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The NFL’s Newest Mastermind Eyes the Throne

Kyle Shanahan is the architect of an Atlanta offense that took the league by storm. To help the Falcons win the Super Bowl, he’ll need to apply all he’s learned to outsmart the NFL’s preeminent genius.

(AP/Ringer illustration)
(AP/Ringer illustration)

Kyle Shanahan and Chris Simms have been friends for nearly two decades. The pair met at the University of Texas in 2000, when Simms was a sophomore vying to be the starting quarterback and Shanahan — now the wunderkind offensive coordinator for the Falcons — transferred from Duke to play wide receiver. Both sons of famous football fathers, their connection was instant, and to this day Simms counts Shanahan among his closest confidants. “I don’t have a friend that I consistently talk to more than Kyle,” says Simms, now the lead NFL analyst at Bleacher Report.

During football season, Simms knows exactly when those conversations will happen. Any daytime call goes unanswered. Any text message is ignored or met with a six-word response: “Call you on the way home.” Even for Simms, a groomsman in Shanahan’s wedding, the coordinator’s window of time is small, open for 25 minutes on his drive back from the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia. “He is truly offensive football, 24–7, seven days a week,” Simms says. “He, for the most part, takes it home with him.”

Over the past 13 years, Simms has watched every stop of Shanahan’s climb through the coaching ranks, from his hiring as Houston’s 28-year-old offensive coordinator (the youngest in the league at the time) in 2008 to his stint as the architect of Washington’s attack during Robert Griffin III’s rookie season in 2012. Shanahan has evolved with every experience, to the point that he now orchestrates a Falcons offense that’s lit up scoreboards all the way to the Super Bowl. “You have to learn from everything,” Shanahan says. “You have to learn from when you’re successful and when you’re not successful. This league is always changing. It’s always adjusting. And you always have to change.”

Kyle Shanahan (Getty Images)
Kyle Shanahan (Getty Images)

Under Shanahan, Atlanta transformed into one of the most high-powered units in recent memory, averaging a league-high 33.8 points per game while hanging at least 35 points 10 times in 18 outings (including the playoffs). As the Falcons produced an MVP-caliber quarterback and tore apart defenses in their march toward a conference title, Shanahan has emerged as the favorite to become the next head coach of the 49ers. More importantly, he’s broken free from the shadow of his father, Mike, and shown the world what Simms has been saying for years: Kyle is a play-calling virtuoso with a football mind that rivals any in the NFL. “Kyle’s a guy that doesn’t shut football off,” says Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who played for Shanahan in 2014. “He’s going all day, looking for first downs — constantly. That’s all that’s on his mind.”

The Falcons’ approach early in their 44–21 throttling of the Packers in the NFC championship game was a distillation of everything Shanahan wants in an offense. As 11 players broke the huddle and prepared to line up, where they’d go was anyone’s guess. Tight ends, running backs, and even fullback Patrick DiMarco could set up in the slot or out wide. Receivers bounced around to nearly every spot on the field. Including motions, it took 27 plays and almost 21 minutes of game time for Atlanta to repeat a formation. Like most play-callers, Shanahan has a script mapped out to start each game. (His is 24 plays long, although he admits he’s never gone straight through the list.) The difference between Shanahan’s and others’ is how varied the plays in that script can be.

“I’ve been playing football for at least 20 years now,” says Falcons practice-squad quarterback (and Chris’s brother) Matt Simms. “You think, ‘OK, there’s only a certain way to skin a cat.’ And then you get here, and it’s like, ‘Whoa. Well, wait. There are a few different ways to do some things.’”

The diversity of Shanahan’s formations serves to capitalize on the versatility of the Falcons offensive talent. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman double as dangerous receivers, while star wideout Julio Jones is a threat to run any route from anywhere on the field. By utilizing his armory of pass catchers from an assortment of alignments, Shanahan is able to increase the strain on a defense while pulling everything he can from his players. “Kyle has an extreme understanding of what talent is around him and how he’s going to use it,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff says. “He’s going to put [guys] in the spots to do the best that they can do.”

Coming into 2016, Shanahan knew the best version of his offense would involve spreading the ball around and relying less on Jones than Atlanta did in years past. As Jones’s targets-per-game figure fell from 12.7 in 2015 to 9.2 this fall, the Falcons morphed into the most dangerous offense in football and broke the NFL record for the number of different receivers (13) to catch a touchdown pass in a single season. Given Jones’s intergalactic skill set, outings like his 180-yard, two-touchdown explosion against the Packers in the NFC title game are always on the table, but this season offered proof that Atlanta can succeed even when turning to its other weapons.

The Falcons’ varied approach is one of two principles that, when combined the right way, complement each other to devastating effect. Before the snap, the myriad of personnel packages and formations in Shanahan’s playbook ensures that few plays look alike. After the snap, though, a huge swath bear a mystifying resemblance to one another. Atlanta’s attack is built on its players cycling through a series of familiar patterns, from the way its linemen come off the ball, to the way quarterback Matt Ryan executes his handoffs (real or feigned), to the initial steps of the receivers.

Shanahan’s commitment to consistency is akin to a pitcher whose motion looks the same on every delivery, regardless of whether he’s throwing a fastball, a slider, or a changeup. Only Atlanta’s endless array of formations adds an extra layer of confusion. Imagine if Clayton Kershaw could pitch with both arms and deal from the third-base line whenever he pleased. Opposing hitters wouldn’t stand a chance.

“You can’t guess,” Hawkins says of the scheme which helped him enjoy a career year (63 catches for 824 yards) during Shanahan’s lone season as Cleveland’s coordinator. “And if you can’t guess, or lean a certain way, and I’m quicker than you out of the break, and the ball’s on time, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The basis of Shanahan’s offenses at every stop has been the zone running game, and how the rest of the scheme flows from it. “The concepts are all still the same,” Shanahan said the week before the NFC title game. “It’s, ‘What’s going to be your running game, how are defenses going to stop that running game, and what are you going to do off that running game?’ It’s all similar stuff.” With the zone action from the line (which involves all five players stepping in the same direction) forming the spine of the offense, the play-action passing game becomes a seamless extension. It works wonders thanks in part to the deception of the quarterback and the big men up front, and in part because, by Hawkins’s estimation, Shanahan deploys at least 10 receiver routes that look identical for the first five or six steps.

Sage Rosenfels, who was Shanahan’s backup quarterback for the Texans in 2008, says even the back judges — the officials positioned 25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — would regularly get fooled. “They would say, ‘At the beginning of every play, I can’t tell if it’s a run or a pass because everything looks the same,’” Rosenfels says. By dressing up a couple of simple principles with the bells and whistles of a few dozen formations, Shanahan’s offense enjoys the illusion of complexity while simultaneously making its players feel at ease. “As a quarterback, despite the fact that he’s changing it up all the time, you always have an idea of what’s going on,” Rosenfels says. “So you feel comfortable, even though the defense may not feel comfortable because they’re seeing so many different things coming at them.”

Shanahan’s first job in the NFL came in 2004, as a quality-control assistant in Tampa Bay under Jon Gruden. The majority of his work was on offense, where he helped with the receivers and even provided some tips to Simms, who started 12 games for the Buccaneers during Shanahan’s two seasons there. The franchise’s offices at One Buc Place were fairly compact, and Shanahan’s work space was a small room next to the one where legendary coordinator Monte Kiffin held his defensive meetings. Shanahan would eavesdrop on those sessions whenever he could. “I’d notice he’d pull his chair in there every morning,” Kiffin says.

In trying to pinpoint how Shanahan has developed into one of football’s best minds, several of his former players point to those early days spent with his ear pressed to Kiffin’s door. All offensive coordinators have an expert-level knowledge of their side of the ball; Shanahan’s acumen extends to everything happening on defense, too. “I would come off the sidelines, and he would have little tidbits about getting clues on coverage,” Simms says. “‘Hey, look at this guy, when they play Cover 4, he plays it like this. When they play Cover 2, he plays it like this.’ And those are little things early on where I was like, ‘Wow, Kyle is really seeing a lot.’”

Rather than simply identify what coverage a defense may use in a given down-and-distance situation, Shanahan relies on a knack for spotting the idiosyncratic tics of individual defenders. Like other offenses, Atlanta’s is constructed to exploit the pressure points of an opposing scheme, but Shanahan’s routes are often designed with a particular cornerback or safety in mind. “Any little tendency he can find, that might be a little different, that the defense might not understand that they’re doing, he’s going to try to exploit that to the max,” Hawkins says.

Shanahan’s understanding of how to create leverage and separation would be enough to make him a dream play-caller for any wideout, but what really sets him apart is that, unlike most offensive coordinators, his background isn’t as a quarterback. Of the 32 men who entered the 2016 season calling plays, just three others — Washington’s Sean McVay, New England’s Josh McDaniels, and Cincinnati’s Ken Zampese — played wide receiver at the college level or higher. Shanahan has an uncommon perspective. “He understands where we’re coming from [as a receiver],” Hawkins says. “We don’t have to come out and say, ‘Yo, we want the ball.’ He’ll start the meeting with, ‘Yo, receivers, you’re going to get the ball this week.’”

Kyle Shanahan (Getty Images)
Kyle Shanahan (Getty Images)

Shanahan is able to put himself in players’ shoes and consider how he’d attack a corner on different routes. Hawkins takes pride in being a “wide receiver connoisseur,” as he puts it, but even a lifetime of studying the position didn’t ready him for Shanahan’s method of coaching it. “If Torry Holt has a DVD on wide receiver play, I’m ordering it online,” Hawkins says. “I’m that kind of guy. And at 27, 28 years old, the way [Shanahan and his staff] approached wide receiver play was completely different than I had ever heard it. It was the easiest [approach] on the player that I had ever been around.”

The scheme Shanahan runs is also the most detailed Hawkins has seen (“Literally down to the inch,” he says), and that extends to every position. Along with coaching the quarterbacks and receivers, Shanahan is fixated on the offensive line. Each week, the Falcons have a meeting dedicated to the running game, and tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder both say that Shanahan picks up on — and coaches— the technical aspects of the position in a way that other coordinators haven’t. “It’s different because he can coach me up on my technique, and it makes sense to me,” Schraeder says. “It’s pretty to cool to be around. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

That dedication to details is what makes the look of Atlanta’s offense — and the difficulties that it produces for opponents — possible. Because every step at every position is fully considered and planned, the gray area surrounding why a play succeeds or fails disappears. “It takes us a while to understand, and it takes a while for the offense to get a feel for it,” Hawkins says. “But once you get it, it’s so uniform that you know what you did wrong, you know what the problem was before the coaches even say anything.”

At no position is that easier to see than quarterback. Everywhere that Shanahan has coached, he has elevated the play of his man under center to new heights. For Matt Schaub, that meant a career year — a 67.9 percent completion rate, 4,770 yards, and 29 touchdowns — in 2009. For RG3, it meant winning Offensive Rookie of the Year over Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. And for Ryan, it’s meant an MVP-worthy campaign with stats (69.9 percent completion rate, 4,944 yards, and 38 touchdowns) that stack up to the most ruthlessly efficient seasons of all time. More than anything, I think quickly guys trusted him,” Hawkins says. “If you make it easy on a player, they’re going to love you.”

In the year that he spent with Shanahan in Cleveland, Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was impressed not only by the scope of his coordinator’s offensive knowledge, but also by his penchant for sensing when to press the right buttons. Like most play-callers, Shanahan carries around a sheet on the sideline containing that week’s stockpile of options, but Schwartz says at times it hardly seemed necessary. “He has the play-call sheet in front of him, but he doesn’t really use it,” Schwartz says. “Everything’s in his head, and he’s just kind of churning [plays] out.”

In an era when some coaches’ laminated sheets have grown longer than Russian novels, Shanahan’s ability to dictate his offense by instinct hints at something else that distinguishes him. There’s an important distinction to be made between coordinators who are great play designers and those who are great play-callers; Shanahan is both. “There are only so many things you can try with lines on paper and only so many things you can ask guys to do within the timing of the play,” says Falcons backup quarterback Schaub, who played for Shanahan in Houston from 2007 to 2009. “It’s how you schematically put them together and package them with other things, so the defense doesn’t identity looks and formations.”

For Shanahan, every call is made with another in mind. “There’s a rhyme or reason to everything,” Rosenfels says. A 1-yard gain is easier to reconcile when it sets up a play-action shot 15 snaps later. When he’s calling a game, Shanahan is football’s version of The Wire’s Lester Freamon: All the pieces matter. “Everything he does is designed to set up something else while also being incredibly effective the first and second time he does it,” Schwartz says. “It’s a hard thing to defend when the things that are successful also have counters to them.”

That could mean capitalizing on the chunk of yardage available when a blocking fullback or tight end finally leaks into the flat — after showing a different tendency a dozen or so times out of a specific formation — for an easy completion. It could also mean getting the most out of a toss to a back bolting in the opposite direction of every other player on offense. Often, though, Shanahan is after bigger fish. Every offense takes shots, but each of Shanahan’s choices is made with back-breaking plays in mind. “It could be one play, and the game might be centered around it,” Hawkins says.

It’s a pursuit that requires patience, foresight, and a healthy dose of self-assurance. And that bravado seeps into the entire offense. When the Falcons faced Green Bay in Week 8, Atlanta lined up with trips to the right side late in the first quarter. Based on the coverage the Packers presented, Ryan knew that the right throw to receiver Taylor Gabriel meant six points.

“[Shanahan] kind of just beams confidence,” Schwartz says. “It’s not fake or showy, and he’s not him doing it to pretend that he’s in charge or whatever. He just legitimately believes every play should be a touchdown.”

By the end of Simms’s first week at Texas, in the summer of 1999, he and three fellow incoming freshmen — cornerback Rod Babers, tight end Bo Scaife, and receiver Montrell Flowers — had formed a fast friendship. About a month before they arrived on campus, The Wood, a movie starring Omar Epps and Taye Diggs that focuses on a group of tightly knit friends, hit theaters. The already inseparable feel of Simms and his crew inspired the Longhorns veterans to saddle the young guys with the nickname. When Shanahan came to Austin a year later, he was given honorary status.

Before his senior season, Simms decided it was time to commemorate the bond those five shared. That summer, Simms had a block letter W, surrounded by the initials of his four friends, tattooed on his lower leg. Everyone else in the group followed suit. Each tattoo has the same basic premise with its own personal twist. One W consists of two middle fingers. Another mirrors the symbol for the Wu-Tang Clan. Shanahan’s is so small, “you need a microscope to see it,” Simms says.

Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan (Getty Images)
Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan (Getty Images)

The connection Simms and Shanahan share has made this season gratifying for the former NFL quarterback. As both a friend and an analyst, he’s felt there have been times during Shanahan’s career when cries of nepotism unfairly followed him. With the Falcons on the brink of a championship thanks mostly to Shanahan’s work with the offense, those days are a distant memory.

Shanahan’s 13 seasons in the league have been an ongoing education, and Simms says that last offseason Shanahan finally admitted to feeling ready to become a head coach. It looks as if he’ll get his chance, but not before facing off with a defensive mastermind who’s ruled the NFL since Shanahan was hanging with Simms in Austin. Sunday’s Super Bowl clash with Bill Belichick and the Patriots is also one between the league’s most recently anointed genius and its oldest, and whoever wins that game of wits may just determine who hoists the Lombardi Trophy.

“It’s just awesome to see someone whose dream, from the second I knew him, [was] to be a head coach in the NFL,” Simms says. “And here we are, 18 or 19 years later, and he’s going to achieve that goal.”