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Grant Cohn: Defining Kyle Shanahan's offense

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Kyle Shanahan does not run the freaking West Coast Offense.

Don’t take it from me — take it from Shanahan himself. He educated a local reporter about a year ago. The reporter had requested a one-on-one interview with Shanahan, who rarely grants one on ones with locals. Before turning down this poor reporter, Shanahan asked what the topic of the interview would be.

The reporter said it was simple. He wanted to write a story praising Shanahan for connecting the 49ers to their roots by bringing back the West Coast Offense. They hadn’t used it in decades despite popularizing it during the 1980s under head coach Bill Walsh, the inventor of the scheme. This reporter saw Shanahan as a disciple of Walsh.

“I don’t run the freaking West Coast Offense,” Shanahan explained, except he didn’t use the word, “freaking.” He used a different word we can’t print.

Shanahan could have been more diplomatic, but he didn’t lie. He corrected the biggest misconception about him and the current 49ers offense.

Shanahan has zero connection to Walsh. Shanahan runs his father’s offense. And his father, Mike Shanahan, also has zero connection to Walsh. Never coached for him. Mike Shanahan sees himself as an innovator like Walsh, who created his own offense. And Kyle Shanahan sees himself as the leader of the second generation of his father’s disciples.

Mike Shanahan began developing his offense during the mid-1980s when he was the Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator. In 1992, he took his offense to the 49ers and became their offensive coordinator. He stayed three seasons and won a Super Bowl in 1995. He was very good. And his son, Kyle, following his footsteps, may turn out equally as good.

After the Super Bowl, Mike Shanahan left the 49ers and became the head coach of the Broncos. When he left the 49ers, the late Dwight Clark told my dad, “Nothing against Mike, but he didn’t do what we do. We need to get back to our roots.”

Clark was the 49ers’ vice president/director of football operations in 1995. He and the front office hired Marc Trestman to replace Shanahan, because Trestman wanted to learn and run the classic West Coast Offense. He even worked with Walsh in 1996 when Walsh was a consultant for the team.

I am not putting down the Shanahans, merely trying to clarify what the West Coast Offense is and is not. The West Coast Offense has specific features and philosophies, even though the scheme has evolved throughout the years to incorporate the I-formation and the shotgun.

At its heart, the West Coast Offense is a conservative, ball-control offense. Walsh called a series of short and intermediate passes which he considered “extended handoffs.” He used these to maintain possession, take time off the clock and set up running plays for the second half. Of course, Walsh called the occasional deep pass, but, for the most part, it was a conservative offense.

The Shanahan Offense is completely opposite. It’s an aggressive, big-play offense which features running plays that set up deep play-action passes.

In basketball terms, the Shanahans are similar to Don Nelson, who wanted his players to shoot lots of low-percentage 3-pointers. Walsh was more like Phil Jackson, who wanted his players to shoot high-percentage layups and mid-range jumpers.

I’m not saying one style is better than the other. I merely am describing the difference.

The West Coast Offense uses a “gap” blocking scheme, in which offensive linemen block in different directions. Some block at an angle and hit defensive linemen from the side. Other offensive linemen pull, meaning they run in the backfield from one side of the formation all the way to the other during the play. Gap blocking looks like a bunch of crisscrosses.

The Shanahan Offense primarily uses “zone” blocking, which looks like a conga line — five offensive linemen and one tight end running horizontally along the line of scrimmage in unison. No crisscrossing.

The West Coast Offense features a diverse running game with dozens of different types of draws — a run which first looks like a pass. The opposite of play-action, which is a pass that first looks like a run. The draw is integral to this scheme.

The Shanahan Offense features a simple running game with two main plays — inside zone and outside zone. The draw is not integral to this scheme.

The West Coast Offense rolls the quarterback out of the pocket so he can make short, quick throws. Think the legendary Sprint Right Option. The quarterback takes the snap, immediately sprints a few steps to his right and fires a pass to a wide receiver running a shallow route toward the sideline. This fast-developing play is a staple of the West Coast Offense.

The Shanahan Offense rolls the quarterback out of the pocket so he can make long throws downfield. The offensive line typically blocks for an outside zone run, the quarterback fakes the handoff, runs a naked bootleg away from the offensive line, takes 13 or 14 steps and throws deep. This slow-developing play is a staple of the Shanahan Offense.

The goal of the West Coast Offense is to consistently pick up at least four yards per play and reach “third and manageable” — between third and four and third and six. When Walsh installed his third-down offense every year during training camp, he always started with third and four to third and six.

The goal of the Shanahan Offense is to create big plays and avoid third down entirely. Meaning the quarterback throws beyond the first-down marker as much as possible. When it’s second and eight, the Shanahan Offense aims to reach first and 10, not third and four.

Walsh developed the West Coast Offense in Cincinnati when he was the Bengals’ offensive coordinator. In that sense, you could call it the Midwest Offense.

Mike Shanahan developed his scheme in Denver under head coach Dan Reeves, who believed in running up the gut to set up deep play-action passes — classic smash-mouth football. Shanahan tweaked Reeves’ philosophy by replacing the smash-mouth aspect with finesse outside-zone runs. In that sense, you could call Shanahan’s scheme the Rocky Mountain Offense.

Just don’t call it the freaking West Coast Offense, please.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and pressdemocrat.com in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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