When Kyle Shanahan became the Washington Redskins' offensive coordinator in 2010 under his father, Mike, he brought in young offensive minds Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur. Now that all three are NFL head coaches, the former Redskins assistants will have a big say in who wins the NFC.
Shanahan, now the San Francisco 49ers coach, might have provided key breaks for his former colleagues, but it's McVay who has accomplished the most thus far. The Los Angeles Rams coach has 24 regular-season wins, two postseason appearances and a Super Bowl trip in two seasons. LaFleur got his big break this offseason when he was named coach of the Green Bay Packers.
Intrigue surrounds all three this season: McVay, 33, is coming off a Super Bowl appearance; Shanahan, 39, hopes to get a full season with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo; and LaFleur, 39, will be working with 35-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Here's what they had to say on a variety of topics, including their start in Washington:
Together in Washington
Could you tell you had a special group in Washington?
Shanahan: Definitely. We were all young, but we kept up with each other. We were all eager. We weren't just studying what we were doing -- our own plays -- we were always trying to push the envelope and do different things and challenge each other. I would get so frustrated when everyone acted like I brought my friends here. It drove me crazy. These are all guys who got jobs and were really good. That's why my dad and I needed them.
McVay: The biggest thing I knew right away is that you could see coach [Mike] Shanahan had so much experience, and his record and what he had done spoke for itself. Then you're around Kyle and realize the next-level knowledge, the way he's looking at the game in a very sophisticated way. He's not seeing 11 pieces move, he's seeing all 22 and understanding the intricacies of what they're all doing. In a good way it pushes you. I was pretty green at the time and had a long way to go to be at their level.
Did you ever envision all three of you being head coaches?
LaFleur: No. I was just trying to be the best quarterback coach I could be. We had some really good coaches on the staff, not only Kyle but his dad taught me so much in terms of defensive football. In order to be the best coach, you have to learn both sides of the ball.
McVay: I don't know if you ever look at it like that. I was a quality control coach. If you said, "Would you ever want to be a head coach?" I'd say sure. But you try to produce in the present. But if you said, "Would it shock you if Kyle and Matt are head coaches?" No. Kyle was always on a fast track and the more you're around Matt, you realize what a great coach he was.
Working with the Redskins taught me _____ .
Shanahan: This league is very tough. It doesn't matter how good you think you are, you have to go through these situations. Things don't always work out. You need to realize all you can do is do as good as you can. You can't have your self-worth built in with this. People will judge you left and right. You have to be confident in yourself. Things were so easy for me in Houston. Then I went to Washington and was thinking it would be the same way and you have to do things totally different and fight some extreme uphill battles. [The Redskins went 24-40 and 0-1 in the playoffs during Shanahan's four seasons.] It was all very hard and at times you don't think it's worth it. But man, Washington helped me become who I am.
McVay: There are so many different things you learn; it's really a way of doing things weekly -- how you study tape, how you put together a game plan, how you have philosophies and have flexibility knowing it's about your players. I'm so lucky in a short amount of time to be around great coaches you can emulate. I don't think you realize you're picking it up until you see how you game plan and see what they're looking at and what are their core beliefs that show up Sundays when you're in crunch situations.
Dealing with QBs
With QBs, what is your deal-breaker -- the trait you can't tolerate?
Shanahan: If a guy is scared to get hit, he has no chance to play in this league. You have to use your brain, and there's so much going on in the heat of battle, your mind has to be so clear when the ball is snapped, to understand coverages and throw the ball in tight windows to get the ball to the right spots.
LaFleur: I look for natural throwers, just smooth, fluid deliveries. The greatest throwers of all time all do it in their own way. There's a natural throwing ability among most of the greatest ever to play the position -- the [Tom] Bradys, the Rodgerses. That's one thing when I start evaluating college quarterbacks coming out, I look and see if they have a natural throwing motion. If they don't, I lose interest pretty quickly.
McVay: The biggest thing is consistent accuracy. I'm looking for accuracy, timing and location and give guys a chance to run after the catch and being able to change arm angles. That's No. 1.
The most difficult thing to get rookie QBs to learn is _____ .
Shanahan: How to play in the pocket, especially for guys now. A lot of guys don't hold on to the ball long in college. You don't do as much play-action, especially in the spread systems, and the defensive lines don't even rush except at a few of these big schools because they're so tired and there are so many plays.
McVay: The intricacies of what a defense could present and how it affects decision-making based on situations. The game has so many. A game usually has 65 to 75 snaps and the amount of different things based on the situation and the defensive coordinator is a lot of information.
LaFleur: You get in this league and now you have to step in the huddle and depending on the system, the playcalls can get verbose. That challenge of trying to teach them the command that needs to happen within the huddle and being a master of cadence. A lot now use silent counts or claps when they want the football. We always talk about this, that the cadence for an offense is a weapon. It's an art and it's an art you learn over time. How do you become a master of a cadence?
The most important aspect of a QB/coach relationship is _____ .
LaFleur: Communication. What do you like? What do you feel comfortable with and what don't you like? This is the toughest position in sports so the guy better be comfortable pulling the trigger. If you're not comfortable, you won't be confident, and if you're not confident, the play will die.
Trends, screwups and adding plays
What trends are coming on offense?
McVay: Motion has always been a core part of the offense. There have been increases in the use of jet-fly motion. The biggest thing we saw a change in was the increase and utilization of the fake jet or jet sweep motion.
Shanahan: The jet sweep and fake jet is what changed so much the last couple years to where people are doing a ridiculous amount of that in particular. That's making it hard on defenses. If you're in a 3 [WR] by 1 [RB] set and you do jet and now it's really a 2 by 2. So it's the amount of different calls on a defense ... it really messes up a lot of rules. That, to me, makes the defense have to simplify more, which [they] don't want to do because then an offense knows too much of what they're doing.
Five years from now, NFL offenses will all have ____ in common
McVay: The league goes in trends and I don't think five years ago I would have been able to tell you fly motion would be a big part of the league and the zone-read in 2012. ... But fundamentally in this league it's about running the ball well, being able to protect up front and spacing and timing and rhythm in the pass game.
What's your process for adding to your playbook?
Shanahan: It's funny how guys look at that because everyone pictures it's like "Waterboy," like we're carrying around this yellow notebook with all our secret plays drawn up on it. There are only so many ways you can move five eligibles and there are only so many coverages, whether it's zone or man. How many ways do you want to disperse the field? I rarely think there's some new thing. You don't want to just be that person that wakes up on Monday and watches everyone else's offense and then comes in to the players and says, "I have these 80 plays that are awesome. Let's run them!" It's how does it fit into your team and what are you trying to do? Does this play set up another play? That to me is everything I do.
McVay: A lot of plays we run are the product of what someone else did and we maybe put our own flavor on it. We see a lot of the same stuff show up week in, week out. We'll watch a lot of other teams that are having success. If they're doing something that works, you're not afraid to steal a good idea. Off the top of my head, the teams that consistently operate at a high level the last couple years you look at are the Chiefs, the Saints, the Patriots.
The time I screwed up the most calling plays, I learned _____ .
Shanahan: The first playcall I made for Rex Grossman when we benched Donovan [McNabb] in Detroit [in 2010]. We were getting frustrated not moving the ball and Rex's first play I called a seven-step drop. We made an aggressive decision and the first play I called is such an aggressive play. I forgot who it was, but the defensive end beat our tackle and stripped him and they got a fumble for a touchdown and it was like, "Holy crap, did that end fast." I should have called a screen to start. I should have been more patient.
LaFleur: Last year [at] Buffalo we went into that game ... with almost a play-not-to-lose mentality. The Bills' defense doesn't get enough recognition; they're much better than I thought. Extremely sound. My mindset is: How do we win as a team. Sometimes you know you have to score a bunch of points. Sometimes it's, "Hey, if we take care of the ball, I like our chances." That was one of those games for me. They had a rookie quarterback [Josh Allen]. We went in with the mindset of, "Let's not turn it over." We turned it over three times. [But] you don't get explosive plays unless you call shot plays. If you don't call them, you probably won't get them. You've still got to be aggressive.
McVay: I remember the first year calling the plays when we played the Jets and we fell behind and I didn't have a great plan for a lot of the known passing situations, mixing up concepts. I felt I was calling the same thing and you become predictable.
The craziest place/time where I thought of a play
McVay: Sometimes the best ideas come to you when you're driving, when you're not pressing as hard. Sometimes you're reaching so hard for an idea that it doesn't come organically. Or sometimes you get these crazy ideas when you're delirious, too. I've had some really dumb ideas late at night throwing s--- off the wall and seeing what sticks. This past year we came up with the crazy reverse action that Josh Reynolds had a 19-yard run [on] in the NFC Championship Game. We used it at a big moment. That came late at night when you're throwing s--- off the wall. That's one idea that actually [worked].
Adversaries, mentors and peers
Which coach's defense is the toughest to read and attack?
LaFleur: There are so many guys and every system is different, but I look at Vic Fangio. Just the fronts and the multiple looks you get from him. That's incredibly difficult. Shoot, Indianapolis last year we knew exactly what they were going to do to us and we didn't have a lot of success because they were so sound. They stuffed the run out of a two-safety defense and played extremely fast.
"Well, I would say thank you for the compliment. ... You hope that's the case, you hope you are a challenging team to play, you want to be tough to prepare for because they're tough to prepare for." Vic Fangio, now Denver's head coach, on praise for his schemes
Shanahan: My hardest has probably always been Vic Fangio. He does so many things with his personnel groupings that he puts you in a bind with protections. He ties a lot of stuff together. Playing against him, I feel he packages stuff very similar to how I would think. [Bill] Belichick is very similar. They do it in a different style. You know they don't just run their defenses. They figure out what you're doing and then they think about how to stop what you're doing and that's very similar to how I am. I don't just run my offense. I have no idea what I'm going to call until I know what defense I'm visualizing and trying to attack. It's fun.
McVay: For us, I think Fangio and the Bears did an outstanding job of a sound scheme with versatility mixed with great players. And clearly what New England did down the stretch was impressive. Those are the two defenses that gave us the most trouble. I thought the Saints were excellent as well.
The person I go to for advice or use as a sounding board is ____ .
Shanahan: My dad. He's the guy I talk to for advice, but it's also the people I work with. Those are the guys I bounce everything off of all the time. Matt LaFleur for the longest time. Sean McVay when we were in Washington. Mike McDaniel has been with me the longest and the guy I probably bounce the most stuff off. The line coaches you work with. Chris Foerster is a guy I always respected for his football knowledge. But it's always my dad.
LaFleur: I still use the guys I'm closest with -- Sean and Kyle, Zac Taylor. I'm always talking to guys on my staff, Nathaniel Hackett and Mike Pettine, who sat in this seat. But there's really no former coach. I will say it was great this summer because I worked a camp in California and I ran into Mike Shanahan and I was peppering him with questions all night long.
McVay: Usually it's relevant who the opponent is. I'd share more with Kyle if we didn't play them twice a year. Dick Vermeil has been a great mentor and resource for me. The coolest thing about being a head coach is the platform it provides to meet unique people. I've gotten to know Doc Rivers a little bit. Being in L.A., you meet guys like Al Michaels; he's so impressive. You get a chance to meet people who can help you in a leadership role. With Doc, we naturally crossed paths because we'd be at the same restaurants and we connected a little. He's an impressive guy. I've had a chance to connect to a few NBA coaches. What I learned is the same things I learn from any great coach: It's always about relationships and how you manage personalities and how you handle adversity and what are your core principles.