How does the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay coaching tree dice up defenses? Here’s the process

How does the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay coaching tree dice up defenses? Here’s the process
DALL-E Generated - Nondescript Coach Calling Plays

I originally wrote this article for The Athletic on January 27th, 2024.

Pundits acclaim the skill of the play callers at the top of their game right now and a good majority come from the Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan tree. If those two are the trunk, then the branches include Mike McDaniel, Kevin O’Connell, Zac Taylor, brothers Matt and Mike LaFleur, Bobby Slowik, Dave Canales, Shane Waldron, Wes Phillips and others who have impacted the game. Each coach has his own flair and style, but at the minute level, what exactly do these coaches do on a weekly basis to set up their offenses for success? In my eyes, the simplest answer after six years playing pro and being directly involved in this coaching tree, is probability optimization.

I do not think the coaches would phrase it in terms of probabilities, but nonetheless, that is what they are doing. Each play, they are trying to provide the offense with the highest probability of success given the defense.

How do they do this in a week?

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Step 1: Analyze tendencies

The offensive coaching staff analyzes the opposing defensive tendencies in the following categories:

• Normal down-and-distance (first-and-10 and second-and-1 to 7).
• Get back on track or GBOT for short (second-and-10-plus).
• Third-and-short.
• Third-and-2 to 4
• Third-and-4 to 6
• Third-and-7 to 10
• Third-and-11-plus
• Red zone
• Two-minute

This data breakdown downloads into the brains of these coaches and allows them to start theorizing how the game will play out.

Step 2: Game theorize

As an example, let’s assume the upcoming opponent plays Cover 3 40 percent of the time, Cover 4 30 percent of the time and Cover 1 20 percent of the time in normal down-and-distance. The previous five games these are the top three calls, therefore the defensive coordinator is likely to utilize similar coverages against us. Run that thought process over and over again for every single subcategory in Step 1. Amalgamate that with a best guess of how they could change it up and you can anticipate what a defensive coordinator will likely play against you.

Step 3: Design plays

Given the anticipated coverages in each subcategory, the next step these coaches do is design plays to attack these anticipated defenses. They utilize core plays from their playbook, wrinkles off core plays and new ones to attack defensive tendencies. They also work to get the ball in their most talented players’ hands against the worst defenders of the opposing team.

An example: Let’s say the San Francisco 49ers are playing the New England Patriots. On third down and 4 to 6 yards, let’s say the Patriots top three coverages are Cover 1, Cover 2 Tampa and Cover 3 Firezone. The 49ers call two plays in the huddle on their first third-and-4 to 6. The first play will be designed to beat man, the second play will be good versus zone coverage, specifically Cover 2 Tampa and Cover 3 Firezone. Pre-snap the 49ers will most likely place a running back or tight end out wide to see if a linebacker or safety walks to cover them. If he does, then they run the man-beating play with the first read being Deebo Samuel. If the corner is over the TE or RB, then they “alert” or “can” or “kill” the play to the zone beater with the first read being Christian McCaffrey. Voila, you run a play that has a higher probability for success.

Run that process over and over for every down-and-distance. Sum up all the plays in the game doing that and on average, you will have more people open, more efficient runs and more points on the scoreboard.

Step 4: Design plays, Part 2

In addition to the previous step, coaches also self-scout and make it hard for defenses to anticipate what is coming. How do they do this? Design plays that start out looking the same but are different.

For example: A coordinator in this tree will design five-plus plays out of the same formation with the same fly-sweep motion for a given week. They then will run a jet-sweep motion and hand it to the RB, a jet-sweep motion and hand it to the wideout, a jet-sweep motion with a fake to the RB and bootleg opposite, a jet-sweep motion with a fake to the RB and a screen to the TE, a jet-sweep motion and a play-action pass and so on. All of the plays in this package will be good against the anticipated coverage conclusions from Step 2.

Why do all this? To make it harder for defenses to predict what’s coming, which in turn leads to a higher probability of success.

Step 5: Meticulous attention to detail in practice and meetings

Once all of these plays are designed, they must be communicated to players and coaches throughout the week. This is done with the utmost precision. Every detail is important, from route depth, to how a lineman places his hands, to nuances of cadence, to ball security and so on. These coordinators understand technique, situational football and the importance of getting everyone on the same page. The end result of this quality coaching and communication is a higher probability of success.

Conclusion

If you asked Dr. Jon Pinder, my business school professor at Wake Forest, “Can everything be boiled down to a probability?” His eyes would light up and he would say yes. This is what these coaches do — they optimize plays for success over and over and over in a game. There are no wasted plays.

Why do they have varying degrees of success within this tree?

There are a few variables to consider. One is the quality of their players. A quality QB, offensive line and wideouts obviously help. Secondly is the coordinator’s skill at each of these steps. One may be better at play design but bad at in-game feel. One may have it all and you can see why these coaches put up the most points. At the end of the day, there are a lot of variables, but the best coaches control the variables they can and increase their teams’ odds play-in and play-out. The points, yards and wins follow.

If you're interested in learning how to train, develop, and perform like an NFL Quarterback, join the waitlist at kinetex.co. If you're interested in reading more posts on all things quarterbacking and throwing biomechanics, subscribe to the blog.