The Falcons will have a new offensive coordinator in town, and his name is Shanahan. No, not the one that coached the Broncos. The one with the penchant for working with terrible quarterbacks. Yeah, that guy.
Well, he's coming to Atlanta, and chances are you want to know more about him. Today's your lucky day, because The Falcoholic has 1,700 words on just what the team can expect in landing Kyle Shanahan.
Here's the skinny on the new guy:
A Young Gun
Though just 35 years old, Shanahan already has seven years' experience as an NFL offensive coordinator. In fact, he became the youngest man in the league to reach that level when he was promoted from quarterbacks coach to coordinator with the Texans at the prime age of 28.
Having a father who happened to be a Superbowl-winning coach probably didn't hurt his chances, and it's also true that he spent four of his seven years as coordinator coaching under said father. But that doesn't mean Shanahan doesn't come well-prepared to the role he has reportedly accepted in Atlanta.
His entire life has been spent in proximity to the game, especially the X's and O's side of football, and that has in part fueled his expertise in the schematic side of his job. Where he may have struggled in the past comes in the "human element" of the game, as Shanahan himself puts it in a 2006 interview with the Denver Post.
Of course, part of that just comes with the territory of being an NFL coordinator at such a young age. Whatever remains can surely be explained by the quarterbacks and front offices Shanahan has had to work alongside during his brief coaching career.
Some Unfortunate Pit-Stops
After earning his first major NFL breakthrough with the Texans and serving as OC under Gary Kubiak for two seasons, Shanahan went on to join Papa Mike in Washington from 2010 to 2013 before spending this past year in Cleveland.
Those first two seasons in Houston were an unquestioned success. In 2008, the Texans produced the third-best offensive yardage total in the NFL and ranked fourth in first downs attained per game. In the following season, Shanahan oversaw another top-5 offense in yardage as well as the 10th-best scoring unit in the league.
Across those two years, Shanahan and Kubiak turned Matt Schaub into a 4,000-yard passer (he led the league with 4,770 in 2009!), guided Andre Johnson to consecutive 1,500-yard seasons and even churned a 1,200-yard rushing campaign out of Steve Slaton. One quick look at where those players are now makes that production look even more impressive than it does on paper.
The next two destinations proved a little rockier. Washington went 6-10 in his first season as coordinator due to an offense that disappointed under aging Donovan McNabb and, later, Rex Grossman. The squad ranked 8th in passing offense but finished 25th in scoring thanks to a McNabb-and-Grossman-fueled turnover fest. 2011 saw the 'Skins rely more on Grossman and, unsurprisingly, struggle just as much as the previous year.
Then in 2012, the Shanahans were provided a young quarterback with plenty of raw talent in Robert Griffin III, and all they did was turn him into Offensive Rookie of the Year. The ground game meanwhile saw a healthy renaissance with 6th-round rookie Alfred Morris shouldering the load en route to 1,613 yards and 13 TDs.
We know what happened after that: Griffin got hurt, was not the same player and Dan Snyder played his "horrible owner" role so well that he ran the Shanahans out of town. One controversial season later, Kyle Shanahan left Cleveland after being forced to deal with a front office that believed in Johnny Manziel and reportedly fielding texts from front office members during games.
Fed up with that nonsense, Shanahan got himself out of town, and all of a sudden a rising young play-caller was back on the market. What luck for the Falcons!
Zone Blocking Scheme
If you're wondering how the current Falcons roster would mesh with Shanahan's offensive ideals, this is the big one.
First up, a little background for the uninitiated. There are two widely-used systems of run-blocking in the NFL: power (sometimes called man) and zone. In power, each offensive lineman is responsible for a particular defender, and the intended gap the team wants to penetrate is predetermined. This often involves the backside guard being pulled to the front side in order to overload that half of the field.
A zone blocking scheme (ZBS) is predicated on the linemen attacking a specific area of the field and unengaged blockers briefly doubling defenders ("chipping") before advancing to the second level.
ZBS features much more movement than a power scheme, especially laterally, and therefore it requires more athletic, agile linemen (which is why they tend to be on the smaller side). And because the gap the running team attacks depends entirely on how the defense is lined up, the system also requires a back that is decisive and possesses good vision. The outside stretch run is a great example and often a staple of ZBS because it stretches (duh) the defense across the field and allows the back to hit the hole that develops best.
There's also the matter of the quarterback. In the past, mobile passers (including He Who Must Not Be Named) have excelled in zone blocking schemes. And it certainly helps as far as play-action passes and option plays are concerned, as this can help "freeze" a pursuing backside defender. But it's certainly not a necessity, as Schaub's success under Shanahan in Houston clearly illustrates. So breathe easy: Matt Ryan should do just fine.
One other facet of a ZBS is cut-blocking -- the legal kind, mind you. Defensive players hate it because it can result in serious and/or season-ending lower body injuries for them. But ZBS proponents consider cutting a necessary evil because it works to create hesitancy in run defenders as well as protect the backside of the play from an aggressive linebacker or lineman.
Now, it's unlikely that a team will run either zone or power 100 percent of the time. Good play-calling obviously has a lot to do with keeping your opponent off balance, and so often times a zone team will mix in power looks or vice versa. But for teams that employ a ZBS, zone is the modus operandi a large majority of the time.
Now, where have you seen this system before?
Back in the early-mid 2000's when Mike Shanahan was in the latter stages of his time in Denver, the joke was that you could put any running back in a Broncos uniform and he would rush for 1,000 yards. Don't believe me? Check out this list:
1999: Olandis Gary (1,159, 7 TDs)
2000: Mike Anderson (1,487 yards, 15 TDs)
2002: Clinton Portis (1,508 yards, 15 TDs)
2003: Clinton Portis (1,591 yards, 14 TDs)
2004: Reuben Droughns (1,240 yards, 6 TDs)
2005: Mike Anderson (1,014 yards, 12 TDs)
2006: Tatum Bell (1,025 yards, 2 TDs)
That's what a zone blocking scheme can accomplish when afforded the right personnel. You can get Tatum Bell and 32-year-old Mike Anderson to the millennium mark promised land. Impressive as hell.
If we want to use the Falcons as an example, the Mike Mularkey era prominently featured power runs with Michael Turner. The Warrick Dunn years, on the other hand, were largely defined by the zone blocking scheme of Alex Gibbs, who was with the team from 2004 to 2006. Dunn topped 1,100 yards in all three seasons, and much of that had to do with his strong vision and ability to grind out tough yards in traffic.
How does Atlanta's current roster fit into Shanahan's scheme? Ryan, as I already mentioned, shouldn't have many issues. The other areas could be a little more interesting.
The most obvious mismatches on the roster would be Lamar Holmes, Peter Konz and Justin Blalock, all of whom have the physical makeup of classic power blockers. Conversely, smaller guys like Joe Hawley and Ryan Schraeder could be set up to excel in a ZBS. Now, does that mean Blalock loses his starting spot, or that Hawley is guaranteed to regain his starting spot at center? Probably not. But Blalock may change up his routine this offseason -- at the very least it will be an adjustment -- and Hawley may be primed for a bounce-back year provided he's fully recovered.
As far as running back is concerned, that's a little trickier. When you think of successful ZBS backs, guys that come to mind include Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster and Alfred Morris. First, these are bigger-bodied guys that can handle the punishment that comes with taking the yards that present themselves, as backs are expected to do in a ZBS. That doesn't inherently exclude shiftier guys, but the padding helps. And of course they have to read the play correctly.
It might not thrill you, but if the Falcons choose to retain Steven Jackson for the final year of his contract, he might not be a terrible option. Perhaps not ideal, but when compared with Antone Smith (poor fit) or Jacquizz Rodgers (really poor fit), having S-Jax handle a fraction of the team's touches wouldn't be the worst thing. How Devonta Freeman would fit in, I'm not sure, but I'd imagine he gets some looks.
Still, I also think it's likely Shanahan scraps the existing group of running backs in favor of ones he prefers as he did in Cleveland, acquiring Ben Tate, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West in the span of one offseason.
A Rough Road To Get Here
Looking back at Shanahan's career to this point, the young coordinator's accomplishments have been something of a mixed bag. He did well in Houston and found spurts of prouction in Washington, though both of those stints came under two already-established, offensive-minded head coaches in Papa Mike (still calling him that) and Kubiak. Other times, Shanahan had to deal with some combo of poor quarterback play (Grossman / Manziel) and overbearing superiors.
So in a sense it's hard to evaluate Shanahan. We do know Matt Ryan is the best quarterback he'll have worked with thus far, and he'll have the help of an Andre Johnson-caliber talent in Julio Jones. That alone will be enough to keep expectations fairly high for the guy.
But what this hire will really come down to is whether Atlanta can get its offensive line in order for the new running scheme. Without that, Shanahan's system falls apart. With it, the Falcons have the foundation they need to rediscover the running success so clearly missing under Dirk Koetter.