Barber: Mike McDaniel is 49ers' Super Bowl secret weapon
MIAMI — ‘I’m trying to think back to the first time I met him,” 49ers tight end Garrett Celek said Thursday. “I don’t really remember what my initial thoughts were at the time, but they were probably along the lines of, ‘What is this small, unathletic guy, how does he know at all what to do when it comes to football?”
The small, unathletic guy sat before a few reporters Thursday, legs crossed casually, wearing a black cap, yellow hoodie, fashionable jeans, white sneakers, dazzling watch and thick eyeglasses. He looked like a guy who might edit video for the 49ers by day and DJ small clubs at night.
But no, Mike McDaniel is the man most responsible for the ground attack that eroded NFL defenses like a raging river this year. Only the Baltimore Ravens, with their hypermobile quarterback, ran for more yards than the 49ers (144.1 per game) in the regular season. And San Francisco kicked it into overdrive in the playoffs, pummeling the Vikings for 186 rushing yards and the Packers for 285.
Pitted against a Kansas City Chiefs team that scores points in deluges, it’s hard to imagine the 49ers winning without rushing for a bunch of yards. In other words, McDaniel, the team’s run-game coordinator, is more important than ever on the eve of Super Bowl LIV.
And yes, he knows he looks nothing like the typical thick-necked, shaved-head NFL coach.
“You go to these new teams, and I always get a kick out of the first time that we’re around the players, and I start talking to an offensive lineman about technique,” McDaniel said. “And the look they give me is priceless. Because I get it.”
How did this happen? How did someone who might have been pulled from the cast of “Clerks” wind up orchestrating a run scheme that would make Vince Lombardi proud?
Flash back to seventh grade in Greeley, Colorado. Inside of McDaniel’s Little League helmet, right next to all the decorative NFL decals, he wrote the words “I will make it.”
“I was very specific with my word choice,” McDaniel said. “I was consciously not writing ‘play,’ because I was smart enough to know. But I made a decision when I was very young that I wanted to be a professional football coach.”
McDaniel played wide receiver at Yale and, after graduating with a history degree, managed to talk his way into an internship with the Denver Broncos in 2005. The head coach there was Mike Shanahan. That’s a heck of a connection these days. The next year, when Mike’s son Kyle joined the Houston Texans as a wide receivers coach, he acted on a tip from his father and recommended McDaniel as a low-level offensive assistant.
McDaniel was 23 at the time. Kyle Shanahan was 26, a seasoned vet. The younger coach soaked up every lesson he could on how to watch film, how to interact with players and how to structure an offense.
Reunited in Washington in 2013, McDaniel found himself surrounded by offensive brainpower. Mike Shanahan was the head coach, Kyle the offensive coordinator. The quarterbacks coach was Matt LaFleur, now head coach of the Packers. The tight ends coach was Sean McVay, who took the Rams to the Super Bowl a year ago.