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The Intertwined Evolutions of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay

The two coaches have been linked since their days in Washington and have employed similar offenses across their careers. But recently, their philosophies have diverged—and the NFC championship game won’t be decided by their similarities, but their differences.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For one last time in the 2021-22 NFL playoffs (hopefully): Did you know that Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, and Matt LaFleur were all on the Washington Football Team’s offensive coaching staff in 2013? Crazy!

All three of those coaches have gone on to secure head-coaching jobs and enjoy tremendous postseason success—each of them coached a game in last week’s divisional round. But for as fun as it is to throw one last jab at Dan Snyder and the Washington Football Team, the main takeaway here isn’t what Washington lost. It’s what everyone else gained.

Kyle was the offensive coordinator for his father, Mike Shanahan, on that Washington team. He went on to become the offensive coordinator in Cleveland and Atlanta and brought both places the modern iteration of his father’s famous offense: the wide zone running game, paired with the West Coast passing game. That offense, which had elicited passable play from fourth-round backup Kirk Cousins in Washington, elevated a career solid starter in Matt Ryan to an MVP in 2016. For his expertise in that magical scheme, Shanahan was hired as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers on February 6, 2017.

Less than a month earlier, McVay was hired as the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. He had been the tight ends coach under Shanahan during their time together in Washington; when the Shanahans left and Jay Gruden took the head-coaching job, McVay was retained as the offensive coordinator. In that role, he demonstrated the same thing that Shanahan had demonstrated with Ryan in Atlanta: This offense could make an average quarterback good and a good quarterback great. The Rams had 2016 first pick Jared Goff, a quarterback they believed could be great. McVay was the man they tagged to fix him.

LaFleur also has a story in this great saga, as do all the other offshoots of the McVay-Shanahan tree: Kevin Stefanski, Zac Taylor, and Mike LaFleur. But those stories belong to another day. Today, all eyes are on the two forefathers and the remaining coaches in the NFC playoff race: Shanahan and McVay. They both won head-coaching jobs five years ago because of their wide zone, play-action pass offenses and what those offenses could do for a quarterback. This Sunday, what they share is no longer the focus. It’s what they do differently that matters.

2017-2018: The Golden Age of Wide Zone Offenses

It is important to define what exactly Shanahan and McVay shared when they took their respective jobs. At the core of their offenses is the wide zone running play. Wide zone refers to the blocking of the offensive line, as well as the path of the running back. On a wide zone run, each offensive lineman steps in the same direction and explodes horizontally, looking to get to the play side of each opposing defensive lineman and linebacker. This forces a strong flow from the defense: Defensive linebackers and linemen must race to beat offensive linemen to their marks. As the defense flows, the running back is able to pick the best running lane and cut upfield to punish the defense for flowing too aggressively with the offensive line.

Wide zone has been around forever in the NFL, but few coaches have mastered teaching wide zone to its fullest. Without perfect concert between the six, seven, or eight blockers on a given wide zone play, the blocking can quickly crumble—but get it right, and you can run it against anybody. As Mike Shanahan said to Sports Illustrated, “If you really believe in the outside zone, if you can use those techniques in the running game successfully, you can adjust against all those defenses. It starts on a day-to-day basis, believing in what you’re doing.”

The value of this type of run was magnified when Mike Shanahan paired it with the West Coast passing game that lives on slants and crossers. These routes broke into the area vacated by the linebackers who were flowing too aggressively with the wide zone run. The play-action passing game behind this offense feels unstoppable.

From 2017 to 2018, both McVay and the younger Shanahan lived in this world: wide zone runs, under-center play-action dropbacks, crossers over the middle of the field. Both took the reins of their new offenses, made the requisite acquisitions, and dominated. It felt like they were both doing the same thing, because they came from the same offensive tree and were hitting the same major notes. But there was a key difference.

McVay, like Mike Shanahan did 20 years prior, utilized single-back formations to execute his wide zone offense. In 2018 (the earliest data publicly available), McVay called a whopping 89 percent of his plays in 11 personnel—that’s personnel with one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. That lone back was Todd Gurley. In 2017, his first year under McVay, he was the Offensive Player of the Year.

In 2018, almost every NFL team was living in 11 personnel, though, because three wide receivers on the field helps the passing game out a ton. The only team that did not play the majority of its snaps in 11 personnel that season? The San Francisco 49ers under Kyle Shanahan, who played more snaps in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers) than he did in 11 personnel. That extra back was fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who became the highest-paid fullback in league history when he signed a four-year, $21 million contract to join Shanahan and the 49ers. The Rams didn’t even have a fullback rostered.

This point of divergence defines everything that comes afterward, like the moment some unlucky marine dinosaur flopped onto land and had to start developing fingers and toes and lungs. Shanahan put his fullback on the field, McVay put his third receiver on the field, and off they went. McVay broke ahead first in the race, leaving one personnel grouping on the field so often that he was able to make every play look exactly the same pre-snap: the same players, in the same formation, running the same pre-snap motion. There was no defensive answer for this the entire 2018 season. McVay’s offense dominated the NFL.

Until he ran into Bill Belichick in Super Bowl LIII.

2019-2020: The Age of Innovation

Super Bowl LIII was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in league history. The Patriots defense held the Rams to only three points, which was a tremendous feat given that the Rams were averaging 32.4 points per game entering the contest. McVay’s offense was built on an “illusion of complexity”—so many plays built off of so few formations and so few personnel groupings—but it was all secured by the linchpin of the wide zone running game. On the year, the Rams had 235 attempts of wide zone rushing, 88 more than the next closest team. It was the keystone of the offensive system—remove it, and the entire infrastructure would fall to pieces.

To take it away, Belichick and the Patriots ran a rather bespoke defense: a six-man front. Instead of leaving the strong and weak linebackers on the second level of the defense, where they could be stretched and manipulated and picked on, Belichick walked them onto the line of scrimmage, squeezing his four down defensive linemen all along the interior. This is the “Tilt” front in Belichick’s terminology. More generally, we can call it a “6-1” front—six down defensive linemen, and one lone linebacker lurking in the second level.

By flooding the line of scrimmage with all of these bodies, Belichick eliminated all the potential for double-teams across the wide zone blocking surface. Every lineman had a man he needed to beat, one-on-one—and if Belichick’s talented defensive line could win just one of those one-on-one matchups, they could create havoc in the backfield, disrupting the fragile harmony of the wide zone running play. The lone linebacker was free to chase the ballcarrier, as Belichick asked one of his two deep safeties to step into the middle of the field as a “robber” or “buzz” player on almost every snap, waiting for the incoming receivers running crossing routes off of the play-action fakes.

To build this approach, Belichick borrowed heavily from Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who held the Rams offense to only six points during the regular season, but the entire NFL was watching when the league’s preeminent defensive mind suffocated what had previously been an offense without an answer. Belichick laid the blueprint, and all of a sudden, the Rams saw it everywhere they went. In 2019, every defense facing the Rams deployed heavy fronts with two deep safeties behind it.

And just as the Rams and McVay saw more of this type of defense, so did Shanahan and the 49ers. Teams got out of four-man fronts and looked instead to add additional bodies to the line of scrimmage, protecting the linebackers on zone flow and gumming up the interior cutback lanes that wide zone runs attempt to hit. That blueprint felt like a defense’s final relief from this nightmare of an offense. But Shanahan and McVay didn’t become head coaches because they were mindless robots following the script that Shanahan’s father laid out more than 20 years ago. They had answers.

But the answers were different. Shanahan had a fullback, and McVay didn’t. Instead, McVay had Robert Woods.

A lot has been made of Robert Woods, the versatile Rams receiver who missed half of the 2021 season after tearing his ACL. Troy Aikman made waves when he called Woods a “top-three receiver” in the immediate wake of his absence, explaining his point by saying: “He does everything. Great routes, catches the ball, he blocks, he runs the reverse, he does everything, and he does it all really, really well and never complains. … There’s not many guys around the league that can do the things he did to help that offense.”

The biggest thing that Woods did to help the offense was block. In their desperation to resuscitate the zone running game that had been choked by these heavy fronts, the Rams added an additional blocker to the front side of their wide zone runs by bringing Woods in motion and then running zone behind him. Defenses were accustomed to seeing Woods run one direction, and for zone running schemes to hit on the opposite side. The Rams introduced zone wind-back, which saw the back abandon the zone blocking and follow Woods’s motion to hit the boundary on an explosive run. That boundary is a weak point of these 6-1 fronts if you can get outside of the last man on the line of scrimmage. When the Rams saw heavy fronts over the next two seasons, they used zone wind-back to spring their running back behind Woods (or Cooper Kupp, a fine blocker in his own right) for a healthy gain.

Those plays worked nicely to the boundary—as did those jet-motion handoffs to Woods that he always ran so well, or the bubble screens for which he served as the lead blocker. But the Rams still needed an interior running game, so they turned to duo. This blocking scheme can look suspiciously like the zone blocking of wind-back, but make no mistake: On duo, the Rams are identifying defensive linemen to double-team and drive downfield while leaving the linebackers unblocked at the second level. It is the back’s responsibility to read the intentions of those linebackers, lure them downhill into a gap, and then bounce away to a different gap at the last moment.

For duo to work, the Rams need to add additional blockers to the strong side of the formation. They could do that with multiple tight ends, but this team was built to live in 11 personnel. So they instead asked Woods to attach himself to the formation and dig out strong safeties as a blocking receiver, and Woods quickly became renowned as one of the best blocking receivers in the league.

Duo is often described as “power without a puller,” and that’s because of the thick double-team at the point of attack. The Rams had to run “power without a puller” as an answer to the zone-denying fronts they were seeing because, well, they didn’t really have a puller available. The 49ers had no such problems—they had Juszczyk rostered, and George Kittle, a knockout blocking tight end. During the 2019 season, the 49ers could just run straight power, and the many other iterations of “man blocking schemes”—schemes that, unlike zone blocking schemes, are designed to hit one gap by coordinating double-teams, climbs, and kickouts all across the offensive line.

When the 49ers played the Patriots in Week 7 of the 2020 season, they were able to attack Belichick’s game plan with the power running schemes that were unavailable to McVay during the Super Bowl.

But that isn’t all: They also ran the same outside zone with a lead blocker that the Rams were beginning to run. Occasionally, they’d run it with the same fast motion that the Rams deployed with Woods—they could use devastating run blocker Kittle in these instances, who was even more effective than Woods—but more often, they’d run it with Juszczyk. Like Woods, Juszczyk was the versatile player and tough blocker who offered a world of counters and variations to his head coach when he lined up in the backfield instead of in the slot.

We now see the evolution of McVay and Shanahan. Linked by the core philosophies of their offense, the same defensive stressors elicited similar growths in both running games. The coaches became more varied and more creative, loosening their reliance on the wide zone running game. But while both had to solve the same problem, the small difference in available personnel blossomed into a greater difference in running game design. The 49ers majored in power and counter runs; the Rams, in duo blocking. The gap between the two offenses, which felt immaterial when McVay’s Rams were dominating the league en route to the Super Bowl, began to widen.

As the running games evolved, the passing games for both offenses were suddenly put in jeopardy. When the teams were running wide zone with impunity, Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo had nearly indistinguishable passing charts …

… But when the play-action game that hammers the middle of the field was challenged, the windows in the intermediate area of the field began to shrink. The Rams and 49ers still ran those routes and still worked off of play-action fakes. But the margin for error became smaller, especially as two-high defenses dropped a safety down into that intermediate window in anticipation of the crosser. This choking of the middle of the field is far more clearly seen in Los Angeles, where Goff was unable to continue targeting the middle of the field without the advantages created by the running game.

2019 was a shaky season for the Rams overall; Gurley was slowed by injury, and free agency and further injuries decimated the offensive line. 2020 was supposed to be a return to greatness with a healthy offensive line and new running backs. But even as the running game leapt back to form, jumping from 15th in DVOA in 2019 to fourth in 2020, Goff still could not reaccess the middle of the field, instead becoming exclusively a quick game passer. In San Francisco, Garoppolo was injured for much of the season, but when healthy, he still had no problem hitting that key area of the field.

There are a lot of explanations for this. One is the simple answer: Jimmy Garoppolo is better than Jared Goff at executing this offense. Few quarterbacks in the league have the blind and undeserved confidence that Garoppolo does when throwing over the middle of the field—an inherently dangerous place to throw. Garoppolo will throw into tight coverage that Goff wouldn’t dare challenge, for better or for worse.

Other explanations are more schematic and mechanical. Because the 49ers put heavier personnel on the field on offense (extra fullback, extra tight end) more often than the Rams do, the 49ers face base defensive personnel (three linebackers) more often than the Rams do. Those linebackers are more easy to attack in coverage than defensive backs are —and of course, linebackers cover the middle of the field. And because the 49ers play with heavier personnel, they’re more likely to face single-high coverage, while the Rams have to deal with more two-high (which makes it more difficult to throw those crossers).

But there’s another explanation. It’s that Shanahan … well, he’s just a little bit better at this than McVay. McVay is one of the best offensive designers in the league, but in the face of similar defensive adjustments, Shanahan’s answers were just much better than McVay’s. The power running game with the fullback is just a touch scarier than a zone running game with a lead blocking wide receiver—and not just because of the X’s and O’s, but because of Shanahan’s well-coached running game. Shanahan just had the edge.

Rams-Niners Run Game Comparison, 2019-21

Team Average DVOA Early-Down EPA/Rush Yards Per Carry
Team Average DVOA Early-Down EPA/Rush Yards Per Carry
San Francisco -0.10% -0.051 4.44
Los Angeles -1.97% -0.081 4.02
Football Outsiders, RBSDM.com, Stathead

You don’t need to watch hours and hours of football to know that those little edges matter at the peak of the sport. Since the 2019 season, Shanahan’s 49ers have played McVay’s Rams six times. They are 6-0 over that stretch. The Rams have employed three different defensive coordinators in that span: Wade Phillips in 2019, Brandon Staley in 2020, and Raheem Morris in 2021. Shanahan has found a way to run the ball on all of them. They’ve even gotten good defensive performances against Shanahan’s offense: Staley held the Nick Mullens–led Niners to a dreadful -.30 EPA per play in Week 12 of the 2020 season. But Goff played even worse than Mullens, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble en route to a 23-20 loss.

The 2020 season was Goff’s worst, and it sealed the deal for McVay: He needed a new quarterback. He needed a quarterback who wasn’t liable to make such backbreaking mistakes; he needed one who could elevate the offense beyond the system he was running. But just as he came to this realization, so did his doppelgänger on the opposite sideline: Garoppolo was healthy for one full season out of his four years in San Francisco. Shanahan needed a new quarterback: one who would be available.

This need for both teams heralded in the current era of Shanahan and McVay’s race to the finish line: the Matthew Stafford era.

2021: The Big Difference

“You don’t want to get me started, man.”

That’s what Shanahan told McVay when the old pals linked up on The Ringer’s Flying Coach podcast. McVay was asking Shanahan what he thought when he learned of the Stafford trade—a trade that Shanahan wanted to make himself until McVay beat him to it by mere hours. McVay had cleaned up his biggest liability on offense and was ready to take his biggest offensive step away from the Shanahan system and into a different category of offense altogether. With Stafford, McVay could run a real passing game. He no longer needed to rely on pre-snap motion and under-center rollouts to create space in his passing concepts. As McVay said following Stafford’s 34-point debut with the Rams in September, “You’re not limited in anything you can do with him in the pass game.”

And they weren’t—for a while. As The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz wrote in December, after total dominance in the first half of the season, the heavy shift to shotgun, dropback passing had left the Rams offense a little stale and predictable. The same tenet of “same formations, same personnel, different plays” that drove McVay’s Goff offense—the illusion of complexity —was driving his Stafford offense. Defenses were playing zone coverage with seven droppers and keying in on the Rams’ tendencies, all while pressuring through the Rams’ offensive line with four rushers.

And while there were other factors for an offensive drop-off (including injuries to Woods and running back Darrell Henderson Jr., as well as normal volatility from Stafford) the decline was mostly about McVay. The predictability of the offense led to late-season stalls in virtually every season McVay has led the Rams.

That small difference between McVay and Shanahan is now a big difference. McVay’s adjustments were insufficient to sustain the Goff offense, so he traded for Stafford. But when defenses are given time to study his offense, the patterns still become clear. Stafford is better out of structure, which raises the floor for McVay’s Rams—but opposing teams can still eliminate his bread and butter.

But Shanahan? His bread and butter remains untouched. He is always able to scheme up a running game and has a wider variety of running schemes than any other offense in the league. He is always able to open the middle of the field for Garoppolo, who remains his starter even as rookie quarterback Trey Lance sits on the bench. The 49ers were 3-5, riddled with offensive injuries, and Shanahan just plucked Deebo Samuel from the wide receiver room and dropped him at running back. Presto! They had the third-best offense by EPA per play from Week 8 through the end of the regular season, with a single personnel grouping more versatile than anything McVay cooked up in the glory days of 2018. McVay merely adopted the dark; Shanahan, quite literally, was born in it.

The Shanahan and McVay offenses have never been further apart than they are now. Wipe the narratives of the past five years from memory, and no viewer of this Sunday’s game would know all that they once shared. Accordingly, this game is an inflection point and arguably the most important game for either man outside of the Super Bowls each has lost in the past three seasons. With a loss, McVay drops to 0-7 against Shanahan through the past three years … and that’s with three separate defensive coordinators and two separate quarterbacks. The common thread in the losses will be undeniable: McVay himself.

And if Shanahan loses, it will serve to only reassert that which we all—McVay, Shanahan, and the football-watching public—know. That X’s and O’s can do only so much—it’s the Jimmies and Joes that truly matter. This magical offense, even when masterminded by Shanahan himself, can elevate quarterbacks only so far. The talent of Stafford will win out over the talent of Garoppolo. And while McVay may have lost the battle of the chalkboard wizards, he won the war when he got the quarterback who was good enough to break the shackles of the offense—and now the pressure is on Shanahan to make sure Lance is that quarterback, as well.

It’s easy to blow big games out of proportion. I’m doing it a bit now. But this one is big. It’s big brother against little brother playing pickup basketball in the driveway in the dimness of the garage light. Little brother hasn’t won in a while—but he’s been getting taller, stronger, smarter. And he’s sick and tired of losing. This is family business, with the greatest prize up for grabs: bragging rights. Oh, and a trip to the Super Bowl.

Five years of scheming and adjusting and changing have brought us here, to the two coaches who started with the same ideas and have gone their different ways. Now it’s time to prove who built their offense right.