is observant, making critiques and demonstrating corrections with a reserved style after each rep.
McGlinchey described Benton as being a fantastic communicator, taking the complex message from Shanahan and communicating that to his group.
“He’s helped me continue to grow each and every day as a player, his personality is very player-friendly,” McGlinchey said. “JB, he’s not a yeller, he’s not a screamer, but he will get on you when you’re not doing the right thing, but he’s such a good communicator and able to keep the culture of our room the way it is.”
The 49ers’ No. 2-ranked run game (trailing only the NFL-record-setting Baltimore Ravens in total yards, and first with 23 rushing touchdowns) is obviously defined by a relationship between the backfield and the offensive line, but so much of what makes this team special on the ground is the blocking of the George Kittle-led tight end group.
Kittle is clearly the best all-around tight end in football and arguably the best blocker. At the very least, he’s the most eager tight end when it comes to blocking, constantly calling for more run plays and grading his performance based on how he blocks (his father, Bruce, was an offensive lineman at Iowa). Kittle’s mentality, as described by tight end Ross Dwelley, and attested to by Kittle, is to “take the other team’s soul.”
While Kittle developed his love of blocking in college with tight ends coach LeVar Woods, Embree’s taken that a step further. He’s old school in the sense that he has his group out on sleds for 30 minutes before practice, sometimes to the ire of Shanahan, and stresses physicality above all else.
“Sometimes I think [Shanahan] wonders why do we keep doing it. Like, ‘Alight, let these guys have a break,'” Embree told KNBR. “I never kill them, but I just think there’s just some things you gotta do to get good at it, and there’s no shortcuts, and that’s what I’ve known, that’s what I’ve had success with, that’s what the players have had success with.”
Kittle credited Embree for teaching him that he can “run through people.” That simple mindset confused Kittle at first, but Embree repeated to him, that if he runs at players, no one on the football field will be able to stop him. Embree described that realization as an “aha moment” that happened in a preseason game in Kittle’s rookie year.
“It’s just that mentality of trying to, every play, that you be as physical as you can against the guy you’re going against and see if we can make him just say, ‘Enough,'” Embree said. “I love it because that’s what football is. At the end of the damn day it’s running, blocking and tackling, and whoever does it with most physicality, generally is going to win. ”
That stems back to Embree’s mentality as a former player and the belief that whoever is the most physically dominant on the football field on a consistent basis, will win their individual matchup. If 11 players do that, it’s his ideal recipe for success.
“I demand a lot of out of them. We do a lot of stuff that maybe they don’t do in other positions,” Embree said. “We go out early. We go out 30 minutes before practice, we have early meetings. We do a lot of stuff and so if I’m a player, if my coaches asked me to do a lot all these things and then I’m not seeing any results from it, it can be disheartening or make me wonder why.
“So when you start having success, when you have the success that they’re having individually, as a group, when the team’s having the success that they’re having, it makes them even more eager to go out and do the work and and learn more and try to find any way they can to have an edge. Be it film study, be it extra work, whatever it is, to have a chance to win on Sunday.”
Youth on the wide receiver front
San Francisco doesn’t need the most technically-adept, experienced wide receiver coaches. Shanahan, LaFleur, and McDaniel — who was probably the most visible of the three working with wide receivers on their technique in the preseason — are masters of those details.
That’s not to say that Miles Austin, Wes Welker and Katie Sowers aren’t capable of providing critiques, but with a young wide receiver group, much of their responsibility is to up the level of competition and focus within the wide receiver room. They provide recent playing experience and the gravitas that comes with that.
It’s also evident that the lack of coaching experience, coupled with the complexity of Shanahan’s offense, took some time to get into a groove. Not until Emmanuel Sanders was acquired in Week 9 did it truly click for that wide receiver group.
Austin told KNBR that he’s enjoyed working with Welker and appreciated his work with Deebo Samuel.
“It’s great, Wes obviously leads these guys and I’m obviously in the room working with everybody,” Austin said. “He’s done a great job. It’s his first year and and he’s gotten Deebo up to speed with what was going on and Deebo’s playing lights out. And he’s done that with KB and even with Emmanuel.”
Kendrick Bourne credited Welker for working with receivers after practice: on the jugs machine and on the practice field providing extra catches to work on eye positioning. He’ll sit behind wide receivers, throwing them passes from angles where they can’t see the ball, something that Bourne said paid off in the 48-46 win against New Orleans (where had three catches, all first downs, for 18 yards) on his first touchdown catch.
“I kind of didn’t see that first touchdown, I kind of just found the ball in the air.” Bourne told KNBR. “So just those little drills are benefiting the big time situations.”
Sowers has also been credited with helping the receivers in multiple facets. In his rookie year, during a two-drop preseason game, Sowers helped calm down the always-energetic Bourne.
“I told her she ended up calming me down, and I had a good game, a real good game,” Bourne said. “I ended up making the team that year.”
All three are young, promising coaches, but it’s tough to know whether Sowers will be able to break further glass ceilings.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted Wednesday that the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” — an NFL policy that requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs — isn’t working. To expect that the NFL will change, or that it won’t maintain its morally-devoid approach taken in all other matters (see Colin Kaepernick, hollow initiatives) when it comes to female coaches, is ignoring the countless evidence of the league’s archaic pattern of behavior.
This is not to say that Sowers can’t progress; it’s clear that she’s beloved by players and after a professional career playing quarterback, she has a tremendous knowledge of the game. It’s a matter of time before she’s a position coach. But in a league that’s so backwards in so many ways, it’s too soon and too tough to know if she’ll ever get a legitimate chance at higher goals, like an offensive coordinator or head coaching position.
What is clear is that Shanahan’s system relies on precision and quickness from wide receivers, and the youthful coaching trio of Welker, Austin and Sowers have been a glove-like fit for a mostly young wide receiver group.
When this team, regardless of the Super Bowl’s result, is looked back upon, it will be those names — the first-timers, the old-timers, the experienced coaches using this as a platform for greater aspirations — all on the same staff, that will be remembered with a historic reverence.