• John Bulmer

Lessons From Our Fathers: Tips Kyle Could Learn From Mike to Course Correct the Season

Image Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon


Although this might seem like a tricky situation that Kyle Shanahan suddenly finds himself in, with his seat appearing to get warmer by the day, he is still in a quite unique (and enviable) position of having a future Hall of Fame coach as his father to lean upon for advice. Mike, of course, has been there, seen it, done it and got the t-shirt (and Super Bowl rings!). As one of only six coaches to win consecutive Super Bowls as a head coach and boasting 178 regular season wins throughout his career, Mike Shanahan is uniquely positioned to offer sage advice to his young protégé, which Kyle would be wise to heed. So where do we begin?

Tricky Starts?

Just like Kyle, Mike wasn’t successful as a head coach right from the get-go. Indeed, his first season with the Los Angeles Raiders ended in a modest 7-9 record in 1988. The following year, he only lasted four games, going 1-3 before being fired. He then had to go back to the drawing board as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator to rebuild his reputation, learning from George Seifert and becoming a part of the Bill Walsh coaching tree. This is where he honed his skills and developed the playing style based on the West Coast Offense which he would use to great effect in the future with Denver.

Building a Dynasty

Things would go much more smoothly this time around. His first season resulted in a third place finish in the AFC West and an 8-8 record and this was where he really set the table for the slap-up feast he was about to serve the hungry Denver public. The following season, the Broncos went 13-3, finishing first in the AFC West but just falling short in the playoffs. His third and fourth seasons resulted in 26 regular season victories and two consecutive Lombardi trophies.

What Can Kyle Learn?

Firstly, stick to what you know. Mike’s success was predicated on his version of the West Coast Offense and what he learned from countless hours studying videotape of Bill Walsh at the 49ers facility.

Trust Your Quarterback

Ben Swanson of DenverBroncos.com noted that “Shanahan had a foundational level of trust with his star quarterback (John Elway) that allowed him to put his strategy into motion. His plan focused on building a balanced offense that maybe took the ball out of Elway's hands more to rely on a powerful running attack while still giving him all the same potential for game-breaking passing plays.”

Image Credit: AP photo/Amy Sancetta

Kyle has neither a foundational level of trust nor a star quarterback, making this one quite difficult! What I take from this, though, is the quicker he gets to this situation, the easier his job will be. Jimmy Garoppolo has a clear ceiling: he has never been, nor ever will be, a star quarterback capable of delivering what Mike Shanahan had with Elway. Develop Trey Lance now, get him in and start building that trust. He gives the potential for what Elway had, a strong rushing attack with the potential for game-breaking passing plays.

Sort Out the Ground Game

Image Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

One of Mike’s key precepts was the idea (much more novel at the time) of a lighter and more agile offensive line blocking for quick, one-cut runners who could break off big plays to get the offense going. This has been adopted very successfully by Kyle throughout his time as both an offensive coordinator and as a head coach. However, the attrition suffered at the running back position has made this difficult at times and the loss of Raheem Mostert especially has had a seemingly devastating effect on the team.

Of course, it is much easier to adopt this approach when you have a Hall of Fame running back like Terrell Davis, but nonetheless, one of Kyle’s greatest successes has been to get production from late round draft picks.

The short-term solution, to my mind anyway, is to allow the two rookies to share the load between them. Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell are averaging over 4 yards a carry so far this season but it is how they are utilised which is causing the issue.

Using Sermon as the between-the-tackles workhorse, while allowing Mitchell to stay fresher for the outside zone plays, would seem to provide the one-two punch that may be able to reignite the Niners’ offense and make the best of a bad situation.

Bring Balance to the Force

Image Credit: Albert Clarke / Lucasfilm / Shutterstock

Apologies for the Star Wars reference but I am writing an article referencing the relationship between a father and a son!

"You've got to keep defenses honest. You get one-dimensional on any defense and they will figure it out. There's a lot of smart people that are out there, and if they know what you're going to do, I promise you they will make adjustments.”

The above quote is from Mike Shanahan, and it sounds like great advice for Kyle to consider. With Garoppolo, the 49ers have become too one-dimensional, leading to the stacked boxes we have recently seen designed to stop his short passing game. To me, this again points towards Trey Lance, who’s (albeit raw) greater skill set is more likely to keep defenses honest and provide the balance that Mike Shanahan believed was key to success.

Motivating Success

John Elway had a great insight into the motivational skills of Mike Shanahan and has, unsurprisingly, been fulsome in his praise of the HC who lead him to two Super Bowl rings, saying, “I always thought Mike’s philosophy was great. It’s human nature, when you lose, you press and try harder and get mad and when you win, you get happy with yourself. Mike was the exact opposite. When we lost, he let up on us, looked at our mistakes, and moved on quickly whereas when we won, that’s when the hammer came down because he didn’t want us to get lax.”

This is a fascinating insight and very applicable to the current situation the 49ers find themselves in. At present, everything looks a bit flat, mistakes are being made, fingers being pointed (amongst the fans at least) and this is where you need to circle the wagons, build trust and move forward together. It is very reminiscent of the approach of another top coach but this time from a different sport, soccer. Jurgen Klopp, the highly successful manager of Liverpool FC, also believes in this philosophy having said on more than one occasion that when the team wins it is because of the players, when they lose it is because of him. This is true leadership, showing absolute trust in the men you have surrounded yourself with in the locker room and enabling them to feel valued and supported to the maximum.

If, as a player, you are unable to deliver in such circumstances, you have no one to blame but yourself. Show that leadership and strength and expect it from others.

Papa Don’t Preach?

The good news for Niners fans is that Kyle doesn’t seem to have too much in common with 1980s pop icon Madonna, as he has expressed his willingness to listen to daddy dearest on several occasions. In an article in The Mercury News in January 2020, Kyle was very open on how he feels about taking input from his father whom he admitted frequently makes remote drop-ins to his practice sessions and meetings.

By Sire Records/Warner Bros. Records

“My mom doesn’t like it, though,” Kyle Shanahan told Matt Maiocco, “because he’s still working at their house, and she doesn’t get why he won’t come out of the film room.”

“I look into it what he says,” Kyle Shanahan said. “And it’s nice to have another set of eyes. Where, ‘Hey, I missed that.’ I’ll go back and check that. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t.”

This is good news because it means that Kyle – as stubborn as he appears to be at times – is prepared to listen; to take wise counsel and to grow as a coach. Yes he is single-minded, yes he wants to forge his own path but he is not too blind or proud to see how his father’s experience can be utilised. After all, that is what the great ones do: evolve, revise, re-invent. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but maybe this is one case where the old dog (sorry, Mike!) can maybe pass on some of his old tricks to the eager young pup.


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