SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For Kyle Shanahan, getting NFL players to believe in you as a coach comes down to one main thing.
He had to prove that when he became the youngest co-ordinator in the NFL when he took over the Houston offence at age 28, dealt with criticisms of nepotism when he was dad’s offensive co-ordinator in Washington for four years and now in his first job as a head coach at any level in charge of the San Francisco 49ers.
“I’ve always felt no matter how old you are or what type of coach you are, if you can help a player get better then they’ll listen to you,” Shanahan said. “So that’s kind of been my deal my whole life and I just try to be honest with them.”
After a long career as a co-ordinator in the NFL, including last season when he led the NFL’s highest-scoring offence in the Atlanta Falcons to the Super Bowl, Shanahan is trying to have success at the head coaching level.
Many proven co-ordinators haven’t been able to make that transition, but Shanahan is eager to prove he can be more than just an offensive mastermind. He has won over a locker room that has gone through three coaches the past three years and is eager for some needed stability.
“You really, really respect the overall knowledge he has,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “I can’t stress that enough. He’s the smartest coach I’ve been around. When you have leadership like that, you have to raise you game.”
Shanahan is one of five first-time NFL head coaches who were hired for the six openings this past off-season, joining Anthony Lynn of the Chargers, Sean McVay of the Rams, Buffalo’s Sean McDermott and Denver’s Vance Joseph.
That’s the most first-time coaches hired in one off-season since 2013 when five newcomers also got jobs. In a note of caution, only Arizona’s Bruce Arians is still on the job in season five.
That’s been part of a recent trend that has had retread coaches faring better than first-timers with 14 of the past 20 Super Bowl champions being on their second or third jobs led by coaches such as Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Tom Coughlin.
That hasn’t always been the case. In fact, 28 of the first 31 Super Bowl champions had first-time coaches such as Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi, including 23 straight between the 1974 season and the 1996 seasons.
That string was broken by Kyle’s father, Mike, who won back-to-back Super Bowls with Denver following a failed stint as Raiders coach.
Taking over a new team is always a challenge for a coach with most landing in situations that need plenty of help or they wouldn’t have made a change in the first place.
That is clearly the case with this year’s crop of new coaches, who all take over teams that missed the playoffs last season and are in need of a boost.
McDermott has stressed details, practicing subbing in and out of huddles, working on desperation passes and even using a training camp thunderstorm to test how his players would handle an in-game delay once the season started.
“To do it in the short and long term, you have to build it the right way by building a solid foundation,” he said.
Joseph was hired by general manager John Elway to help heal a divide in the locker room between a dominant defence and a pedestrian offence.
With experience as a college quarterback, a professional defensive back and years as an assistant, Joseph has the ability to deal with both sides of the ball.
“Absolutely, that helps a lot,” he said. “Because as a head coach you’re involved with the entire game. I would say this, to coach offence you have to understand defence. And vice versa, to coach defence, you have to understand offence. So, I’ve got both sides, it comes natural to me, so I can feel my way through all the rooms.”
The adjustment from offensive play-caller to being overseer of the whole team has been a challenge for Shanahan and McVay.
Both have made conscious efforts to spend time with the defence during practice and Shanahan even throws passes to the defensive backs during individual drills.
McVay became the youngest head coach in the modern NFL when he was hired at age 30 and was tasked with developing last year’s No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff into an NFL quarterback.
McVay said he’s still learning how to balance calling plays on offence during games as he did as co-ordinator in Washington under Jay Gruden and overseeing the entire team.
He even let offensive co-ordinator Matt LaFleur call plays in the second half of an exhibition game against the Raiders and could do that again if he feels it would help.
“One of the things that I learned from working with coach Gruden was what made him a special leader was his ability to empower others and help them grow as well,” McVay said.
Lynn must deal with the Chargers move from San Diego to Los Angeles while trying to turn around a franchise that won nine games the past two seasons and has made the playoffs once in the past seven years.
While all these new coaches have mentors they lean on, the biggest influence on Shanahan’s coaching career comes from his father.
Kyle Shanahan purposely started his coaching career on other staffs working in college at UCLA and then in the NFL with Tampa Bay and Houston for six years before joining Mike in Washington.
Kyle Shanahan leans on his father for advice with Mike spending time with the team during the off-season program. Mike Shanahan has been absent during training camp so as not to be a distraction but does watch film of practice and games.
“I don’t have any questions until I’m struggling with something,” Kyle Shanahan said. “I usually call him once I’ve already messed something up. I wish I could tell the future a little bit better and ask him before it happens, which I don’t always.
“But, usually I tell him, ‘Hey I messed this up. Has that ever happened to you?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe you should have called me before that and I could have helped you.’ I think that’s me being his son sometimes, but he definitely helps.”