Kyle Shanahan developed own style as one of NFL's craftiest playcallers

Lindsay H. Jones
USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is shown on the sideline during the game against the Baltimore Ravens during the second half at the Georgia Dome.

HOUSTON – When Kyle Shanahan was a teenage football player at Cherry Creek High School in suburban Denver, he was already preparing for his future career as an NFL head coach.

He’d join his father, Mike, the Denver Broncos head coach, for film sessions, practices and offseason draft meetings. Watch the film of the Broncos’ first Super Bowl win in January 1998, and you’ll spot 18-year-old Kyle on the sideline, holding the cords for his father’s headset.

“Kyle is the typical coach’s son," Atlanta Falcons running backs coach Bobby Turner told USA TODAY Sports. "But the thing about Kyle was, he was always there — not just playing around, but he was really into the ball part of it. I mean, you could tell when someone is really tuned in, that they're listening."

Turner coached the running backs in Denver then, and eventually coached on the same staff as both Shanahans in Washington. So Turner has a unique view of Shanahan’s development, from teenager to architect of the NFL’s No. 1 offense to presumed future head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Though Shanahan was – and continues to be – influenced by his father, who was nicknamed “The Mastermind” during his coaching career – he’s not a clone of his dad.

“Obviously a lot of what he knows he learned from his dad, but yet his dad wanted him to go and branch out, get taught by other people,” Turner said.

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Indeed, while Shanahan benefitted from his family name and connections, he developed his style of offense while working his way up. After finishing school at the University of Texas, he was a graduate assistant at UCLA and then a quality control coach for Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He rose his way up to offensive coordinator on Gary Kubiak’s Houston Texans staff, later taking the same position under his father for four years in Washington. He then spent one season calling plays in Cleveland before joining Dan Quinn’s staff in Atlanta.

“Kyle's path has been tremendous. He started at the bottom, he worked his way up, and every type of player he's been given he's found a way to make them successful,” Kubiak told USA TODAY Sports. “One of the biggest compliment I can give to Mike is the way Mike kind of made Kyle grow up as a coach too. Made him come up the right way, made him do it the right way. The boy's earned his stripes.”

The younger Shanahan did take some things from his father, like the tendency to script plays. He’ll enter each game with a list of 24 plays he’d like to call. He never makes it through all of them in order, but he likes having two dozen at his disposal to call as the chess match starts to unfold. He loves to call bootleg passes and stretch running plays, staples of a Mike Shanahan and Kubiak's schemes, and he uses the same West Coast offense verbiage. His calls are lengthy, filled with words to indicate each player's assignment is on a specific play. He prefers that style of roughly 15 long-winded phrases rather than utilizing 100 shorter ones.

“The verbiage allows you to do it 1,000 different ways,” Shanahan said Thursday. “That puts more pressure on the quarterback to spit it out, to have to repeat it, but you get comfortable with it and you can do it, you see that you have a lot more options.”

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It is indeed more arduous for the quarterback, Falcons backup Matt Schaub said. But it also means more freedom.

“It's a lot of work because he demands a lot out of you. He asks a lot, because there are so many looks, so many things you can do at the line of scrimmage, changing plays, trying to get into a better play based on what you're seeing the defense do, rather than just playing plays and hoping your guys on the field make them work,” Schaub, who previously worked with Shanahan and Kubiak as the Texans' starter, told USA TODAY Sports. “There are tools you have to change things to get an advantageous look against the defense. But that takes a lot of time, because some of the play calls can be very long, very wordy and they can be tough to call sometimes.”

Shanahan first called plays late in the 2008 season for Schaub, and he has only grown more confident in his style since then. Falcons starter Matt Ryan recently praised Shanahan for his ability to “orchestrate and balance” a diverse group of players, from receiver Julio Jones to a pair of standout running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and tailor a game plan to best attack an opposing defense.

“He has a really good feel for having the pulse of the group,” Ryan said.

His playcalling prowess has been on display all year and will be tested Sunday against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, his first time back in the big game since tagging along with his father nearly 20 years ago. Those who have watched him grow know he’s ready for this, and the head coaching job that he’s expected to accept next week.

“With Kyle, it's always been about confidence. Even when he was a kid, I mean, he was so confident. You watch him call a game, he's aggressive all the time. Late in the game, he's still aggressive. I think that's what you have to be. You have to have that type of swagger,” Kubiak said.

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Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.

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