Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports


Film From the Field House: Yes, Virginia. Kyle Shanahan is a Good Head Coach

Bret Rumbeck
Dec 25, 2020 at 2:45 PM


If there was to be any glimmer of hope in this dismal year, it was going to be watching the San Francisco 49ers bulldoze their way through the NFL. Our heroes, coming off a stellar 2019 season and a trip to the Super Bowl, were the chosen ones to repeat the performance.

But 2020 is a massive black hole for nearly all good things. A greedy singularity gobbled up the hope for the 49ers.

It's hard to tell if fans, fellow bloggers, and football experts are aware of the laundry list of injuries and the global pandemic that have devastated the 49ers' roster. Maybe it's willful ignorance, but some have turned clear reality into anger and frustration. With nowhere to go with these emotions, these few people have decided to blame head coach Kyle Shanahan for this season's failure.

There have been moments this year that one could point at Shanahan and put the blame on him. The 49ers' offense has run just under 900 plays so far, and not all of those calls are zingers.

Shanahan is human. At times, he has called in the wrong play. Other times, he's called the right play, but the offense has failed to execute. That's football, and that's the way sport works.

Blaming Shanahan for the collapse of the 49ers is unwarranted and a lazy argument. He has coached a team that is not even a shell of what it was in August. He's lost star players, has an interior offensive line that often resembles a freeway on-ramp, and has no starting quarterback.

Shanahan's system is still one of the best in football, and he has called a creative season thus far. Here are a few examples from last week's loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

1st Quarter: 2nd and 9 at the SF 26 (14:36)


The 49ers' run game is based mostly on a series of inside and outside zone runs. However, there are times when Shanahan goes back to old school football, calling trap, and power runs to gain chunks of yardage.

Shanahan's power run game probably looks similar to what might be in a high school or college playbook. It attacks the inside to just outside the strong side tackle, but there is a slight blocking variation that sets it apart from other power runs.


When I watched the play above, I thought tight end Ross Dwelley made a mistake in blocking the defensive end. Usually, a power run leaves the defensive end unblocked and lets the fullback take him on alone. Shanahan draws it differently and has the tight end take on the defensive end, allowing his fullback to insert from the block and quickly get to the second level defenders.


Here, Dwelley blocked down on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, and 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk went immediately to the second level to block linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Left guard Laken Tomlinson was the third blocker through the gap to clear out any leftover mess.

Running back Raheem Mostert hit an open hole and gained an easy 8 yards.

1st Quarter: 2nd and 10 at the SF 35 (4:23)



The 49ers run several outside zone runs from a single-back formation. 18/19 Support is a tight end declared outside zone run, which has the entire offensive line block the box.


On the play below, Dallas Cowboys defensive end Dorance Armstrong shot right to the B-gap, allowing right tackle Mike McGlinchey to make an easy block. Armstrong's move to his right gave tight end Jordan Reed opened a one-way path to block Vander Esch and open the lane for Mostert, who gained 8 yards.

1st Quarter: 2nd and 6 at the DAL 41 (2:55)


Every offensive play in the history of football is about deceiving the defense. I am wholly unaware of any play design that purposely closes down throwing and running lanes and relies solely on the deities' grace.

Shanahan is well versed in the art of deception. His outside zone runs are what set up the movement plays drawn up in his playbook.

The movement plays do not have intricate passing routes or concepts. Creativity does not ask the receiver to make three breaks in a route or include two fake handoffs in a play-action. Instead, it's finding the symbiotic relationship between the run and pass.


If you boil down the play above, it's nothing more than this: Fake left, roll right, flood the right side of the field with receivers.


The read progression for quarterback Nick Mullens was also easy. First was wide receiver Kendrick Bourne on the short 'slide' route.

The second was wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk running the low-cross. And third was wide receiver Richie James, who ran a high corner.

Mullens found a wide-open Aiyuk for a 13-yard gain.

1st Quarter: 3rd and 1 at the DAL 19 (1:44)


Football plays are much like a fine bourbon. Sure, one can shoot Kentucky's finest and call it a night. It's still a good drink, but the person's impatience had him miss the subtle notes of tobacco, vanilla, and wood smoke that linger on the pallet.

I have filled three large notebooks and a few smaller ones with as many of Shanahan's plays as possible. Each has notes on a particular look or block that shows why it worked or did not or made the play different.

Nowhere in any of these books was a single-wing fake that included a pitch to the weak side.


The play above started out looking vanilla. The 49ers were in a 'Weak Right Slot' formation, and before the snap, sent Juszczyk in a flat or 'Jazz' motion to the strong side.

I can't assume what the Dallas linebackers were thinking here or what they were trying to diagnose, but maybe they were expecting an 'arc bend' or another power run.


Once Mullens had the ball in his hand, he faked a dive play with Juszczyk, which sucked up linebacker Jaylon Smith to the strong side A-gap, removing him from the play.

After the fake, Mullens pitched the ball to Mostert, who ran to his left. He had left tackle Trent Williams as the lead block and gained an easy 17 yards.

3rd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 46 (6:08)


One of Shanahan's sneaky play-action concepts is 'leak,' which has nearly the entire offense flow in one direction, while one player sneaks out under the eyes of the linebackers in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately, the 49ers' offense has been incapable of converting on 'leak' this year. By my notes, this was only the second 'leak' play that was successful this year.


'Leak' is typically run using an outside zone look, but Shahahan called it last week using P15 Weak play-action protection.

The offensive line blocked as if it's a run to the weak side with the fullback as the lead block. After the fake, the fullback usually ends up in the flat as a check-down route.


In this instance, Shanahan had Juszczyk run the 'leak' route behind Aiyuk's comeback route.

I don't know if Shanahan adapted the play as he has with others in his playbook, or it's a new look for an older concept. Regardless, it's more proof of why other coaches and coordinators envy his system.

Shanahan is far from a perfect coach and, like his 31 counterparts, is not without his faults or stubbornness. Over time, I think he'll learn what he needs to fix to be a better coach. However, he cannot control what the 49ers have been through this season any more than he can maintain the solar system's alignment.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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