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49ers' Kyle Shanahan, Chiefs' Andy Reid differ in offensive approaches

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MIAMI — They’re the two best offensive coaches in the league and they couldn’t be more different.

Sure, Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid have similarities. They both produce big plays, wide-open receivers and high scores.

“They stress the crap out of you with all the weapons and speed they have,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained. “They do an unbelievable job of taking their athletes and putting them in positions that you couldn’t even imagine, because they understand athletes and how to use speed. They’ve very, very hard to deal with.”

For completely opposite reasons.

Here’s how their offenses work.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense

Shanahan is only 41, but his offense is old school.

“He uses a lot of two-back formations, which is throwback stuff in today’s world,” Reid explained about Shanahan. “But he does it better than anybody. He’s great at it.”

Shanahan learned these formations and offensive principles from his father, Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls as the Denver Broncos’ head coach in the 1990s. Kyle is extremely faithful to his father’s offense, which is a run-first offense.

“What Kyle does is real challenging, because every play-action pass comes off something they run, and it messes with your eyes,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “They have lots of window dressing with all their motions and movements. You have to be disciplined and not look where you’re not supposed to be looking.”

Moving people makes the defense think. Each defender has his assignment, alignment and technique he’s supposed to play. Then George Kittle moves. Or Kyle Juszczyk moves. And now, seven or eight defenders have new assignments, new alignments and new techniques to play, all because one person moved on offense. Hello, chaos.

Shanahan knows he can panic the defense and force it to make serious adjustments on the fly. He wants to run the ball while the defense is still thinking about what to do. Defenders who stop to think don’t play as fast. That’s the core principle of Shanahan’s offense — make the defense stop playing while it thinks.

Hall of Fame Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs had the same principle. He used shifts and motion to change defensive players’ gap responsibilities in the run game, meaning he made them move where they didn’t want to be. And he would establish the run from the outset to make the game a physical contest. He wanted to inflict pain on the defense. And when the defense was looking for the run, he would take deep shots off play-action fakes.

Thirty-nine years later, Shanahan has brought Gibbs’ principles from Washington to San Francisco. Call Shanahan’s system the East Coast offense, something quite different from what Bill Walsh designed in San Francisco.

And Shanahan’s offense constantly evolves. Until this year, Shanahan’s run game featured zone-blocking almost exclusively, a conga line of offensive linemen running the same direction with a running back looking for a hole between them. Shanahan had very few changeups. Three years ago, he had a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl and lost it because he didn’t have an answer in the run game after the Patriots shut down the zone runs.

Now, Shanahan has changeups galore. He runs up the middle using power blocking. He runs wide receivers around the edge. Meaning he can run the ball at will and close out games. If he’d had these changeups three years ago, he would have won the Super Bowl. Now, he can redeem himself.

Andy Reid’s offense

Reid is 61, but his offense is new school. He’s an innovator. He’s faithful to no ideology.

“Anybody who tries new stuff, those are the guys you like to watch,” Shanahan said of Reid. “It’s really fun to get the tape and watch what he tries — different formations, different screens, different play actions, different things that you see in college that you’re not always sure will work in the NFL. You get to see someone do it, and it usually leads to a lot more ideas.”

Meaning Shanahan learns from the risks Reid takes. And paradoxically Reid, the older man, takes more risks than Shanahan. A prime example: Reid drafted his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, in 2017 while Shanahan admits he shied away from him. “We didn’t want to be that risky,” Shanahan said.

Consider Reid a mad scientist on offense. He’ll try anything. He’s obsessed with trying new things. Reid embraces college-style offenses. Embraces the shotgun and spread formations and zone-read runs. And he comes from the Bill Walsh tree, so he knows the West Coast offense. Reid runs a system that Walsh might run today if he were alive.

The run game is an afterthought for Reid. He coaches a pass-first offense. Doesn’t use the run to set up the pass. Forget that. He wings it. His brain is overloaded with pass plays —they’re pouring out of him, just as they poured out of Walsh.

But there’s a key difference between Walsh and Reid.

After Walsh had worn down the opponent and established the 49ers’ passing offense and the game was in hand, then Walsh would run the ball to close out the victory. Why? “Because that’s football,” Walsh once told a reporter. That’s how to run out the clock. Running was Walsh’s way of putting the icing on the cake. The run game was his frosting.

Reid has no frosting. His offense can score four touchdowns in four consecutive drives, but it can’t run the ball effectively, so he continues to throw, even in the second half when he has a big lead. And each incomplete pass stops the clock, so no lead is ever safe under Reid.

Shanahan closes out games better than Reid. In that way, Shanahan has more in common with Walsh than Reid does.

Maybe Reid could learn a thing or two from the old school practiced by a very young man.

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