News & Analysis

Premium Content Sign Up

The evolution of the Shanahan offense has been key to the 49ers' success

This coming Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will be led onto the field at Hard Rock Stadium by head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is the architect of some of the best offenses in NFL history.

The Shanahan family has a history of success, most notably through Kyle's father, Mike Shanahan, who led the 1990s Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles. When the Shanahan name is mentioned in NFL circles, the first thing that comes to mind is the “outside” or “wide” zone play that has become the foundation of their offense. Most coaches from the Shanahan tree live and die by the outside zone and the play-action offshoot it creates, but this season, Kyle has taken the traditional scheme to a whole new level.

Shanahan System: History of Success

The most famous of the Shanahan systems is the one that was implemented by Mike and the Broncos in the 1990s. They won two Super Bowls with John Elway and Terrell Davis leading the way, and the most notable schematic development was the prevalence of the outside zone. This was the start of an era of interchangeable yet productive running backs, and quarterbacks being elevated beyond their level of play.

The system continued its success in Washington, where Kyle was the play-caller for Robert Griffin III’s incredible rookie season that saw the next evolution of the zone scheme when RG3’s mobility was used as a weapon in the designed running game. Fast forward then to 2016, when Kyle is the offensive coordinator for Matt Ryan’s MVP season, when the Falcons signal-caller torched the league in one of the best statistical seasons of all time despite ranking just second in PFF grading. Ryan is the best pure passer to play quarterback for Kyle, and the results were evident.

Kyle Shanahan's offenses by PFF grade (2012-2019)
Team Season Role PFF Team Offense Grade Rank
Washington Redskins 2012 OC 86.0 8/32
Washington Redskins 2013 OC 79.0 16/32
Cleveland Browns 2014 OC 74.7 19/32
Atlanta Falcons 2015 OC 83.1 8/32
Atlanta Falcons 2016 OC 94.1 1/32
San Francisco 49ers 2017 HC 74.9 13/32
San Francisco 49ers 2018 HC 73.9 19/32
San Francisco 49ers 2019 HC 83.3 4/32

Kyle then earned the head coaching job in San Francisco, and after two years with C.J. Beathard, Brian Hoyer and Nick Mullens taking the majority of snaps, they finally hit their stride here in 2019.

In his 12 years as an NFL play-caller, nine times has Shanahan created a passing offense that produced a higher league-wide rank in EPA per play than the rank of quarterback’s PFF passing grade. In other words, in nine of his 12 seasons as play-caller, the passing game output has exceeded the expected output generated by the quarterback’s performance.

The 2019 49ers are the most extreme example: They rank fourth in EPA per passing play while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranks 12th in PFF passing grade. Since 2006, Garoppolo has the lowest average depth of target among all quarterbacks who have averaged at least 8.0 yards per attempt over a single season, and 2018 Nick Mullens is the third-lowest QB on that list. This goes to show just how well Shanahan can scheme up productive plays in the passing game.

Subscribe to PFF Edge to continue reading

Already have a subscription? Sign In

NFL Featured Tools

  • Our exclusive database, featuring the most in-depth collection of NFL player performance data.

  • PFF's exclusive metrics provide matchup previews, position rankings, grades, and snap counts.

  • In-depth analysis and PFF metrics for NFL quarterbacks from the 2019 season.

  • 500+ scouting profiles, advanced statistics, and grades for the 2020 draft class.

  • NFL free agent rankings with analysis, projected salaries, PFF grades and PFF WAR.

PFF Edge
Unlock Player Grades, Fantasy & NFL Draft
Learn More
$39.99 / yr
$9.99 / mo
PFF Elite
Unlock Premium Stats, PFF Greenline & DFS
Learn More
$199.99 / yr
$34.99 / mo