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Barber: Mike McDaniel is 49ers' Super Bowl secret weapon

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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.

During an offseason film session one day, McDaniel realized most of those guys were focused on the passing game. When it got to the run-game portion of the video cut-ups, offensive line coach Chris Foerster did all the talking. McDaniel, seeing an opportunity to make himself useful, began studying under Foerster.

It was a move borne of necessity, but McDaniel naturally took to the ground game.

“It seemed like the most football part of football,” he said. “It’s collaborative, it takes multiple people to accomplish a given goal. It’s lacking ego. Results-driven. Everything that epitomized the game of football, I feel like — line-of-scrimmage play — it kind of embodies.”

So Mike McDaniel gradually became a run guy. There he was, walking into meeting rooms and winning over NFL players with knowledge and self-assurance. He followed Shanahan to Cleveland, to Atlanta and to Santa Clara.

Nate Burleson, the NFL Network analyst and former wide receiver who played for them in Cleveland, recalled the first time he met Shanahan, then the Browns’ offensive coordinator. The coach was wearing baggy shorts and unlaced Nike Air Force 1s. He looked Burleson in the eye and told him his offense would be all but unstoppable if the veteran receiver could help get the young guys to study and run the routes correctly.

“As long as I played, I never had a coach say it that simply,” Burleson said. “It’s usually a coach trying to convince you, but also convince themselves it’s the real deal. I mention that, because when I went and met with Mike, it was the same thing. It was like they were clones of each other.”

In McDaniel’s case, he had created a video montage of Nate Burleson highlights to show those younger receivers, helping to establish respect for the 12th-year veteran.

It was a lesson already deeply ingrained in McDaniel by then. He knew he’d never be able to walk into a room of NFL players and command respect based on appearance. He would have to convince them he knew what he was talking about.

“The great thing about the NFL, and coaching in general, is anyone playing football wants to get better,” McDaniel said. “And if they’re confident that what you have to say can make them better, they’ll listen to anybody.”

The fastest route to that was through the use of film. McDaniel became highly adept at using it to illustrate his points. He also realized his sardonic wit could be an asset, such as when a Browns player would drop a pass, fall down mid-play or otherwise embarrass himself, and McDaniel would re-run the clip over and over during film session.

“But he won’t say anything,” Burleson said. “And he won’t even turn around. He’s just up at the front of the room, click-click, click-click. Four or five times in a row. And we’ll just laugh, man.”

Forty-Niners players refer to both McDaniel and Mike LaFleur, the passing-game coordinator, as sort of mini-offensive coordinators. Shanahan does, too. There isn’t a strict division of labor there. But McDaniel is usually the first person a player comes to with questions about a running play.

“Oh, our entire run game. It’s basically him,” backup quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “He’s the mastermind behind it all. Obviously, Kyle has to know when to call the plays and whatnot, but a lot of the designs and schematic stuff within the run game is Mike McDaniel.”

Center Ben Garland has a more succinct description of McDaniel: “The run-game Rain Man.”

What might be most impressive about the 49ers’ offense is that so many cooks can coexist in a productive kitchen. Shanahan is obsessed with offensive Xs and Os, but is clearly willing to delegate important duties to both McDaniel and LaFleur.

“That’s not something you can just teach someone,” Shanahan said. “That’s something you’ve gotta go through. I think we all know how each other think. And when it’s like that, it’s not messy.”

To McDaniel, working with Shanahan and LaFleur and other highly regarded assistant coaches is no challenge at all. It’s simply a benefit.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be around that level of coaching talent, in terms of Kyle and Mike,” McDaniel said. “This game is hard. … And wow is it awesome if you could delegate that stuff out. And oh, wait, you could take half that stuff out and don’t even think about it, because you can trust that it’d be done probably better than you could even do it.’”

The question now is how long the 49ers can keep McDaniel and/or LaFleur. The Cleveland Browns are reportedly interested in interviewing them for the offensive coordinator position. But that’s one reason Shanahan stuck the word “coordinator” into the title of his two trusted assistants — so the 49ers could potentially block such a move.

The 49ers players I talked to had no hesitation endorsing McDaniel as a future NFL head coach. It’s a lifelong dream, but one the coach doesn’t dwell on much these days.

“Earlier in my career, I was very forward-thinking,” he said. “I wanted to be a younger whatever than Kyle. And I thought about the next job. You go through all your experiences, and then you get to an organization like the 49ers, and your head coach is Kyle Shanahan, and this is your sixth NFL building, and you realize how truly special it is. Since I’ve been here, that narrative in my mind has kind of stopped.”

For now, McDaniel is happy to be among players who already know his value — players who are past raising an eyebrow at the skinny guy with the Coke-bottle glasses.

When I asked Mike McDaniel how much he weighs, he said he tends to tip the scales at about 165 pounds. Except he has strayed from the gym during this hectic, exhilarating Super Bowl run.

“I haven’t been on a scale, because I’m scared,” McDaniel said. “When I got to college, I was 143 pounds, and I’m scared of that 40 number.”

I don’t know, though. If that 143 represents the 49ers’ rushing yardage on Sunday, it would bode pretty well for a victory over the Chiefs — and another milestone in a very unlikely NFL career.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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