What makes San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan such a special signal caller? Is it insight from his father? His extensive experience working under prominent head coaches like Gary Kubiak? Or maybe it’s a combination of the two? Well, according to offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Foerster, Shanahan’s biggest strength is his adaptability, as he told reporters during his Thursday media availability before Week 20.
“Well, you think about when he started coordinating back in Houston,” Foerster said via 49ers WebZone. “He was one or two years as a position coach and the next know he is calling plays, so that was pre-2010 when I met him, so it was a couple years, I don’t remember his first year as a coordinator, but he’s been calling plays since that time, so we’re going on 12, 13, 14, 15 years where it’s been his system, his plays, his verbiage, his terminology and it’s built from what he learned from his dad to what he learned from [former NFL head coach] Gary Kubiak in Houston and then what he’s done since then, which has been outstanding. And so, when you own it like that, you can plug and play. You can see where things that you’ve done fit this skill set or they fit that skill set or we had [former NFL WR] Pierre Garcon in this spot. He had [Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR] Julio Jones in this spot. Now he has Deebo in this and what’s the skill set of these players? When we had [former NFL QB] Robert Griffin III, how we had to adapt to him and make it all work within our offense and still keep the basic tenets of this offense, but yet marry it to the zone read and things like that. Kyle, to me, I’ll reference him in every press conference because it’s his deal and yet he’s managed to always understand. He has such a great grasp on it.”
Shanahan’s mastery of his offensive scheme is so complete that can Rolodex through plays the team hasn’t run in years in order to maximize the team’s ability to attack opposing defenses in-game.
Kyle Shanahan Isn’t Afraid to Call Plays on the Spot
Further discussing Shanahan’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of his NFL offense, Foerster detailed a specific example from a practice where he wanted to name a play one thing, but it had to be changed based on the naming conventions of a look the team hadn’t run in years.
“I remember we put a play in this year, and I wanted to name it a certain name and I named it that and we ran it out at practice,” Foerster said. “And he goes, ‘you can’t name it this.’ I said, ‘why?’ Well that’s a formation. I said, ‘Kyle, I haven’t heard that formation in two years,’ but it’s in the book. It’s the formation. We can’t call it that. We had to change the name. I’m like, ‘okay, it is a formation and we hadn’t used it in a while.’ And that’s the kind of stuff that he has recall that goes back forever. And he is obviously very smart and has great recall, so there’s this whole encyclopedia or this whatever you want to call it, just years and years of it.”
This advanced knowledge of his offense has allowed Shanahan to remain alert during games in order to call the best play for the situation, even if it wasn’t on the call sheet for that particular game.
“And that’s why he is able to mix and match and understand how it all works, because when you just have a complete knowledge, three of the big plays that we’ve made, okay, the play to [TE George] Kittle up the sideline in Mexico that we had against Arizona,” Foerster added. “Kittle against Washington and the 75-yarder to Deebo. None of those three players were on the gameplan. Not one of them. If you’ve seen the call sheet, if you’ve seen it held up, there’s a lot of writing on that. He says, ‘no, that’s what they’re doing, this is what we’re going to call. And he calls something based on what he sees in the game that isn’t even on the list. And they’re usually big hits and big plays because he just knows what is going to work. And even though we made out a plan for it, you’re like, oh, they’re doing this this week, so now we go to that and it’s forever. I’ve been amazed since I’ve worked with him and I don’t stop doing that. It’s just how he does it and it’s just his grasp on what he’s doing.”
Do the 49ers call plays off the cuff with regularity? That depends on the situation, but being able to, in Foerster’s opinion, is a competitive advantage.
The San Francisco 49ers are Willing to Experiment on Game Days
Even if Shanahan isn’t unique in his ability to call impromptu plays without practicing them during the week, Foerster is in awe of his ability to seemingly scheme up the right call at the right time in the pursuit of putting points on the board.
“Yeah, a lot of guys can do it. I just always marvel at him because of the timing of it,” Shanahan said. “Calling it, there’s just a lot that goes into it. Obviously, you can say, ‘Hey, the corner is jumping the receiver, we’re going to call a double move and throw a touchdown pass.’ There’s certain things and it happens a lot. He’s really good at it and when he does know and as a result we’re, you’ve heard this before, but we’ve always gotten unscouted looks things because they really don’t want him to know what they’re doing, because if they do, he has a pretty good grasp on what to go to in his offense and how to do it, so it’s a real pleasure for a guy like me to work for him because when you do that, he has such good direction on how he wants you to go, so when either you’re a player, whether you’re an assistant coach, whoever you are, there’s a great leadership or direction as here’s what you have to do to do your job. Here’s what I need you to do to make this thing work.”
As the 49ers prepare for their toughest test yet, the Dallas Cowboys, who employ a defender in Micah Parsons they routinely move all over the defensive formation to capitalize on mismatches, Shanahan’s ability to react to what he sees in front of him and respond accordingly will be vital in securing a Week 20 victory.