Sports

Kyle Shanahan’s Revolution

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan on the field before a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., August 10, 2019. (Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)
If the NFL is a “passing league,” no one told Kyle Shanahan.

The NFL is, as is now cliched, a “passing league,” in no small measure by design. The commissioner’s office has made a point of levying and enforcing penalties which redound to the benefit of the forward pass, and — when taken in tandem with forty-plus years of rule changes that have made it easier to move the ball through the air — have made this the most pass-happy environment the sport has ever seen.

It’s not merely a product of the rules. From a personnel perspective, wide receivers and tight ends are getting faster and more athletic by the year. Elements of the spread offense, which dominate the collegiate ranks, are percolating upwards to the pros. The best NFL minds, in turn, are using tried-and-true staples of professional playbooks and layering spread elements upon them, a concoction that has created diverse and multifaceted schemes difficult for most modern defenses to stop.

Another cliché — a rising tide lifts all boats — is no less true of the salubrious passing environment created by the National Football League. The modern NFL quarterback operates with a set of advantages that has lifted a great many proverbial boats: Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, for instance, is — by any conceivable standard — a middling passer, who was benched in favor of an unknown rookie midway through this season. Dalton, middling though he is, holds the Cincinnati franchise record for career passing touchdowns. He might not even return to the Bengals next season.

It has never been a better time to be a quarterback, in other words, not just for those named Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.

***

Until the NFL’s consequential rule changes were imposed in 1978, passing and running were similarly effective ventures on a net yards-per-play basis. The new rules, which limited defender–receiver contact and allowed offensive linemen greater freedom in pass-protection, caused passing offenses to explode. Teams passed much more often — from 1977 to 1980, the share of pass plays rose from 38 to 47 percent of all offensive snaps — and scoring increased in turn, rising from 34.4 to 41 points per game in that same span.

Former Texas Longhorns head coach Darrell Royal is reported to have defended his preference for running the football by claiming: “When you put the ball in the air, three things can happen to you — and two of them are bad.” The claim is truer than he lets on — when a team throws a forward pass, there are actually four things, broadly speaking, that can happen, three of which are “bad”: A complete pass, an incomplete pass, an interception, and a sack. Royal’s compelling remark notwithstanding, the risks of passing don’t outweigh the potential payoff: In terms of Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt, which accounts for Royal’s “bad things” — yardage lost due to interceptions and sacks — passing has yielded more yardage-per-play than running every season since 1978.

Some of this statistical gap can be explained by the situational considerations that dictate strategy. Teams often hand the ball off to pick up a first down when only one or two yards are required, which puts some downward pressure on rushing efficiency compared with passing, though it explains less of the gap than you might think. Statistical gaps notwithstanding, running the ball is not a wholly moot exercise. Game theory dictates a strategic interplay between passing and rushing, such that the response of an opponent to an effective rushing attack — bringing more players in the “box” to stop the run, or more bruising linebackers onto the field — will open up the passing attack, and vice versa. Rushing, too, remains an effective means of taking time off the clock and converting on short-yardage situations. Efficiency statistics, in a timed sport like football where time-of-possession and sustained drives can be strategically advantageous, fail to tell the whole story of what wins football games.

Teams still run the ball, but passing has nevertheless taken over the sport of football in a fashion unimaginable to those who watched the early days of the game and saw a pseudo-rugby contest. Teams this season threw the ball significantly more often than they ran — pass plays accounted for 58 percent of all offensive snaps this season — and the average game saw 45.6 points scored between the two teams. Today’s NFL is in an age of passing, high-flying receivers, and offenses spread wide with hardly a run-blocking tight end or a plodding fullback in sight.

***

A s much as the NFL is a “passing league,” however, it is also a cyclical one. As linebackers get slimmer to cover ever-more-athletic tight ends, and defenses line up with more scrawny defensive backs to stop the aerial attack, the plodding fullbacks and mauling tight ends who have grown marginalized in the basketball-on-grass epoch might have a forthcoming moment of renaissance. In fact, that renaissance is underway, and one need look no further than tonight’s Super Bowl to watch it live.

The offense of San Francisco’s head coach Kyle Shanahan is at once atavistic and avant-garde. On one hand, no team in the league uses its fullback more frequently than Shanahan’s 49ers; if you were to flip on a San Francisco game this seasons and see the preponderance of two-back sets, you would be forgiven for thinking you’re watching Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan and the Super Bowl–winning 1998 Broncos. On the other hand, Shanahan places modern accoutrements atop that old-school exterior — ghost motions, end-arounds, and misdirection elements — which evoke even the most exotic collegiate offenses.

Shanahan’s players think he’s a genius. The film and the numbers suggest that they’re right.

The Shanahan brand of football — be it of the Kyle or Mike variety — starts with the zone-run.

“Zone blocking,” says Danny Heifetz of The Ringer, “is like veganism — it only works if you practice it all the time.” In a zone-run scheme, coaches spend countless hours drilling the “first step” taken by blockers on any given run play, or “play-action” look. Watch a 49ers running play tonight and you’ll notice a precision born of endless drilling and practice: The offensive linemen, tight end, and fullback take their first step in concert, each playing an instrument in Shanahan’s symphonic masterpiece. The defense has no choice but to move along with the shuffling line, trying to penetrate the wall of blockers that Shanahan has set in motion and get to the running back in the backfield.

That is a beauty of the zone-run scheme: The offense imposes its will on the defense, dictating the terms of engagement, rather than reacting to the moves and alignment of the defense. What’s more, it frustrates defenses, and allows the offense to use a series of misdirection plays and “counters” that use a defense’s aggressiveness against them.

Take the first play Shanahan ran against the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football earlier this season as an example of his play-calling prowess. The 49ers came out in “21” personnel — two backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers — with the two receivers aligned wide to the right side of the field. Tight end George Kittle lined up “in-line” — on the line of scrimmage, adjacent to offensive line — on the left side of the formation. In the backfield behind quarterback Jimmy Garrapolo were fullback Kyle Juszczyk, on the same side as Kittle five yards behind the quarterback, and running back Matt Breida, who aligned eight yards behind Garrapolo.

Immediately before the snap, the fullback Juszczyk came in motion away from Kittle’s side towards the two receivers’ side of the field. This enticed defenders’ eyes to move right — with the only two receivers on the field aligned to the right and the league’s best fullback moving to that side, the defense reasonably assumed the ball was going to that side. The linebackers slid to the right in anticipation.

As the ball was snapped, the defense’s suspicions were confirmed: The entire offensive line took a step toward the right side of the field, in the coordinated fashion described above.

The Browns doubtless watched the 49ers zone-blocking scheme on loop during the week and thought they knew precisely what was coming. They attempted to beat the 49ers’ linemen to their assigned spots, shifting quickly to the right to outflank the would-be blockers. Shanahan, anticipating the Browns’ aggressiveness, included a wrinkle that turned this play into a touchdown.

Only two defenders outflanked 49ers tight end George Kittle — the last man on the left-side of the field for San Francisco — after Juszczyk motioned toward the right. As the ball was snapped, Kittle took one step toward the right, along with the rest of the offensive line, before moving upfield to block one of the two defenders to his left. Juszczyk did the same, winding back after an initial rightward step to block the left-side defensive end. Since the rest of the defense had slid to the right before the snap and continued that way after running back Matt Breida was handed the ball, there was a gaping hole for Breida to run through of a size not seen at the professional level.

Breida, one of the fastest runners in league history, went into the end zone untouched on this 83-yard touchdown. An I-formation run, which on paper sounded like a recipe for a three-yard pickup, was a master class in deception, misdirection, and savvy coaching.

San Francisco finished second in the NFL in rushing yards-per-game with 144.1, trailing only the historic season of the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson. Shanahan, like his father, produced historic seasons from his running backs without having exceptional talent at the position. Both he and Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman prove that creative coaching can make running relevant, even in a passing league.

Before I began this column in earnest, I thought I would devote it to making a revanchist’s case for running in an age of passing — “Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust: A Love Story,” — but there was no need.

Kyle Shanahan will make it for me this evening.

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