Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Nothing in football ever dies. The game’s founders, legendary players, and classic games are forever.
An old football playbook is a visual link to the past that isn't buried under three feet of earth and concrete. Each coach and coordinator had their moment of brilliance and then had it placed on a shelf after the “genius” label tarnished.
And there these books sit until a curious youngster starts to flip through the pages and to find something old that would put a 21st-century defense on its collective heels.
During Super Bowl LIV media week, a reporter asked San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan about installing a game plan and putting it together. Shanahan provided an interesting response.
“No one ever really saves a play. There’s not the magical playbook. It’s just tying your guys together, going against whatever schemes, fronts, and coverages you’re going against. I would be very surprised if anyone in the history going forward could ever come up with a new play. There’s only five eligibles, and it’s probably been done before.”
In this instance, Shanahan should have said: “I memorize old plays from magical playbooks, give them a polish, and try to call the right one against a defense that’s not ready for it.”
Every 49er fan is well aware of the late Bill Walsh’s infamous “Sprint Right Option” play that sealed the 1981 NFC Championship game for the good guys.
Former 49er offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren kept “Sprint Right Option” in his 1991 playbook, and Shanahan also has the play buried in his two-minute offense. Both men kept the X’s and O’s similar to the original play, with the first read being the flat and the second being Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone.
Shanahan’s wizardry has been evolving on what Walsh, Holmgren, and Mike Shanahan built upon.
Week 1: 1st Quarter – 2nd and 9 at the TB 32 (13:08)
Following tight end George Kittle’s record-breaking season, I expected Tampa Bay to shut Kittle down in Week 1.
Naturally, Tampa Bay failed to do so, and the 49ers opened the 2019 season with a 19-yard completion to the eccentric tight end.
The play, I Right Bump Fake 18 Y Shallow Cross, is a play-action that is an updated version of “Drake 54 Z Speedo” drawn by 1994 offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan.
“Fake 18” indicates to the running back and the offensive line to move right, while Garoppolo faked a handoff and continued to bootleg to his left.
The mass movement right forced Tampa Bay’s linebackers to follow, which created open space for Kittle in the left flat.
Crossing routes and slants are the bedrock of the West Coast Offense, and these continue to dominate Shanahan’s call sheet.
Week 2: 3rd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (15:00)
If the 2019 season was the downfall of wide receiver Dante Pettis, it was the birth of rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Shanahan called “dagger” to get the ball in Samuel's hands for more than 80 yards throughout the fall.
The first “dagger” call I noted was during the Week 2 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Shanahan called it to open the second half, and Samuel gained 39 yards.
For all the complicated terminology and reads in one passing play, “dagger” is nothing more than a two-man route combination. The inside receiver runs a “deep thru” while the outside receiver runs a “dover” route.
The “deep thru” is the first read on the play and sets the tone for the play’s success. The receiver must choose the angle at the near-high safety, roughly at 14 yards.
If there are two safeties, he takes a softer angle toward the middle. Against one safety, the receiver cuts sharply toward the post.
Of note, Shanahan also borrowed the “dover” route from his dad but adjusted it slightly to fit his offense. Mike Shanahan used “dover” in his 1994 playbook. Then, it was a deep in-breaking route that had the receiver making three moves at the top: a slant inside, up, and then a square break inside at 20 yards.
The elder Shanahan hasn’t been in the NFL in a decade, but it’s clear he’s still taking his son to school.
Week 6: 2nd Quarter – 2nd and 10 at the SF 49 (14:52)
I apologize to the seven or eight people who read my work consistently for again bringing up “F Scissors” in a commentary. Sloth might be one of my chief sins, but this time I am filled with envy.
Shanahan’s ability to morph a single play from 30 years ago is what continues to impress me about the man. Plus, it’s a subtle nuance that the bulk of the fanbase overlooks on a Sunday afternoon.
The next time you’re at a bar, and someone starts asking for more West Coast Offense, please point them to “F Scissors.”
During the Week 6 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, Shanahan had Kittle take one snap at fullback, and called “P15 Wanda F Scissors.”
Typically, “scissors” is run from a trips formation, with the outside receiver running a post that breaks in at 18 yards. The inside receiver runs a “rub spread,” which is a route that breaks inside at 4-to-6 yards, and then immediately toward the sideline. The Y receiver runs a corner route that breaks outside at 12 yards.
This version, with the F and Z receivers running the combination, was stolen from the 1991 49ers. Holmgren’s play was “26 FB Switch,” run from a split backfield, and had his fullback and Z receiver run a “scissors” combination.
Kittle did not run a corner route, but rounded off his out route and gained 45 yards.
Even as the game gets faster and visually complicated, the roots of runs, play-actions and a drop-back pass plays remain roughly the same.
Shanahan embodies the Xennial mentality of combining an analog technology into a digital world. Maybe it is because he grew up surrounded by the West Coast Offense, but his strategy has become the new brilliant thing in today’s NFL.
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