The old saying goes: “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” This applies to many things, one thing, in particular, is getting a job. Even more particular becoming an NFL head coach.
With his last name, Kyle Shanahan certainly got the benefit of the doubt getting coaching opportunities, but he also proved himself along the way. In his fourth gig as an offensive coordinator, he turned a good offense with the Atlanta Falcons into a great offense. They were so dominant that they went to the Super Bowl in the 2016 season.
It took Shanahan only two years to pull off that turn around in Atlanta. Maybe it’s a matter of who and what he knows in his case.
Does Shanahan have that same magic to turn San Francisco into the same contender as he did with Atlanta in his second year? To answer the question we have to line up the comparisons between the two teams.
For this to happen Shanahan would have to take a below average offense and make it great. Atlanta had several veteran pieces already in place. The 49ers were gutted and tailored to Shanahan’s specific taste. San Francisco’s quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo was brought in halfway through last season. Matt Ryan was established and many believed he was on the verge of a breakthrough.
A similarity between the 2016 Falcons and the current 49ers squad is a common theme of versatility and a sheer amount of weapons. In Atlanta, this resulted in Ryan’s highest completion percentage of his career at 69.9%. His 9.3 yards per attempt average makes the completion percentage even more impressive.
Last year Garoppolo completed 67.4% of his passes with an 8.8 yards per attempt average. He did that in just five starts acclimating with his team and the coach throughout.
Both quarterbacks have their own strengths. Ryan was a solid decision maker who threw only seven interceptions in 2016. Garoppolo, on the other hand, threw five picks in just six games.
Garoppolo brings his quick decision-making and release, yielding eight sacks in his short stint, which averages to about 25 for a full season. Ryan, conversely, was sacked 37 times the year he lead Atlanta to the Super Bowl.
Many believe the 49ers have found their star quarterback, but what about the rest of the team? Shanahan had such a talented array of stars all over the field in Atlanta. The running backs featured the dual-threat of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
Ten players caught multiple touchdown passes in 2016 compared to only five the year before. Julio Jones particularly excelled, having his second-best yards per reception average of his career at 17.0.
Last year the 49ers had five players catch multiple touchdown passes. Coincidence? The core wide receiver unit remains the same with Pierre Garcon returning from injury, Marquise Goodwin, and Trent Taylor. The Niners also added some pieces in the draft with Dante Pettis and Richie James. Even if Garcon can return to form, Garoppolo doesn’t have a designated red zone threat.
This is where the team may struggle the most becoming a great offense. George Kittle is an up-and-coming tight end and Garrett Celek has soft hands as well but neither is likely to be catching 10 touchdowns anytime soon.
The biggest difference is Atlanta was loaded going into the season and San Francisco is still searching for players to fit Shanahan’s scheme. This is most evident in the backfield where they don’t have a bona fide NFL starter. When Carlos Hyde signed with Cleveland as a free agent they lost bell cow, but now they are faster, younger and quicker. The backfield perfect fit for Shanahan’s zone running scheme.
For all the big names and flashy plays, the man responsible for a lot of Atlanta’s yards was fullback Patrick DiMarco. The offense struggled with his departure last year.
San Francisco, on the other hand, kept their X-factor player, Kyle Juszczyk. He was instrumental in sustaining their long drives and their few red zone success stories. Juszczyk is a fierce blocker and a sneaky weapon out of the backfield as a receiver. But it’s his brain and reads that make him most important.
Between Juszczyk and McKinnon, Shanahan can get creative with his motions as well as implementing bubble screens and not have to worry about Garoppolo in pass protection from blitzes.
A team can have all the tools but without a good coach, it means nothing. Atlanta’s head coach Dan Quinn can be reliant on the big play mentality, risky play calls in the clutch and on fourth down. Atlanta was suited for that in their Super Bowl run.
Shanahan still has to prove his style as a head coach, which is a little more conservative and ball-control oriented. The true success of what San Francisco does under Shanahan’s watch will be how he utilizes the team he has and their many strengths.
They may not average 33.8 points per game, but if they control the clock for sixty percent of the game and maintain third-and-short first down conversions on their possessions they can use that sneaky speed to open up the field.
Don’t expect Atlanta 2.0 with this team. However, that doesn’t mean that something special isn’t down the road. It may not be in the second year or the third but this team, in their own way, has the potential to be a great offense.