SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When it came to the X’s and O’s, there was never much doubt Kyle Shanahan had what it took to become a head coach in the NFL.
Before Shanahan ascended to the position, he had to figure out who he wanted to be as a leader. On the road from low-level assistant to head coach, Shanahan’s final stop helped add the tools to lead the San Francisco 49ers and become a candidate for coach of the year.
That stop came in Atlanta, where he served as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016. There, Shanahan worked with head coach Dan Quinn and paid close attention, not only to how Quinn ran his defense, but to how he related to players.
“Dan and I were a little bit different personality-wise,” Shanahan said. “He was always very upbeat and always positive. I was just always focused in on being a coordinator and whatever the task at hand was. It was cool to watch him and be in a building like that. Just to watch him run his team meetings, involve everyone, how entertaining they were, how loose he kept guys, how he communicated with everybody.”
On Sunday, Shanahan will coach against the Falcons for the first time since taking over the Niners in 2017. He’s guided them to the best record in the NFC (11-2), and a win against his former team would clinch Shanahan’s first playoff bid as a head coach.
To get here, Shanahan has drawn on experiences taken from all of his stops, but his time in Atlanta leaves Shanahan looking back far more fondly than, say, Washington.
He says he “loved” his time with the Falcons, noting that Quinn, whom he barely knew before working with him, made the adjustment easier. The pair had spoken on the phone but never met until the day after Quinn and the Seattle Seahawks, for whom he was the defensive coordinator, lost Super Bowl XLIX. Quinn accepted the Atlanta job right after.
Quinn was embarking on his first head-coaching job and looking for someone who could meld the rushing attack with play-action the way the Seahawks had. Quinn created space for Shanahan to hire some of the coaches he valued most, such as Matt and Mike LaFleur, Mike McDaniel and Bobby Turner — many of whom are on Shanahan’s staff in San Francisco.
While Shanahan was at the top of Quinn’s list, the Falcons had to get Shanahan out of his contract with the Cleveland Browns, where he was the offensive coordinator. When it finally happened, Quinn immediately knew what he had.
“It was a real accomplishment in a difficult process to get Kyle there because he was under contract already at Cleveland,” Quinn said. “So it was not as easy as just, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ But when you’re hiring somebody, you don’t think too far down the line, you just kind of think about ‘how does this go?’ and ‘where do we attack and how do we play?’ I couldn’t have been more pleased than with the job he did here with the team.”
Shanahan picked up things from Quinn that he now uses as a head coach.
For instance, Quinn would find unique ways to build camaraderie. In 2016, he invited the Navy SEALs to spend four days working with Falcons players on everything from on-field physical training to classroom sessions intended to develop things such as mental toughness, resilience, teamwork and stress management.
In San Francisco, Shanahan has included the SEALs in the Niners’ offseason program and has even gotten coaches and executives involved. Those SEALs have a standing invitation to 49ers games.
The often-intense Shanahan also studied how Quinn found ways to see the lighter side of things and used them to teach players about handling difficult situations. One of the Niners’ favorite sayings is “There’s not a bear in the building,” an idea taken from the movie “Semi-Pro,” starring Will Ferrell.
In the movie, Ferrell plays an ABA basketball owner/coach/player named Jackie Moon. In one scene, Moon is forced to wrestle a bear, which eventually escapes into an arena full of people. Once the bear breaks free, Moon shouts into a microphone, “EVERYBODY PANIC!”
Quinn, who Shanahan has said is a big proponent of culture, first used the clip in Atlanta. Early in his time with the Niners, Shanahan showed it to his team and it’s remained a common refrain when adversity strikes.
“[They’re] things that I’ve taken also that weren’t that big of a deal to me before I was with Dan, but I saw how cool it was for him and I really gravitated to it, saw the players did and I’ve used it here,” Shanahan said.
Asked this week when he first began to see signs Shanahan could become a head coach, Quinn pointed to how he ran offensive meetings with total authority, explaining in painstaking detail the ‘why’ behind each play. It’s a sentiment shared by 49ers center Ben Garland, who was in Atlanta with Shanahan.
“Some of his meetings are my favorite meetings we go to,” Garland said. “The way he’s able to explain to the players why we do stuff. Even if one play doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a good play, he’ll say, ‘This is why we run it because it will set up this other play that’s going to be a huge play for us down the line.’ And it makes you want to really work at the play that you think is not a great play so you can set up the other one.”
Of course, for many, the enduring memory of Shanahan’s time in Atlanta is the last one. The Falcons lost Super Bowl LI after leading 28-3 and Shanahan faced scrutiny for his playcalling in the final moments.
Shanahan has moved past it and, as Quinn points out, it was another lesson that’s helped Shanahan get where he is now.
“He made a lot of good calls, too,” Quinn said. “So, if there’s one or two that he’d like to have back, that’s in any game. You’d love to have every call go your way but all of it you learn from … [You are] always learning and growing but the guy is a hell of a playcaller and a hell of a football coach. I think he was proving that then and continues to do that today.”