Grant Cohn: Defining Kyle Shanahan's offense
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.