When the Falcons and 49ers square off this weekend, there will be plenty at stake for both teams. San Francisco wants to hang on to its playoff spot and make some noise in the postseason after a slow start to the season, while the Falcons would like to go through the 49ers to make a playoff push of their own. This matchup won’t lack for intrigue, and it also won’t lack for Falcons and 49ers players and coaches looking to earn a victory over a team they once played or coached for.
Here’s a look at who I mean.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan
I don’t really need to introduce Shanny, right?
The architect of the record-breaking 2016 offense that propelled the Falcons all the way to the Super Bowl, Shanahan left Atlanta to take over as the head coach of the 49ers and left a fanbase sharply divided between appreciation for his offense and bitterness over his role in the team’s collapse. His reputation as an offensive genius hasn’t been dented by the passage of time, but opinions on his ability as a head coach are maybe a bit more divided after the 49ers also fell down in the Super Bowl and have otherwise struggled to play up to their talent.
Right now, at least, San Francisco is on the rise, having won four of their last five games. We’ll see more of the Shanahan offense than we ever want to on Sunday, which I hope doesn’t kick up lousy memories for anyone.
Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel
A possible future head coach in this league—if you’ve coached under Shanahan you’ve got a shot, given that Matt LaFleur is doing in Green Bay—McDaniel was part of Shanahan’s staff in Atlanta as an offensive assistant. He’s been steadily climbing since then, but he was on the short list of coaches fans were clamoring for as a Shanahan replacement.
WR Mohamed Sanu
It was hard not to love Sanu in Atlanta. The personable receiver was a key receiver in Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian’s offenses before he became a bit more of an afterthought in Dirk Koetter’s first season, and he managed 225 grabs, 2,207 yards and 14 touchdowns in three-and-a-half years with the Falcons.
You would have thought a meteor was going to land on Mercedes-Benz Stadium when the Falcons traded him to the Patriots for (I still can’t believe this) a second round pick, but obviously Russell Gage has stepped into a larger role and Sanu has mostly been a valuable role player since. Since that trade, Sanu has 58 grabs for 571 yards and two touchdowns, while Gage has over 200 catches for over 1,650 yards and seven touchdowns. The trade was absolutely the right move, but it’ll be nice to see an old fan favorite again, even if he’s playing for the other team.
C Alex Mack
One of the greatest free agent signings in team history, Mack joined up after the Mike Person experiment fell apart at center in 2015 and was the stellar pivot for some good offensive lines from 2016-2018, and one of the team’s few consistently good linemen from 2019-2020. Mack remains an effective starter and will end his career, whenever he does, as one of the better centers in Falcons history and one of the better centers in the NFL during his run. It’s hard not to feel tremendous fondness for him for what he did for the Falcons, but it will be fun to see if he can contain Grady Jarrett Sunday.
You can throw one-year Falcons reserve Tom Compton in here as well—he’s the current starting right tackle for the 49ers—and ex-practice squad player Daniel Brunskill, who is holding down right guard. Shanahan tends to take offensive linemen with him wherever he goes, and it’s no surprise this roster is dotted with former Falcons as a result.
RB Brian Hill
A piece of the muddled Falcons running back platoon from 2017-2020, Hill ran 198 times for 945 yards and three touchdowns in a part-time role for Atlanta. In the mess that was the 2020 season, Hill was the team’s most effective back on a per-snap basis, but did not wind up staying with the Falcons as Arthur Smith and company swept into town. He’s currently on the team’s practice squad, but we might see him Sunday.
RB Mike Davis
While Kyle Shanahan was rolling along in Atlanta, Mike Davis was starting his career in San Francisco, playing third fiddle behind the likes of Carlos Hyde and Shaun Draughn. His career wouldn’t really take off until he joined Seattle, where he got his first taste of extended action and thrived, but I’m sure he has some fond memories of the place it all began and will look forward to running all over them on Sunday.
QB Josh Rosen
Josh Ballinger Lippinscott Rosen, which I’ll never get tired of, spent late 2020 and the offseason of 2021 with the 49ers as a practice squad player and third quarterback. He was expected to get a shot to revive his career as Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup, but the team drafted Trey Lance and he instead wound up in Atlanta, where he’s served as Matt Ryan’s backup throughout the season after A.J. McCarron was lost to an injury in preseason.