» HEAD COACH CALLING PLAYS? 49ERS AHEAD OF CURVE
Call it the Sean McVay Effect. When the Los Angeles Rams hired McVay to be their head coach in January 2017, he was 30 years old, he was anything but a household name, and more than a few people around the league thought that the hire was crazy.
All he did was immediately turn quarterback Jared Goff — the former No. 1 overall pick who looked completely overwhelmed by the NFL game after rookie season — into an MVP candidate, and the Rams — a franchise widely mocked for their consistent mediocrity — into a bonafide Super Bowl contender.
Two years later, everyone is looking for their own McVay — a young, offensive-minded wunderkind who can save their franchise by turning their quarterback into a franchise savior.
And teams are being brazen about it, too: earlier this week, the Packers hired Matt LaFleur, a former McVay assistant who has called plays for one season, to be their head coach, and after the Arizona Cardinals shocked the NFL by hiring the recently fired Texas Tech head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, as their head coach, the team made sure to mention in their press release that he was friends with McVay.
But as the rest of the league scrambles and hires college coaches with favorable friendships and a 35-40 record, the San Francisco 49ers can stand pat, knowing that they are well ahead of the curve.
After all, they have the proto-McVay in tow.
Kyle Shanahan and McVay come from the same coaching tree. You could even say that McVay is a branch of Shanahan’s tree (if he had one, he’s only 39), as he worked under Shanahan in Washington and succeeded him as offensive coordinator there.
They share influences, philosophies, and a progressive but sound view of the game. And if Shanahan was a free agent this winter, you could bet that he would have been the top pick for every team with a head coaching vacancy — after all, he’s McVay’s friend.
But while McVay’s Rams are to host the Cowboys in the playoffs Saturday, Shanahan is preparing for a make-orbreak offseason where he will have the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft.
Then again, Shanahan didn’t take a job where the best player in the NFL was already on his roster, there was a ton of talent on the depth chart, and a recent No. 1 overall pick was at quarterback.
Shanahan’s tenure as 49ers head coach has not been a success by conventional metrics — and perhaps it never will be _ but it should be reassuring to Niners fans that Shanahan is exactly the kind of head coach over which so many teams around the NFL lust. San Francisco has a two-year head start on this trend, which isn’t going to go away, so long as offense continues to dominate the NFL.
Which is to say that this is the new normal.
It’s a predictable development, though it’s shocking it’s taken so long to become mainstream.
For decades now, quarterback has been the most important position in the NFL _ the object of a league-wide obsession and frenzy. For many NFL fans, a team’s overall ability can be easily conflated with the ability of the man taking the snaps.
Teams that don’t have adequate quarterback play are willing to move anything and anyone — and to pay anything they can — to get a player who can provide that adequacy.
And teams that already have that quarterback? They’ll do roughly the same thing to keep him, gladly selling the farm to keep the horse.
But with that being the reality, why wasn’t the guy who coaches the quarterback was viewed as the second-most important person on the payroll?
After all, you don’t give a thoroughbred horse — especially one you sold the farm for — a half-rate trainer.
Thanks to McVay’s immediate and substantial success, that’s no longer the case.
Make no mistake, the results are there to back this trend. Look at what happened in Chicago this season under Matt Nagy, or Indianapolis under Frank Reich. Look at the Chiefs or the Eagles. Look at the Saints, who have been doing this for more than a decade. Look at the remaining teams in the playoffs — the majority of them have a head coach who also calls offensive plays.
(Don’t look at the Oakland Raiders, by the way.)
There is an economic slant to this, of course: the value of a great offensive coordinator in this pass-happy league has outpaced the pay for the position, so teams are making OCs head coaches as a recruiting tool — they’ll get a little more power and a lot more money.
Of course, almost every one of the new offensive-minded head coaches hands over complete control of the defense to a veteran coordinator, like Vic Fangio.
But the OC-as-HC trend becoming so customary, it was a bit strange to see the Denver Broncos hire Fangio — the former Chicago Bears and 49ers defensive coordinator — as their head coach Wednesday (he, of course, came as a packaged deal with offensive coordinator and former Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak).
Now, some of these new OCs as HCs will be disasters — much like at the quarterback position, there’s only so much talent.
The 49ers will not run into that problem, though.
I can say this with impunity — if Shanahan fails in San Francisco, it won’t be because he doesn’t know how to run an offense. If he isn’t the best coordinator in the game, he’s unquestionably a finalist for the title. And that kind of skill has never been more valuable than it is today.
Perhaps Shanahan and McVay finally spark that coaching rivalry that’s been two years in the making in 2019. Perhaps Jimmy Garoppolo — whom Shanahan had to acquire, mid-tenure — is every bit the transcendent quarterback we saw at the end of 2017 and the Niners contend for the playoffs for the first time in the Levi’s Stadium era. Perhaps offensive assistants Mike McDaniel and Mike LaFleur (bother of the new Packers’ head coach) will be the hot names on the coaching carousel next year, as everyone wants a piece of the Shanahan magic. Or, perhaps not.
But going into 2019, Niners fans don’t have to worry that the team is playing from behind — they’re way ahead of the Joneses and are set up for success, having already acquired the two most important people in the game: the quarterback and the quarterback whisperer.
Now they have to do something with that advantage.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan high-fives San Francisco Louis Murphy (18) during a game against the New York Giants on Nov. 12, 2017 in Santa Clara.