Grant Cohn: Mike Shanahan is always at 49ers practices — good thing or not?
The head coach’s father stands below the goal posts in the end zone and watches the 49ers practice from a distance.
There he is almost every day when the 49ers run drills. He wears a blue polo shirt, khaki shorts and black sandals. He doesn’t talk to anyone or take notes. He stands by himself, stoic, arms folded across his chest as he studies the players and the assistant coaches and his son.
Is his presence good or bad?
As you may know, the father is Mike Shanahan, a retired NFL coach who won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos and a third as the offensive coordinator for the 49ers in 1995. He has coaching capital.
His son, Kyle Shanahan, has far less. He hasn’t been a head coach before this year, nor has he won a Super Bowl, although he went to one last season as the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and blew a 25-point lead in the second half and lost. You know the story.
I say Mike Shanahan’s presence at the 49ers offseason practices is good and necessary. Kyle Shanahan obviously feels the same way. Kyle gave his dad an office in the 49ers building even though he’s not a team employee, and get this - the office is attached to Kyle’s. The rookie head coach must feel like a first-year physics professor who has Albert Einstein at his disposal.
Kyle also gives his dad daily video from practice to watch on his personal iPad. Theoretically, Mike Shanahan could watch the video from his home in Denver and give his son advice over the phone. But it’s better to be in the building and watch practices in person.
When he’s on the field, Mike Shanahan can get a feel for players’ presence, their dynamics, their explosion. He can witness how they’re growing in the new systems. He can help his son craft the roster and develop the offense before the season starts.
“It’s real nice,” Kyle Shanahan said recently, “when as a first time head coach trying to do the whole offensive thing and do all the head coach stuff too, you’re going 1,000 miles an hour. Sometimes to see everything you’ve got to really slow things down and take your time to look at stuff and you don’t always have that time as a head coach.
“It’s nice when someone you know who thinks similar to you has a similar background and he just sits in a room all day and watches stuff. He doesn’t have any other responsibilities. He can see things that (you’re) not always seeing and just to bring things to light that maybe (you) missed or other people have missed.”
Mike Shanahan knows exactly what Kyle Shanahan is trying to do. They worked together for four seasons on the Washington Redskins, and they run the same offense.
Plus, they’re not competing with each other. Kyle knows his father has his best interest at heart, knows he doesn’t have a secret agenda to take Kyle’s job. Knows he’s someone Kyle can really trust. Mike is his dad, for heaven’s sake.
But things could get complicated. Life is always complicated if you look close enough.
Even though Kyle knows his father is just an adviser, the players could get a different impression. They might begin to think the father is a shadow head coach.
If Mike Shanahan talks to players or coaches on the practice field or during meetings, players will wonder who really is the master mind behind the 49ers? How much does Kyle Shanahan know about running a team without his dad there to prompt him and que him and fill in the blanks and coach him to be a coach? These questions are inevitable.
Mike and Kyle easily can avoid all this. Mike Shanahan can’t allow players to think he has any influence over the 49ers. He’s not here to be a voice. He’s just a pair of eyes. His time as a head coach is over. Mike and Kyle can’t allow any ambiguity on this score.
Bill Walsh and Al Davis used to struggle with chain-of-command issues. Both were great head coaches who retired and returned to their teams - Walsh as a GM, Davis an owner. When they went to practice, they tried to stay removed from the action but often couldn’t help themselves. Eventually, both inserted themselves in the drills or talked to the media and undermined their head coaches.
Mike Shanahan has the same power to undermine his son. To his credit, the former head coach seems to realize this. He has handled himself perfectly so far.
As the offseason progresses and training camp begins, Mike Shanahan must remember not to sigh or shrug or gesticulate in any way when he’s on the field. Everyone is watching him while he watches everything. He has to stand with his arms folded across his chest or hanging at his side.
He can’t wander near the coaches, because if he does, players might think he is a coach. Distance is good for him.
He can’t wear 49ers gear. He’s not on the team. He must maintain a neutral appearance. And he can’t have a walkie-talkie or a tape recorder or a notepad or a pen, or else players will think he’s critiquing personnel or the scheme or his son. Or showing up his son.
Earlier, I compared Kyle Shanahan to a professor who can consult with Einstein. There is a downside of that relationship. If Einstein is sitting in the class, he could interrupt the lecture and say, “Actually, that’s not the correct formula.” That’s a no-no for Mike.
His facial expression must remain blank like a statue. No frowning. No head-shaking. Nothing. His presence dominates the room even if he pretends to be absent.
If Mike and Kyle adhere to these few simple rules, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at email@example.com.