Lil Wayne and a scheme: Kyle Shanahan resets the 49ers' culture

Tony Avelar/AP

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A few days into this year's training camp, San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk and running back Jerick McKinnon were sitting in a meeting room with run-game coach Mike McDaniel going over some plays when another coach came tearing around the corner yelling.

"Bro, did you see on Twitter they said I threw an interception during install?" the coach exclaimed in exasperation.

Juszczyk, McKinnon and McDaniel shook their heads and burst out laughing.

"I just hit Jet [McKinnon] on the leg like, 'That’s our head coach,'" Juszczyk said.

In his second season in that role after entering the league as an assistant in 2004, Kyle Shanahan is clearly more comfortable now being the man in charge.

To reach that point, he has struck a balance between being relatable, never short on swagger and "one of the guys" and being the forward-thinking X's and O's expert who never hesitates to tell his team exactly what's on his mind.

For a 38-year-old first-time head coach, that can be a fine line to walk, but so far, at least, it has worked, perhaps because he's remained 100 percent true to his personality from the day he arrived in the Bay Area.

"I think there’s more than one way to coach a team, and he has a very unique way of doing it, and it really appeals to a lot of guys," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Guys understand that he shows his human side. He makes mistakes just like everybody else. He’s the first to admit it, but he also coaches guys. He’ll show a guy a mistake. When somebody’s technique is off, he’ll coach from every angle, so I think everybody respects him and understands and appreciates that."

Going deep on the details

Long before Shanahan arrived in San Francisco, he had established a reputation for his creative offensive schemes. There was little question that he would bring something new to a Niners offense that had grown stale before his arrival.

Almost from the moment Shanahan arrived, his players were taken aback by the level of detail Shanahan provides and demands.

During organized team activities in the spring, when there's more time to teach, Shanahan met with his tight ends and quarterbacks to break down some film. Normally, a coach will take around 30 seconds to break down a play.

On that day, Shanahan selected one third-down play and picked it apart from every possible angle for the next 45 minutes. He showed each player what to do against man coverage, then Cover 3, then Cover 4, then Cover 2. The group watched the play approximately 100 times, with Shanahan offering tips to each tight end on what his stance should look like, how his release off the line should look and how to attack the defender if he's playing under, over or outside the tight end in each of those coverages. He also broke down how to attack the defender if he's flat-footed or if he opens his hips.

"I’ve definitely had some great coaches in the past, but I’ve never seen somebody break down one little play the way that Kyle does," receiver Trent Taylor said. "It’s pretty special."

"Special" was the word multiple 49ers players used to describe Shanahan's ability to break down film. Shanahan's coaching points aren't limited to offense, either. He can just as easily transition to showing a cornerback a small detail about footwork while playing outside leverage as he can teach a receiver how to run a route.

"He’s incredible," Sherman said. "He’s a savant in that regard. He has a great understanding of his scheme, how to manipulate scheme and how to help other people understand how the scheme is being manipulated and where the holes are and when somebody makes an adjustment, where the new hole is, etc., etc. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever seen at that."

'Street cred' goes a long way

At the beginning of each Niners practice, Shanahan can be found on the sideline playing catch with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, general manager John Lynch or another member of the staff. Shanahan isn't just playing catch, though. He's warming up. He’s getting ready for his other job as all-time, walk-through scout-team QB.

“It’s the best thing about being a head coach," Shanahan said, laughing. "It’s also fun to try things you try to coach the quarterback on and do stuff. ... It’s fun to be over there with the guys and talk about stuff and what you see. I think it helps both sides.”

That isn't the only thing from practice with Shanahan’s fingerprints on it. Nick Kray, Shanahan's assistant, who also goes by DJ Kray, handles the playlist. The musical selection is meant to cater not just to Shanahan’s players' tastes but also his own.

Just before the start of training camp, Shanahan received a care package from Lil Wayne, one of his favorite rappers. In May, former NFL quarterback Chris Simms let it slip that Shanahan named his son Carter after the New Orleans-based rapper. Simms and Shanahan are close friends from their days together at the University of Texas, though Shanahan said his affinity for Wayne wasn't the only reason for his son's name.

When word of that got back to Lil Wayne (given name Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.), he got in touch with Shanahan via receiver Pierre Garcon. Wayne sent along an autographed poster and copy of the album "The Carter IV" for Shanahan and a signed poster and copy of "The Carter III" for his 8-year-old son.

"I enjoy the hell out of that," Juszczyk said. "He’s just very relatable. We have a young team, and to have a coach who has street cred like that, it’s just -- I don’t know -- it’s just easier to take things from him because you feel like he knows where you’re coming from."

Keeping it real

In the opening days of training camp, Sherman was working his way back from an Achilles injury. In his first padded practice, he lined up to take a one-on-one rep against receiver Marquise Goodwin, who is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the league. Goodwin blew past Sherman and caught a long pass. Video of the play soon hit social media and went viral.

The next day, Shanahan used the play as a coaching point, not to call out Sherman for being beaten but to laud him for his willingness to step into a difficult spot so soon after his return to the field.

The message was clear: It’s OK to fail. Work on your craft, ignore the noise, and get better. Along with that message, Shanahan tells his players to "overcome coaching," a phrase he said he picked up in his time as an assistant with the Houston Texans. On the surface, that might sound like he's telling his players to freestyle and go out on their own. That's not the case.

It’s Shanahan’s way of telling them, "Don't be a robot." The thinking is that there's only so much coaching someone can do, and occasionally it's on the players to make something happen when things aren't perfect.

"You got to know how to talk to your players," tight end Garrett Celek said. "You got to know who you’re dealing with. And I think he does a really good job of talking to us like men. He expects a lot out of us, but he also gives us respect. We give him respect back."

Much of that respect comes from Shanahan's refusal to sugarcoat things. He gives honest evaluations to the media, just like he does to his players' faces. He wants players who are willing and able to handle the unvarnished truth as he sees it.

After the Week 1 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in which he had his worst game as a Niner, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Shanahan went through the film. Just like he would with any player on the roster, Shanahan provided unfiltered feedback, which has become a hallmark of the coach-quarterback relationship.

“He’s very honest,” Garoppolo said. “As a player, you love to see your coach like that. He’s not giving you any B.S. or anything. He’s going to tell you exactly. If you mess something up, he’s going to tell you you messed something up. You’ve got to appreciate that part of it."

Resetting a broken 49ers culture undoubtedly hasn't been as easy as Shanahan has made it look. A year ago, Shanahan was still getting his bearings, figuring out how to delegate responsibility and manage his time. Now, the locker room has reached a point where it polices itself, and players understand what is expected of them.

Of course, creating such an atmosphere won't mean much if winning doesn't soon follow.

"Team meetings are always very entertaining," Juszczyk said. "When he gets into his football mode and gets into the X’s and O’s and breaking down a play, just as a football nut and a guy who loves football, you just drink it in because it’s like, ‘Wow, this is incredible the knowledge he has.’ At the same time, he definitely keeps things light and fun. I think he does a great job of balancing the two."