SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay had never met before McVay arrived for an interview with the Washington Redskins in 2010.
At the time, McVay was all of 24 years old and looking to land a job as an assistant somewhere in the NFL after spending the previous season with the Florida Tuskers of the United Football League. Shanahan, meanwhile, had already established himself as one of the league's brightest young offensive minds, serving as offensive coordinator for his father, Mike, after spending the previous two seasons in that role for the Houston Texans.
Shanahan and McVay were born almost six years apart, but it didn't take more than a few minutes for them to realize they shared a similar football world view.
"I was very fortunate when I got the chance to interview with Coach Shanahan and Kyle ... we had a little bit of a similar background," McVay said. "We were both able to speak the same language, and then once I got around Kyle -- it takes you about two minutes to realize what a bright offensive mind he is -- and really the next couple of years we continued to grow in our friendship, but then also really learning a lot from him, just the way that he’s able to scheme people up, the way he leads.
"He’s one of the guys that I respect as much as anybody in this business, and he’s been a huge influence on my coaching career."
The almost instant bond between Shanahan and McVay should be no surprise given their backgrounds and their next-level thirst for football knowledge. It's also not much of a surprise that those things resulted in Shanahan, 37, and McVay, 31, eventually becoming the NFL's two youngest head coaches. They will meet for the first time Thursday night at Levi's Stadium, when Shanahan's San Francisco 49ers host McVay's Los Angeles Rams.
And it will represent the third-youngest head-coaching matchup of the Super Bowl era. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the 25,359 combined days Shanahan and McVay have lived is younger than any other duo aside from Bill Cowher and David Shula when they met (twice) in 1992.
Growing up around the game
Retracing Shanahan and McVay's lives and careers can offer an easy explanation for how each arrived at this point earlier than many of their coaching counterparts.
For starters, both grew up in football-centric families. Mike Shanahan won two Super Bowls as the head coach of the Denver Broncos and ranks 14th all time in wins. John McVay, Sean's grandfather, was a personnel executive with the 49ers and one of the principal architects of the Niners' five Super Bowl victories.
Growing up around the game gave McVay and Shanahan a leg up on learning how to deal with an NFL locker room, in addition to an early understanding of the X's and O's. It also offered a chance to begin making connections around the league.
"It definitely helped them, especially with Kyle’s dad, Mike Shanahan, doing everything he did with the résumé he has, it definitely helped expedite it because those guys get the benefit of being around them a lot," said 49ers receiver Pierre Garcon, who played for McVay and Shanahan in Washington. "And Sean with his grandfather and just being around the building, picking up little things, and that definitely did help expedite that process for both of them. But they are also good coaches on their own."
When the time came for McVay and Shanahan to get their first opportunities in the league, it was the same coach who gave it to them: Jon Gruden, then with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Shanahan served as Gruden's offensive quality-control coach in 2004-05. McVay's first shot at an NFL job came in the same role under Gruden in 2008.
In Tampa, Shanahan and McVay learned a similar language. It would later lead to an easy conversation upon their first meeting in Washington.
Following footsteps in D.C.
Shanahan and McVay spent four seasons together with the Redskins. McVay climbed the ladder from quality-control coach to assistant tight ends coach to tight ends coach before Shanahan departed after the 2013 season.
During the course of a normal NFL week, coordinators delegate responsibilities to their staff. Shanahan quickly recognized McVay as someone who could handle more than most. A lot of that work was centered on short-yardage, goal line, red zone and two-minute situations.
By the time those things were part of the practice plan later in the week, Shanahan would go to McVay to discuss them. With a few days of lead time, McVay could get Shanahan caught up in about an hour.
"We were both kind of brought up the same way with Jon Gruden in those first two years," Shanahan said. "As soon as I got him in on an interview, I could tell within about five minutes that he was going to be a very good coach -- he was exactly what I wanted and he reminded me exactly how I was after two years with Gruden. He knew it all, he was very into his X’s and O’s part, and I always enjoyed him as a person. After our second year we made him the tight ends coach, and we had four good years there together and I consider him a good friend.”
After Shanahan left to become the coordinator in Cleveland and later Atlanta, McVay continued to climb the ladder in Washington, replacing Shanahan as offensive coordinator under new coach Jay Gruden, Jon's brother.
Although McVay was only 28 when he took over as offensive coordinator, his future as a head coach was obvious to his players.
As a position coach, McVay mostly dealt with three or four players at a time. One of the biggest tests for any coach aspiring to a top job is how he handles himself in front of a larger group. Niners tight end Logan Paulsen, who played for Shanahan and McVay in Washington, said the first time he saw McVay address the entire offense was when it clicked that he was listening to a future head coach.
"A lot of guys, they have the football knowledge but they don’t have the ability to get up in front of the group and speak and hold the room’s attention," Paulsen said. "The first time he got up as an OC in Washington, I thought, 'This guy has got the ability to do that, the guys respect him, they listen to him.' To me that was the moment."
Of course, just because Paulsen expected McVay to one day get there didn't mean he expected it to happen so soon. Shanahan's name had consistently bubbled up on lists of possible head coaches before he got his first opportunity this year. McVay's name landed on the radar only recently, but the Rams believed in his potential.
"I think you expect him to be there at some point, but his progression from offensive quality-control to head coach was like meteoric," Paulsen said. "It happened in like seven years -- that is kind of unheard of and very unprecedented. The youngest head coach, all those things, but he’s a guy who definitely deserves it and I’m really happy for him."
Time for a turnaround
Now Shanahan and McVay are charged with turning around a pair of franchises that haven't enjoyed much success of late.
From a football standpoint, Shanahan and McVay are taking what they've learned and applying it in similar ways. Their offenses bear a striking resemblance, though there's probably a bit more Gruden in McVay's scheme, while Shanahan leans on lessons from his father.
And one thing that both abide by is having answers for any football question -- no matter where or when. Paulsen said he has attended weddings at which McVay was also present, and they ended up spending a lot of the time talking football. Multiple Niners have made similar observations about Shanahan.
As far as personalities go, Paulsen and Garcon see some differences between the two, but not the same ones. Garcon called McVay a "smooth talker" and a little funnier than Shanahan. Paulsen said it's the opposite, calling Shanahan "a little more laid-back."
On Thursday night, Shanahan will be looking for his first victory as an NFL head coach. McVay is seeking his second. The pair keep in touch regularly, though they no longer have in-depth conversations about scheme now that they're rivals in the NFC West.
“He’s one of my closest friends, where you get to know him and really just have enjoyed spending time with him, getting to know what’s important to him as far as the family, the football; he’s a great dad, great husband, all those different things," McVay said. "But in terms of a football coach, he sees the game excellent. He’s got a great way about being able to scheme things up, understands football from a 22-man perspective where he understands all the little nuances both offensively and defensively and how to manipulate certain schemes that people are running.
"Really, he’s had a huge influence on some of the things that we believe in here, philosophically, on the offensive side of the football, and I think he’s a great coach.”
That admiration is mutual, and has been almost from the moment the league's two youngest coaches met more than seven years ago.