From RG3 to Red and Gold: What Does Kyle's Offense Look Like with a Dynamic QB?
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Kyle Shanahan, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers football team, is considered an offensive genius. His father, Mike Shanahan, who was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator when Steve Young led the team to their fifth Super Bowl victory, and was the Broncos’ head coach when John Elway won their two Super Bowls, trained Kyle in running a NFL offense from his teen years. Shanahan is what you would call a prodigy. He broke his NFL coaching teeth breaking down opposing offenses, learning how defenses take away certain aspects of opponents’ offenses with the Tony Dungy
Both Shanahans are known for their affinity for the run game. Kyle Shanahan’s offenses with the 49ers have been among the best rushing attacks in the league, with Raheem Mostert putting the entire league on notice during the 2019 Super Bowl run. Shanahan and his offensive philosophy is similar to a pick-your-poison idea, only that Shanahan picks the poison best suited for beating your defense. His best years as a play caller were the two years he led, or helped lead, teams to the Super Bowl (with the 2016 Atlanta Falcons and the 2019 49ers).
There is a third year that fans and analysts alike should be looking at to determine where his offense would flourish the most. In 2012, Kyle Shanahan was the then-Washington Redskins’ (now Washington Football Team) offensive coordinator, and the team drafted Robert Griffin III to be their quarterback of the future. They mortgaged future draft picks to move up and grab their athletic QB. Shanahan proceeded to run a more college based outside-zone option style offense with RGIII and he won the offensive rookie of the year along with leading his team to the playoffs -- a team that was not particularly stacked.
When people talk about the quarterbacks who Kyle Shanahan has had success with, they talk primarily about Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins, but in reality Cousins only played three games with Shanahan as Washington’s offensive coordinator and he threw seven interceptions and four touchdowns–not the most spectacular numbers. Shanahan was at his most creative and deceptively successful with a QB like RGIII.
When Shanahan talks about quarterbacks, he talks about feet movement in the pocket, and the ability to make quick reads and decisions while placing the ball in a position for the receiver to make the most of their opportunities. Well, that’s just normal coach speak there. If you really want to know what Shanahan wants in a QB you have to look at some more obvious things he’s said, while delving into things he’s said and descriptions of his perfect offense.
In Monday’s press conference, Shanahan said that “you want to find a Drew Brees who can move like Lamar Jackson.” In an earlier interview, he stated, “If you're going to draw it up, you're going to draw the biggest, fastest, strongest, and best quarterback in the pocket. So, I think that's pretty ridiculous to say that. But I also tell you, I love Kirk. I know I'm not allowed to talk about other players, but Kirk's a hell of a player, and a lot of people would be lucky to have a quarterback like that." This points to a more modern version of the QB, which really has its earlier roots in players like Fran Tarkenton and the before mentioned Young and Elway. Players who can get you a first down with their legs if the play breaks down, but who don’t tuck it and run at the first sight of pressure.
Shanahan has also mentioned his style of designing plays and “Bucketing” those plays together much like Ryan Day does at Ohio State. In a podcast with Chris Simms, Shanahan states, “It’s so different now. I might have thirtytypes of plays, which isn’t much, but it’s the way to organize it and put them together and a way to mix five eligibles around. If you have thirty types of concepts, and you have five eligibles between your backs, tight ends, and receivers who are somewhat interchangeable, what do those different packages give me?”
This all goes along with Shanahan’s concept of position-less offensive football. It’s why he drafted Jalen Hurd a round after taking Deebo Samuel. It’s why he has pushed his front office to sign Kyle Juszczyk to the two highest contracts for a fullback. Shanahan wants the opposing defense to, for one, not know what formation they are running out of the huddle; and, to account for all five eligibles on the field. Shanahan’s offense also leans heavily on motion and play-action passes. That vaunted run game, its purpose, besides wearing out the defense and mentally abusing them through physical contact, is to force the defense to play seven or eight men in the box. then Shanahan can dial up that big pass play and force defenses to respect the deep ball.
Now what happens when you add an incredible athlete like RGIII or possibly a Justin Fields to that offensive play-calling and mindset? The defense loses a pass coverage linebacker. If teams rush four, as most defensive play callers hope to be able to do and get to the quarterback, then they have seven in coverage. Now if you force a team to rush five, because your QB is mobile, moves well in the pocket and doesn’t go down easy, coupled with all world offensive line talent like Trent Williams and Alex Mack, then the defense only has a one-man advantage in coverage. Then you add the athletic ability of a QB where if you have to add a spy linebacker because when your defense turns their back the quarterbackruns for twenty yards, your coverage numbers turn into an even five-on-five.
This is what Shanahan’s offense can look like with an athletic quarterback who is a threat to do more than stand in the pocket and throw the ball. A QB who can move the pocket in a bootleg, whom the defense has to account for on every play, and will not only make the passing game easier, but the run game as well. Imagine Mostert having one less defender to beat to the hole because the QB faked the hand-off and took it twenty yards on the previous play.
People talk about Cousins and Ryan, and Shanahan was successful with Jimmy Garoppolo, but he will be the most successful, and for years to come with a QB who can throw the ball like Drew Brees and run like Lamar Jackson. Or how I like to think about it, can throw and think like Joe Montana and be a physical threat like Steve Young.
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