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The mastermind that is Kyle Shanahan

Posted Jun 27, 2014

Browns coordinator is an offensive innovator

Kyle Shanahan, 34, is sharp. He’s seen his fair share in 10 NFL seasons. Yep, 10.

Younger players call him “chill.” Shanahan relates to them. Veterans, especially the wide receivers, nearly glow when they chat about playing in his offense.

Mike Pettine trusts Kyle Shanahan. He should.

Watch a Cleveland Browns practice closely this summer at training camp in Berea. Shanahan is the most vocal coach on the field. Pettine sits back and absorbs his offensive coordinator while he works. A former wide receiver at Texas, Shanahan is hands-on, conducting his offense like a maestro would at an orchestra concert. We urge you to watch the MIC’d up video below if you don’t believe Shanahan’s gusto for coaching offense.

Before the draft, Pettine told reporters Shanahan would have significant input on which quarterback the Browns would select in 2014.

“I’m going to defer to an expert,” said Pettine.

What qualifies Shanahan as an expert? Go back to 2012 to find out why.

Actually don’t even go back and analyze the 2012 regular season – where Shanahan steered the wheel for Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris. The rookies catapulted the Washington Redskins to an NFC East title, set multiple franchise records and revitalized a city starving for football success.

To really understand Kyle Shanahan, go back to the 2012 offseason, just days after Griffin was selected. Along with his father Mike, Kyle boldly reformatted the Redskins offense.

A trailblazer in concepts, Shanahan knew he would be wasting RGIII’s talent if he used the quarterback in the same exact system Rex Grossman ran for Washington in 2011. Shanahan wanted to install something never seen before. It was his first chance to mold a young quarterback oozing with talent. He wanted Griffin to become absolutely electrifying.

The young coordinator was fascinated by option formations. Why hadn’t they been perfected on the NFL level? He had 200 plays of film cut-up on quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Tim Tebow and Vince Young.

So in the spring of 2012, for hours on end, Shanahan and his staff studied what worked in the option, what didn’t, and how defenses reacted to designed quarterback runs. They watched plays over and over. They wrote down trends. Ultimately, they found an offensive recipe involving the option and quick decision making from Griffin. It would be dubbed the read-option.

Clearly if you follow the NFL, implementing this offensive strategy from Shanahan was risky. The read-option formations weren’t going to be a random wrinkle, such as the ‘wildcat’ formation. The Redskins were going to base a majority of their play calls on, at the time, a quite farfetched idea.

Without a hint of using the read-option in preseason, the Redskins unleashed it Week One against the Saints in New Orleans, scoring 40 points while posting 459 total yards. On a large portion of the Redskins’ plays all season, Griffin would extend both arms, triple option style, and either hand the ball off to Morris, throw a quick dart in the middle of the field, or use his legs to take off. Griffin rushed for 815-yards and his 20 touchdown passes and his five interceptions earned him Offensive Rookie of the year honors. The Redskins reeled off seven straight wins, clinching the division on Sunday night, at home, against the hated Dallas Cowboys.

The offense cooked up by Shanahan sparked a league-wide copycat frenzy. The 49ers and Seahawks utilized concepts from Shanahan and integrated them into their own offensive flow. Linebackers were frozen. Defensive ends were constantly guessing wrong on when quarterbacks would keep the ball, or pitch it on an option. Cornerbacks were out of position on routes over the middle. It was a borderline revolution.

“Washington is a NIGHTMARE for any defensive coordinator right now,” said ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth at the time.

“Switching our style on offense was one of the main reasons we got to the playoffs that year,” said Shanahan.

So will Cleveland run the read-option? Will Shanahan design something else state-of-the-art for the Browns?

That’s the guessing game other defensive coordinators are currently toying with around the league. Defenses adjusted to the read-option more in 2013, but Shanahan’s integration of the concept is still very highly regarded in league circles. Pettine told ClevelandBrowns.com during a week of practice, Shanahan’s offenses were among the toughest to prepare for. Players’ responsibilities in his schemes change all the time, making it almost impossible for defenses to pick up trends on film.

Now Shanahan’s time in Washington did end abruptly, for a catalogue of reasons. But his growth as a creative offensive force – and becoming more vocal – in D.C. would be difficult to measure.

“Coaching in Washington is something I wouldn’t take back for anything,” said Shanahan. “I thought we came there in the challenging situation, anytime you have to turnover an entire roster. After two years, the 11 players we had on offense were all new players. We replaced all 11 players. The only guy we kept was Santana Moss. To do that, with the $36 million salary cap hit and to do it without many draft picks, we were pretty proud of what we did there.”

This merely article harps on Shanahan’s 2012 season. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub led the league in passing yards (4,770) in 2009 under Shanahan’s gift of calling rightly timed plays.

“Calling plays is like playing sports,” said Shanahan. “You get in a rhythm. You get a feel for the game, the coverages you are facing, a feel for your players. You kind of get on a roll. The more I coordinate, this is my seventh year calling plays, the more you get into it.”

“One of the reasons I hired him was because his system is flexible,” Pettine said last month.

So it’s probably smart to bet on the Browns’ play-caller bringing excitement to Cleveland. Because Kyle Shanahan has been prepping for coaching greatness since he can remember.

Shanahan’s first ever football memory is a painful one for his new fan base. He vividly remembers John Elway marching the Broncos down the field against the Browns in a historic game that would forever be known as, “The Drive.” Shanahan’s dad, Mike, was the offensive coordinator for Denver back in 1987. An 8-year-old Kyle was jumping up and down cheering for his team.

“After that moment, I never stayed at home with the babysitter,” remembered Shanahan. “I always went to games.”

Well, the younger Shanahan would do more than just go to games. His fondest memories of growing up around the NFL happened in San Francisco, where his dad offensive coordinated from 1992-94.

As a young teenager, Mike would bring his son Kyle along for training camps at Sierra College, roughly two hours from San Francisco. Kyle was a ball boy who became tight with 49ers receivers, Jerry Rice and John Taylor. Shanahan played ping pong late at night against other players. He was one of the guys.

Rice tasked Shanahan with picking up dry cleaning or a pizza. The Hall of Fame receiver often tipped Shanahan $20.

“That’s more money than you can imagine, at the time,” Shanahan said with a wide-eyed smile.

Fast forward a few years later. Mike Shanahan was fresh off of giving the Broncos their first ever Super Bowl. Kyle Shanahan was a senior at Chery Creek High School.

“I always wanted to play football so bad,” Shanahan said endearingly. “I just wanted scholarship so bad.”

A broken collarbone his senior season hampered Shanahan’s sights at playing for a big school. Duke was his only D-1 offer. A lanky receiver with exceptional hands, Shanahan reluctantly headed to Durham, NC, for his freshman year. The school wasn’t what Shanahan wanted football-wise.

“It was definitely more of a basketball school,” said Shanahan, who did enjoy Duke, but just craved more.

Texas head coach Mack Brown had been recruiting Shanahan prior to his injury and gave him a chance to walk-on for the Longhorns. It was the challenge he had craved since catching passes from Steve Young as a kid in training camp.

“Playing overwhelmed me way more than coaching,” said Shanahan. “I kind of had to turn myself into something I wasn’t. Lifting all the time. Running all the time. Trying to make myself more of an explosive athlete to compete with people at Texas.”

“The genes weren’t working for me when I was trying to be a player,” said Shanahan. “They worked a little bit better for me as a coach.”

If Shanahan can propel the Browns offense into an elite category, something he expects from himself, we are only seeing the beginning of those coaching genes.

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