SANTA CLARA - Part of what I enjoy as a sports writer is to bring you, the reader, places you can’t go. Places like the 49ers practice field. To make you feel you’re standing on the sideline watching practice with me.
For the past couple years, though, there hasn’t been much to watch. In 2015, we had Jim Tomsula who seemed to think the most important aspect of practice was players getting out of the huddle as soon as possible. Twenty times an afternoon he’d yell, “Tempo!” while the quarterback recited the play call to his teammates. “Tempo” seemed like the only word Tomsula ever said on the field.
Then last year, we had Chip Kelly who seemed the think the most important aspect of practice was ending it as soon as possible. Kelly almost never worked his players longer than 90 minutes, and significant portions of that time were “teach” periods when players would stand around and philosophize about football with assistant coaches. Maybe they philosophized about philosophy, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Kelly typically never said a word to anyone unless he was chatting with kicker Phil Dawson — those two were close — or one of Kelly’s special guests, such as country singer Kenny Chesney.
It’s nice to watch a real head coach lead real practices again. I’m talking about Kyle Shanahan, as real as they get.
Shanahan works his players as long as the collective bargaining agreement allows. Right now, it allows for two hours a day. Shanahan maximizes this time. No more ridiculous “teach” periods. Players always are moving, working, doing drills. And Shanahan works with them.
Sometimes Shanahan works with tight ends and wide receivers on running routes — he played wide receiver at the University of Texas. He knows route-running. And when a player runs the wrong route, Shanahan yells. Curses. Stops the drill and shows everyone the proper way to run it.
It’s nice to watch a coach who’s not afraid of players. It’s nice to watch a coach who has passion.
When Shanahan isn’t working with the receivers, he’s watching the defense. Or he’s working with the quarterbacks on the mechanics of passing to their left. Showing them how to open their hips and where to stride before releasing the ball.
Or, he’s playing cornerback while the offense rehearses the plays it will run against the defense later during practice. Shanahan covers one receiver man to man or drops into a zone, forcing the quarterback to read the coverage and go through his progressions.
It’s nice to watch a quarterback go through his progressions.
It’s nice to watch pass patterns again. It’s nice to watch three wide receivers run to one side of the field and form three tips of a triangle — just the way Bill Walsh designed his pass plays.
Last year, Kelly made his players practice “people plays,” where the quarterback would catch the snap and stare at one player — the slot receiver — until that player decided to cut left or right. Then the quarterback would throw him the ball. What in the world are people plays?
When the 49ers weren’t practicing people plays, Kelly made them practice the read-option — or the zone-read, or whatever Kelly called that simple play — over and over and over.