At just 34 years old (soon to be 35), Kyle Shanahan has already established himself as one of the most efficient and innovative offensive coordinator in the NFL. The young mind got his first coordinator gig in Houston in 2008. There, Shanahan worked under former Texans head coach and current Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. As a product of that, Shanahan’s offense has similar tendencies, but he has been able to take his scheme to the next level.
For some time, many assumed that the hype surrounding such a young coordinator was simply because of his last name, seeing as Mike Shanahan, his father, was a highly decorated head coach and offensive guru. After his success with a young, healthy Robert Griffin III in Washington in 2012, some started to shed their preconceived notions. Now, 11 games through his tenure with Cleveland, it would be foolish to say that Shanahan is only where he is because of his name.
Shanahan’s most useful trait is that he understands the capabilities of his offensive roster and lets his scheme/play-calling reflect that. Going into week 13, Cleveland has the 4th highest run play percentage at 47.83%. This can be accredited to a number of things, but most important of all, it is what allows quarterback Brian Hoyer to be as efficient as he possibly can.
Cleveland’s running backs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell are both impressive rookie rushers that force defenses to respect the run. Of course, when running behind Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio (as well as Alex Mack, when he’s healthy), life is a lot easier on the running back and the big men up front deserve credit.
Shanahan’s favorite run concepts are zone stretches and misdirections, both of which give the same look initially, making defenses stay on their toes. Both West and Crowell are the one-cut type runners necessary to make both of these concepts work. On stretches, the key is to read the outermost blocker on the line of scrimmage and cut either inside or outside of them. With misdirection, the play is more restrictive, but if the running back can sell the “dummie” direction, make an explosive cut and get to the other side of the offensive line, it works.
Below is not only an example of Shanahan’s misdirection tendency, but also his innovation. Misdirection plays rooting from a toss are rare, but it has become a recurring theme in Shanahan’s offense.
This is another well-designed misdirection. The center and left guard clear out the 1-tech, while the lead fullback draws out the linebackers. Now, in this instance, Lavante David, being the incredible linebacker he is, quickly makes up ground to hunt down Terrance West, but the play was designed well nonetheless.
Whether it be as a crack-back blocker on the backside of a run, a piece to misdirect the defense from the real direction of the play or a backside receiver on play-action passes, Shanahan loves to get tight ends, or even receivers, moving across the line of scrimmage. This wrinkle of young Shanahan’s 0ffense can be found frequently, meaning that it will be seen in almost any “foundation” concept. As I highlight other areas of Shanahan, notice how often someone is moving across the line of scrimmage.
To backpack off of Shanahan’s favorite rushing concepts, Shanahan also favors play-action passes set up by rushing dominance. As of now, Hoyer has the most yards of any quarterback off of play-action passes, most of which are bootlegs. Teams swarm to where the running play should be, leaving a lot of open field for receivers coming across the field to work with and get open. Below is just a handful of examples of receivers getting open due to the play action (though, Hoyer still missed some of these because he is quite frankly not good).
Stacking or bunching receivers is a common sight in Shanahan’s offense. From these sets, he likes to attack the middle of the field with seam routes and deep crossers. Cleveland’s receiving corps, though generally tough to utilize due to lack of talent diversity, makes this easy. Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin are all fast, quick players that work well over the middle of the field. Shanahan can line up the three in any order and utilize them in the same way.
As per usual, Shanahan has also devised a wrinkle to this concept by giving the illusion of the seam route from a stacked or tight doubles formation. Instead, the receiver will start to cut up the seam, turn and run an out or sit down in the zone. For all intents and purposes, the route is a tweaked “zig.” The tweak is added to make the defense pause for just a moment more, which, in football, can be all you need.
Here, Shanahan has two receivers stacked to the left side of the line of scrimmage. While Travis Benjamin clears out the middle of the field with a “go,” Taylor Gabriel takes a wide angle to start with, then turns inside to the seam for a long reception.
Below is the “zig” wrinkle that I mentioned. The outside receiver begins to turn up the seam, only to flip his hips and sit in the zone for a cheap, easy catch. Plays like this have potential for sneaky yards after the catch for receivers with top notch lateral burst.
In this final seam example, the seam and the “corner” route work together to get the cornerback in Cover 3 to pause or choose. On this play, the corner is simply playing too far off of the “corner” receiver so it was open regardless, but the idea is that whichever the cornerback chooses, the quarterback goes to the other. Hoyer had both of them open in this case, so it did not matter.
To segway off of this “corner” throw, this is a concept it seems Shanahan likes, but is not confident enough in Hoyer to be able to run it as often as he would like. Rather, Shanahan has chalked up what is more of a loose deep “out” instead of a real “corner” route. This still works well for the Browns and is a throw that requires less anticipation. Unfortunately, he can really only get away with it when facing a defense playing soft coverage.
Below is an example of Miles Austin running this route, only for Brian Mediocre to miss the throw.
Though much of what Shanahan does is impressive and allows him to get the most out of his roster, he out-thinks himself sometimes. Trick plays are something Shanahan has fun with, but they have become a double-edged swoard for him.
Shanahan cooked up this designed throw to Johnny Manziel (called back because of an illegal shift penalty on West), but it was more of an anomaly than something Shanahan consistently gets away with.
For whatever reason, Shanahan enjoys running reverses. In Josh Gordon‘s first and only game back (vs Atlanta), Shanahan designed a reverse for him in which the pitch to Gordon was poor, leading to Gordon having to throw the ball away. That was not the first time these Browns receivers muffed a reverse either.
In the case of Gordon, that can be accredited to Shanahan understanding what his receivers can do and force feeding the ball to his best receiver. With Gordon back vs Atlanta, Shanahan’s attack looked different than it had all year. 34.4% of Gordon’s routes were “just get him the ball” type routes, and that is not including the curls that he ran, which were not a very common theme in Shanahan’s pre-Week 12 scheme. Up until Week 12, Miles Austin was, for the most part, assuming Gordon’s role and Shanahan didn’t make the same attempt to feed Austin the ball (can you blame him?).
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) November 28, 2014
So, what do we make of Kyle Shanahan? Right now, the Cleveland Browns are 16th in the league in points per game and 10th in yards per game with Brian Hoyer at quarterback. On top of that, the Browns did not have much of a No.1 receiver threat until Gordon came back.
Shanahan’s offense is predicated on creating space and executing. Mismatches and mind games get to defenses, making executing in the offense easier for players. Though Shanahan’s system is different, the success of his offense is not unlike Chip Kelly’s in Philadelphia.
Chip Kelly’s offense has been more electric, but to be fair, he’s had a bit more to work with. But the most obvious aspect of the comparison is the success of the offense despite who is at quarterback. Kelly found success with Michael Vick, Nick Foles and now Mark Sanchez. Shanahan has done what he has done with Brian Hoyer. All four of those quarterbacks are backups on most other teams, but in these systems, their roles are toned down and they are enabled to look better and more efficient than they are.
I am not saying that Kyle Shanahan is Chip Kelly, but what I am saying is that Shanahan has the capability to run an offense about as efficiently once his arsenal is on par with, or at least close to, Kelly’s. Assuming Manziel turns out well and Cleveland gets another outside receiver across from Gordon (which allows Hawkins to move inside), Cleveland’s offense will be terrifying.
But to digress to the moment at hand, there is not a single coordinator in the league who has done “more with less” than Shanahan. He has been outstanding in his first year in Cleveland and he will only get better. Shanahan may be too young to test the waters as a head coach, but he is one of the most gifted offensive minds in the league and the label of being the Browns coordinator should not divert people from that conclusion.