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Intensity, father's lead shaped Kyle Shanahan's Super Bowl path

MIAMI -- Eight years ago, Kyle Shanahan stood up in a room filled with offensive players and coaches at the Washington Redskins' training facility and embarked upon one of the most important endeavors of his young coaching life. Shanahan, the team's 32-year-old offensive coordinator, had completely revamped the team's scheme over the spring, in an effort to maximize the talents of rookie Robert Griffin III, a raw but athletically gifted quarterback.

As Shanahan explained his newly installed zone-read running scheme, laying out the specifics in painstaking detail, he assured his players that the innovative system, if executed properly, would be productive and successful. His voice grew increasingly confident as the meeting continued, and by the time the install was over, the third-year offensive coordinator felt as though he'd aced the presentation.

Afterward, the self-satisfied Shanahan went to see the team's head coach, who'd been watching the meeting via closed-circuit video in his office.

"Dad," Kyle said, "what did you think of the install?"

"That's the worst install I've ever seen in my life," Mike Shanahan replied.

The story, which the younger Shanahan frequently shares with fellow coaches and friends, provides a glimpse into the psyche of one of the sport's sharpest and most notoriously driven perfectionists -- and the father whose exacting standards he has attempted to match and exceed. On Super Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers' third-year head coach will attempt to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs and become the second member of his family to hoist a Lombardi Trophy.

Mike Shanahan, who coached the Denver Broncos to back-to-back championships in the late 1990s, will be looking down from his seat at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens as a proud papa, one with an acute appreciation for Kyle's sometimes-choppy coaching journey and the hellacious intensity that fueled it.

"Oh, I'm so proud," Shanahan said earlier this week from his home in Colorado. "Really, it's been a long journey, and people don't realize it. He went to Houston (in 2006, becoming the league's youngest offensive coordinator there in 2008) after they'd been down, then the experience we had in Washington (2010-13), and the year in Cleveland (2014), and Atlanta (2015-16), and coming so close (to winning Super Bowl LI).

"Then the first year (as the 49ers' head coach, in 2017), he started 0-9 (and finished 6-10). Do you know how many teams have ever started 0-9 and won more than three games? His was the only one. I was so proud of him that year, more so than even this year, because he never lost the team. Usually when you're 0-9, everybody wants to bail, but they kept playing. Being able to go through those adverse situations really hardened him and prepared him for this moment."

As Kyle Shanahan, now 40, fields questions about Sunday's game, he's being rightfully recognized as the driving force behind one of the more dramatic single-season turnarounds in NFL history. The Niners, who finished 4-12 in 2018, are a victory away from capturing their sixth Super Bowl championship -- and the franchise's first in a quarter-century, when a cutting-edge attack engineered by offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan propelled San Francisco to a 49-26 Super Bowl XXIX blowout of the San Diego Chargers on a magical night in Miami.

Kyle is also repeatedly getting asked to relive his most heartbreaking professional moment: The Atlanta Falcons' Super Bowl LI collapse against the New England Patriots three years ago in Houston. After the Falcons had stormed to a 28-3 lead, with all of Shanahan's offensive wizardry at full tilt against one of the sport's legendary defensive geniuses, it all came crashing down. Kyle, who officially accepted the Niners' coaching job the next day, has been driven by the disappointment ever since.

"Obviously, that's heartbreaking, right?" said former Tennessee Titans tight end Bo Scaife, a close friend of Shanahan's since they played for rival Denver-area high schools and eventually became University of Texas teammates. "You're on the cusp of beating the greatest franchise ever, and the greatest quarterback ever (Tom Brady), against a legendary coach (Bill Belichick). It's in the palm of your hand, and it slips away.

"He's definitely aware of what went wrong, and he'll be ready for that situation if it happens again."

In some ways, Shanahan has been preparing for this moment since childhood -- even when he wasn't as cognizant of his ultimate career goal. Obsessed with embarking upon a playing career as a wiry wide receiver, Shanahan nonetheless grew comfortable in an environment that was the envy of most of his peers, as his father built the Broncos into one of the league's top franchises.

"He wasn't sitting me in a room growing up teaching me how to do stuff," Kyle Shanahan said last week. "We were real close -- I think like a lot of father and sons are. I always felt like I was closest with my dad compared to my friends, which I'm sure my friends would say the same thing, but I always felt extremely close with him ... not to mention that he had a cool job, and I loved hanging around it.

"You don't realize how much that stuff helps you until you kind of get into work and you realize the advantages you have and some of the stuff, like, man, I guess maybe I was learning as I was growing up and paying attention to a lot of stuff. I don't think that's just totally unusual with me and my dad, and father and sons in football. What's cool about our job is I was able to go to my dad's office a lot more than I would have if my dad was performing surgery or doing something like that."

What was less cool: having his accomplishments be chalked up by others as the product of privilege and nepotism, a stigma that followed him at times during his coaching career.

Asked Tuesday at the 49ers' media session about bearing a last name famous in the coaching world, Kyle replied, "I would never say it's difficult. It gave me a real good life. But yeah ... When I made the basketball team in high school, it was because of my dad, if you ask the people who didn't make it."

Said Scaife: "He's always had that chip on his shoulder. Even when we were at Texas, everyone recognized him as Mike's son. Even the coaches looked at him a little differently ... like, 'Is he gonna evaluate our scheme?' One thing I could always say, he knew the Xs and Os like the coaches did -- even at 21 years old."

As Shanahan embarked upon his coaching career, first as a UCLA graduate assistant and then as an offensive quality control coach for Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was determined to prove he wasn't just a courtesy hire. Former Bucs All-Pro safety John Lynch -- whom Shanahan handpicked as his general manager upon taking the 49ers job -- said Shanahan's drive stood out. (Lynch was released by the Bucs around the time of Shanahan's arrival, later signing with the Denver Broncos, but subsequently heard about the impression Shanahan made in the building.)

"He was an offensive quality control coach, and he took a lot of pride in doing that job extremely well," Lynch recalled. "But he went the extra step. He was around guys like Rod Marinelli, Joe Barry and Mike Tomlin, and he would get their tip sheets. And on game day -- as a quality control coach, you can't call the game, so he had done everything he could do -- he'd dive into their (defensive) tip sheets and study and look at the detail, what made those guys special."

Former Bucs head coach and current Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, an assistant defensive backs coach during those years in Tampa (the 2004 and '05 seasons), developed a close friendship with Shanahan as his young colleague pulled double duty.

"In Tampa, he would constantly sit in those rooms, sit in on those meetings and learn our rules and why we did what we did on defense," Morris said. "It gave him a whole new way of looking at things, and a whole new base of knowledge, that he could apply to the offensive side. It was kind of unique at the time. That was originally how we got so tight, and it was the reason I went to Washington (as a defensive backs coach, after being fired as the Bucs' head coach following the 2011 season)."

By then, Shanahan had spent four seasons as an offensive coordinator -- two with the Texans and two with the 'Skins. That innovative zone-read scheme he installed in 2012 proved bountiful, as Griffin earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors while leading Washington to the playoffs. Things degenerated after that, with Kyle spending a year as the Browns' offensive coordinator after Mike was fired following the 2013 season and then moving to the Falcons in the same role in 2015.

A year into the partnership with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, the relationship was strained, culminating in a clear-the-air session in Southern California in which the two men, in Ryan's words, "worked it out over a couple of beers."

The next season, Ryan became the league's MVP -- and staked the Falcons to a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl before the operation imploded.

The reports of tension with Ryan in 2015 stung Shanahan, because they continued a recurring theme: From Donovan McNabb and Griffin in Washington, to Johnny Manziel in Cleveland and later to Ryan, there was talk that Shanahan's bluntness and perfectionism were off-putting to quarterbacks, tarnishing his reputation in some quarters.

"There's some truth in that," said former 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello, who was an offensive quality control coach for the Falcons in 2015. "Just like he is with coaches, Kyle is very demanding of everyone around him, and that includes the quarterback. And he's gonna hold you to an expectation, and he's gonna call you out when you don't meet those expectations. And when you're having that happen a lot, regardless of how good you are, it feels like the guy's always riding you. That's just kinda Kyle's way -- and the good ones feel it, they know what he's teaching them and what he brings to the table, and it really doesn't bother them."

Said Morris: "If you circle back to some of those people he supposedly didn't get along with -- Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin -- how do they feel now? I'll bet they miss him now."

As demanding as he is of quarterbacks, Shanahan holds his coaches to even more rigorous standards. In that sense, his personality blends nicely with the affable, personable Lynch, who sometimes gets urgent calls or texts from assistant coaches or other staff members imploring him to intervene.

"I don't want to make it seem like he's this hothead, but he can run hot from time to time, and I think we balance each other out," Lynch said. "Kyle and I have a good yin and yang. And so often times there's a call or a text, 'Can you come down and help out?' Sometimes it's just, 'HELP.' So I'll walk down there. But the great thing with him is, he can rip you, but then the next day, it's gone, it's out. He says his piece and then it's gone ... and it's all in an effort to challenge you to be your best."

Many of Shanahan's current assistants still laugh at his tirade during the team's 2018 season finale against the Rams in Los Angeles -- a juncture when, in the words of passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, Scangarello "got absolutely peeled."

Scangarello's recollection: "He calls a play, and Nick Mullens throws it to the field instead of in the boundary ... and he gets a completion, but it's not where Kyle wanted it to go. Nick's read wasn't bad; it just wasn't what Kyle wanted on that play. And he 'MF's me on the headset, big-time. He goes, 'I'm gonna call it again, and he better throw it there.' And so he calls it a series later, and (cornerback) Aqib Talib is playing way off, and Kyle can't tell, and so Nick throws it to the field again, not where Kyle wants it, and Kyle comes unglued on me on the headset. 'Who the hell is coaching this guy, what the ...' And he's just going crazy.

"What Kyle didn't realize is, Talib was playing way off, coverage was kicked that way, and it would have been a pick if Nick had thrown it where (Kyle) wanted to. And Nick knew that, and he just did what he thought was right. And Kyle was going off on the headset, but everyone who watched the play knew he was wrong -- but no one said anything. And all of a sudden, about 10 minutes later, you hear (run game coordinator Mike) McDaniel chirp in on the headset, 'Hey, guys -- wasn't that 'cloud' (route) on the boundary a good decision?' And it was crickets. Crickets. Now, Kyle wouldn't even remember that conversation. In the heat of the game, he acts out, because it's his way of getting his emotions out when he's calling plays so he can move on. The next day, it's like it never happened."

That might have been the rare instance in which Shanahan's comprehension of a play wasn't extraordinarily advanced in relation to his peers. His ability to design a complex attack tailored to exploiting the specific weaknesses of an opponent is next-level, and his understanding of personnel and the way players can thrive within his scheme is equally exceptional.

"A lot of what we've implemented has come from his suggestions," McDaniel said. "He'll get pushback from assistant coaches when he suggests something (exotic), and we'll say, 'Wow -- that seems risky.' Then, sure enough, it turns out to be [brilliant] ... and we go, 'Damn -- every single time, the same guy has to be right.' "

Not surprisingly, the young offensive coordinator who once got shot down by his father for conducting "the worst install I've ever seen in my life" is now very, very good at presenting his ideas to the team.

"His Friday run meetings and his Saturday night meetings are legendary," Scangarello said. "You get more adrenaline and more confidence coming out of that than you could ever believe. Kyle's a storyteller. When he gets in front of the room, he just points out all the details, shares the vision, and he does it with video. Video is his way of articulating things to everybody. He paints a picture for everyone, and you just get this belief, like, 'Oh, we're gonna be successful.' "

Three years ago, Shanahan's brainy gameplan against Belichick's Patriots put him on the verge of a career-making conquest -- and then the nightmarish meltdown came, and he was left to ponder the possibilities and conduct a painful, soul-searching autopsy.

"It's a learning experience," Mike Shanahan said. "Oh, I guarantee you he went through that thing 100 times in the next week. You always do that, especially after a Super Bowl game. You go back and review every play, every down-and-distance situation, and you're hard on yourself -- What could I have done there to put us in a better situation? And if there were instances where a player failed to pick up a block or execute an assignment, instead of harping on that, you think, Did I put him through that enough times to prepare him for that situation? Or could I have done a better job of that?"

In Kyle Shanahan's case, you move on and keep trying to live up to the lofty standard of perfectionism that your father instilled in you -- and are as hard on yourself as you are on your assistant coaches and quarterbacks.

Because of this, unless and until he hoists a Lombardi, Kyle will inevitably view his own efforts as substandard. Two Sundays ago, after his strategic brilliance helped produce a 37-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, he stood in a private hallway next to the 49ers' locker room and did his best to convey that the mission was far from accomplished.

"No it hasn't hit me yet," he said, "but our season's still going. There's only one team that's happy at the end of the year, and at least I know we've got a chance to be that team -- it's gonna be us or Kansas City. But the NFL is tough. You've gotta earn everything in this league, and the players went out there today and earned the right to go to the Super Bowl.

"I'm just so pumped to be on this team -- we've got a special group of guys."

As the Niners close in on their biggest game since a Super Bowl XLVII defeat to the Baltimore Ravens seven years ago, it is becoming increasingly clear that they're being led by a special guy who has come a long, long way since jealous parents ascribed his teenaged hoops conquests to the last name with which he was born.

If anything, that last name -- and all that Mike Shanahan has accomplished -- has served as a driving force behind Kyle's quest for enduring excellence.

"The goal is winning championships, yes," Morris said. "But for Kyle, it's also him just trying to make his dad proud."

In that sense, even as Super Sunday approaches, the younger Shanahan has already won.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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