Shanahan was the mastermind behind the dynamic 2016 Falcons offense that got the team to an 11-5 finish, a first-round playoff bye, and the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers. The offense was extraordinary against Green Bay, outscoring the high-powered Packers offense 44-21 to advance to Super Bowl LI.
While the Falcons’ devastating Super Bowl loss to the Patriots raised some questions about the way Shanahan managed the game, it should not overshadow all he accomplished in Atlanta this past season.
Matt Ryan was extraordinary for Atlanta under Shanahan’s leadership in 2016. The offense Shanahan orchestrated was diverse and difficult to defend, and Ryan hit 13 different receivers in the end zone for a total of 38 passing touchdowns, which established an NFL record. Ryan and the offense were so good that Ryan received the AP’s MVP award and was named Offensive Player of the Year.
Shanahan was a hot target for teams with head coach vacancies following the 2016 season, but as other teams made hires and the dust began to settle, the 49ers were the last team standing.
Reports emerged in the week leading up to the NFC Championship that Shanahan was the favorite to become the Niners’ next head coach. Shanahan didn’t allow the head coaching opportunity distract him from preparing for the Super Bowl, and that focus was surely part of the appeal for the Niners.
“The one thing that I know is that I’ll have no regrets about this Super Bowl,” Shanahan said in the week leading up to Super Bowl LI. “I’m 100 percent committed to thinking about this and I know from living my life and watching how it’s done from my dad that this game is something you remember forever and I would never do anything to jeopardize that.”
Shanahan is a good fit to turn the 49ers offense around, though the improvement may not be immediate. His scheme is complex. Matt Ryan did settle in and turned in an MVP-caliber performance after an additional year to learn the system, but it took time to adjust.
The 49ers actually have a longer road to offensive improvement than Atlanta did. San Francisco finished last season ranked No. 31 in the league for total offense. In Atlanta, Shanahan inherited Ryan and Julio Jones, as well as Devonta Freeman, who wasn’t yet a household name but certainly had the potential to be.
Shanahan will need to build an offensive line that is capable of executing his zone blocking scheme, and he’ll need to add some playmakers on offense. Part of Atlanta’s strength in 2016 was grounded in the fact that they had so many receiving targets for Ryan to choose from, but there’s a definitive talent deficit in San Francisco’s offense.
Carlos Hyde is a great option at running back and should help establish balance as the 49ers get acclimated to Shanahan’s scheme. Otherwise, though, the offense has a lot of needs, most importantly at the quarterback position.
Colin Kaepernick is expected to opt out of his contract with the 49ers, and Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder are both set to become free agents after the season.
Expect the quarterback position to be a priority for Shanahan and the 49ers this offseason. Kirk Cousins is an option if Washington doesn’t tag him again, and the Patriots may be looking to move Jimmy Garoppolo — he would also be a good option for the new Niners offense, based on what Shanahan looks for in a quarterback.
"There are so many ways to be successful, but for the most part you want a guy who's a pure thrower," Shanahan said in the week leading up to Super Bowl LI. "There aren't very many of them on the planet, but ideally you look for a guy who's a pure thrower and who's fearless."
Shanahan, 37, has years of valuable experience as a coordinator, beginning with the Houston Texans in 2008. He remained with the Texans through the 2009 season, and then joined his father, Mike Shanahan, in Washington through 2013. After one season with the Cleveland Browns, he joined the Falcons’ staff.
Talent evaluation is one of Shanahan’s strengths, as is evidenced by the depth the Falcons had at receiver this season. The offseason additions of Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and Aldrick Robinson can all be attributed to Shanahan. He saw a specific role for Sanu in his offense, and he had worked with Mack and Gabriel in Cleveland and with Robinson in Washington.
That skill could come in particularly handy in San Francisco with an inexperienced general manager in John Lynch.
“As an offensive mind, I think he stands alone in the National Football League, as evidenced by the explosive and record-setting offense in Atlanta,” Lynch said in a statement. “Though he grew up around coaching, what has most impressed me about Kyle is that he’s become his own man in the profession. Our philosophies on football and our visions for leading the 49ers back to being a championship team align in every way.”
After some struggles in his first season in Atlanta, the results in 2016 speak for themselves. Yes, turning around the Niners’ offense is a tall order, but Shanahan is prepared to get it done.