Kyle Shanahan figured coaching would be in his future. It was in his blood from birth with his father, Mike Shanahan, then the offensive coordinator at the University of Minnesota.
It was an aspect of life always discussed while he was growing up, maybe even talked about too much. And Shanahan did get a slight nudge into the coaching profession thanks to his academic performance in school.
"I think I always felt that way my whole life (about coaching), but that’s really the only thing I’ve had a great passion for," Shanahan said. "I was never the best student. I was really committed to sports and always did good enough in school. But football is what I lived and died. And my mom and sister have been mad at me and my dad probably every dinner we’ve ever had our entire life, because eventually they’ve got to tell us to stop talking about football."
Maybe he wasn’t the best student, but many would call Shanahan an offensive genius right now. Shanahan, with ascending quarterback Matt Ryan and game-changing receiver Julio Jones at his disposal, has the Atlanta Falcons boasting the league’s top offense at 478.8 yards per game, 83 more yards than the second-ranked offense in Dallas. The Falcons also are scoring a league-best 38 points per game, with a pair of pick-sixes from the defense contributing.
Shanahan has designed masterful plays leading to wide-open targets for Ryan. He's not force-feeding the ball to Jones, with 10 other receivers catching passes. The artwork of the scheme has painted a different picture, with the talk suddenly squashed regarding him being a "quarterback killer" and a stubborn coach unwilling to make the offense more friendly to the pocket-passing Ryan.
Now folks are starting to mention his name again as a hot head coaching candidate.
"I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing this long enough (and) I try not to listen to whether it’s good or bad," Shanahan said. "If you listen when it’s good, it’s going to affect you that much more when it’s bad.
"I know how this league works. I know it’s early in the year. And I know we’ve been doing good, and I’m proud of the guys for that. But it’s week to week. I’m really never going to feel satisfied until hopefully someday we can win a Super Bowl. Usually that’s the only team in the NFL that does feel happy. That’s why head coaches don’t look very happy all the time."
It seems only appropriate that Shanahan is riding a Rocky Mountain high into Sunday’s game against a familiar foe, the Denver Broncos. His father was the head coach there from 1995-2008 and led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Shanahan, a former Broncos ball boy, recalled his teen years in Denver.
"I went there and worked out at the Broncos' facility every day that school ended since I was a freshman in high school, and the guys I used to work out with were like Bill Romanowski," Shanahan said. "I carried my briefcase of vitamins around, also. Wasn’t trying to be something I wasn’t."
The current head coach of the Broncos, former Denver quarterback Gary Kubiak, was the one who allowed Shanahan to be the youngest offensive coordinator in the league at age 28 back in 2008, when Kubiak was then the head coach of the Houston Texans. Shanahan helped transform current Falcons backup Matt Schaub into the league's leading passer (4,770 yards in 2009).
"Kub was really good to me," Shanahan said. "I’m still somewhat young (36), but I was a lot younger then. When you’re young, everything is such a big deal. You haven’t been through everything. So, I think he had patience with me. I was probably a pain in the butt a lot. He listened and let me do a bunch."
Shanahan said it was around halfway through that first season as offensive coordinator in Houston when Kubiak allowed him to start directing the play-calling. Three coordinator jobs later, he’s in total control in Atlanta. And it’s up to Shanahan to sustain this offensive momentum as he prepares to face two of the league’s top defenses in Denver and Seattle on the road, back to back.
Building a strong rapport with Ryan has been a key component in this season's success. Falcons owner Arthur Blank told ESPN this week that from his vantage point, he notices a stronger personal relationship between Ryan and Shanahan.
Ryan, who admitted being overwhelmed by Shanahan’s offense last season, said the two are definitely on the same page despite being strong-minded individuals. Shanahan said of course he and Ryan have bonded over a few beers, but nothing out of the ordinary.
"The relationship with Matt (question) is almost as confusing to me as the no-huddle," Shanahan said with a smirk. "I’ve had a great relationship with Matt. ... Any relationship with any human being, the more you’re with someone, the better it gets -- unless you have a bad relationship, then the worse it gets. Matt was awesome from the first day we met. Each day I’m with him, we obviously get closer. Have a real fun time coaching him."
If the 3-1 Falcons avoid the same type of implosion they experienced after last season's 5-0 start, Shanahan definitely will be on track to be a head coach sooner than later. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn naturally wants great exposure for his staff, but Quinn’s is by no means encouraging Shanahan to look ahead.
"Definitely not something that needs to be discussed now," Quinn said. "When the appropriate time comes to have discussions about that -- not like the beginning of October or November -- it's not fair for him. And it's not fair for [coaches] around the league. We're just getting rolling. I think it's a better discussion tabled for in December. And if it gets to where people have the interest, then I can guide him or any of the guys the best that I can."