Kyle Shanahan... Greatest Play-Caller Ever?

When I was working in the Sky Sports studios earlier this season, former NFL player, scout and current NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks called San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan the greatest play-caller ever!

Whenever I hear that 'ever' word, my ears prick up and I really pay attention.

While Bucky made a strong statement on Sky Sports that day, it seems he is not alone in his admiration for Shanahan, who has the 49ers in the Super Bowl in just his third season in charge of what had seemed a lost and struggling franchise.

'This is a drum I've been banging for quite some time,' says former NFL quarterback and Pro Football Talk co-host Chris Simms. 'Ever? That is a very strong thing. But I don't think it's too far off. From what we've seen over the last 10 years, and especially the last few, his creativity and ability to think outside the box is as good as anybody we've seen. All we need now are the results to justify that.'

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders joined the 49ers in mid-season and it is fair to say the 10-year veteran who has seen a lot of coaches through the course of his career, is a big fan of Shanahan.

'I love Kyle,' Sanders stresses. 'Truthfully, I think he has the opportunity to be up there as one of the greatest coaches. We're talking about a guy who has been around football since he was a kid. He was born to be a head coach and to be around football. He has the DNA and it's showing - I'm really impressed by him.'

Shanahan was indeed destined to become an NFL head coach. He grew up around the game and on Sunday he will complete the second piece of an all-important puzzle that sees Kyle and his father, Mike, become the first father-son head coach pairing to reach a Super Bowl.

Mike Shanahan won a Super Bowl here in Miami as offensive coordinator of the 49ers in their last title win 25 years ago. He then went on to serve as head coach of the Denver Broncos, winning back to back crowns, the last of which came at the end of John Elway's glittering career' again, right here in Miami. Connections, connections, connections.

Mike also served as head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins and wherever he went along his coaching journey, young Kyle was in the background soaking up information that would serve him well down the road.

'He grew up around it, he loves it, it's his passion and it really shows,' explains 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley.

Kyle got his NFL coaching break as a lowly assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004. He would learn offensive football from the great Jon Gruden during the day and sneak into defensive coaching meetings to learn about the other side of the ball at night when he should have been at home.

'He understands defenses, so he knows their rules and he attacks those rules,' Simms told me.

Shanahan continued to learn his trade with the Houston Texans, made a name for himself with the Atlanta Falcons and has now truly arrived as the main man in San Francisco.

Shanahan's offense has been a joy to watch this season as the 49ers have averaged 30.2 points per game en route to a first Super Bowl appearance since the 2012 campaign that ended with the lights going out at the Superdome.

And it is here, in his pulling of the offensive strings, that Shanahan has players and pundits literally gushing with praise.

'As a play-caller, I've never been around a guy who understands the X's and O's as much as he does,' Staley insists. 'He almost plays the ultimate chess game with everybody. He understands what defenses are trying to do to attack and it always feels like he is one or two steps ahead.'

'He is extremely special as an offensive coordinator in how innovative he is and how he can anticipate how defenses are going to react and his play-calling is top notch,' adds Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk. 'Sometimes he pulls a little Nostradamus out there in the way he can predict things. It's unbelievable. His knowledge for the game and his feel for the game is second to none.'

During this two-game playoff run, the 49ers have allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to attempt just 27 passes and San Francisco have rushed for 471 yards. But there have been other occasions where Jimmy G has been asked to take centre stage, particularly during wins against Green Bay, Arizona and New Orleans during the regular season.

As has become something of the norm, Shanahan is ahead of the curve. Take away the run and he'll throw. Take away the pass and he will happily run all day long. In other words, he is going to be the one to keep you guessing.

His scheme has been described as being top of the NFL pile and one that puts incredible pressure on defenses. Motions are just one example of how Shanahan separates himself and his team from the pack. San Francisco shifted a player or sent one in motion on 78.6 percent of their offensive plays in 2019 with the idea being that such movement forces the defense to show its hand. No other team runs such motion more than 70 percent of the time and Shanahan-coached teams have led the league in that department for four straight years.

'On a weekly basis, he can crack the code,' Simms stresses. 'He seems to know what the other team is doing and they are a step ahead and every play is gaining yards. He always has a fail-safe and can move on to plan B or plan C. He doesn't run out of plays.'

'It's just his brain on the field,' adds Garoppolo. He's looking two or three plays ahead of the other guy and setting things up and you don't even know he's setting it up.'

It is clear from speaking to his players and seasoned NFL observers that Shanahan's offensive scheme is next-level and historically good. So if it is so complex and good, how does he manage to break it down and teach it to his players?

'You have to categorise stuff and group things in certain areas where words mean something to five people up front and there will be a different word for a receiver,'Shanahan told me in Miami this week. ';You train all these words that teach people to do assignments and they might not know what it does for all 11 people but they know what it means to them. Then you can mix and match those words throughout the year based on what fronts and coverages you're going against. That allows everybody to play together.'

As he comes to the end of his third season in charge of the 49ers, Shanahan is much more than a genius play-caller. He has become a comfortable, established and respected leader of men and one who has handled himself well in Miami so far this week.

'Kyle takes on the role of being the leader of this team as our head coach,' Juszczyk says. 'He absolutely does that. When he steps up in front of the team, his presence commands respect. We all have so much respect for Kyle and he has done a phenomenal job.'

Staley sums up the feelings of many 49ers when he concludes: ';He is an unbelievable human being and I love playing for him.'

As Shanahan heads into Super Bowl 54, he has an opportunity to exorcise some personal demons from three years ago. Shanahan was serving as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons and was criticized for not running the ball enough in the second half as his team held a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl 51 against the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick's men came storming back and won 34-28 in overtime.

Simms reveals: 'Kyle is a smart guy and he';s not too egotistical to where he says, 'I wasn't wrong. Screw you guys.' He realises he could have approached that differently. I know he has learned from that and he has talked to other high-level coaches about it (Belichick among them). He took it head on. He was falsely accused of being at fault in that game and people let him take the blame, but I think he has learned from it.'

As Shanahan goes about righting that particular wrong, talk of his all-time greatness is going to continue this week. It once seemed outlandish to consider such a notion, especially of a young head coach of a team that was once coached by the great and innovative Bill Walsh.

But how can so many people be wrong? It does indeed seem right to at least consider the fact that Shanahan might already be the greatest play-caller in history at the age of 40. If he is not quite there yet, he is well on his way and a victory in Super Bowl 54 on Sunday will only speed up proceedings.

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