SANTA CLARA — There’s an alternate universe where 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan followed a different dream in a different sport.
“Basketball was my favorite,” Shanahan said of his childhood. “I always loved basketball. I think those are the best athletes, they’re the most fun to watch.
“That’s the one I wish I could have played.”
Alas, Shanahan — in no small part because of his lineage (his father, Mike, is a two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach) — was better suited for football.
But you can see the influences of those lost hoop dreams in the way his football teams play. Especially these Super Bowl-bound 49ers.
Shanahan still enjoys watching basketball. He’s not a die-hard fan, but, like the rest of us, he’ll tune into the NBA playoffs every year. And a few years ago, before he took over as the 49ers’ head coach, he took to a particular team:
Yes, as the 49ers head down to Miami to try to bring the Bay Area another championship in Super Bowl LIV, they’ll be guided by the principles and teachings of the most recent Bay Area champions.
“I just have always been a fan of them. Even before I got here, just watching how they play” Shanahan said. “I remember saying in Atlanta… that I wanted our receiver group to be similar to the Warriors.”
At the time, Shanahan wanted his team to emulate Golden State’s “Strength in Numbers” motto, which was first — pardon the pun — dubbed by Warriors coach Steve Kerr when came to the Bay in 2014.
The idea behind “Strength in Numbers” is that, unlike so many other teams in the league, the Warriors wouldn’t be reliant on one player to lead the way on a nightly basis. No, Kerr wanted the Warriors to utilize the power of the collective.
But in the act of trying to make his receivers more unselfish, more like the Warriors, Shanahan — whose Atlanta offense was the best in the NFL in 2016 — tapped into a larger truth. In order to be unselfish, you had to be versatile. It’s no good to be willing to do anything for your team unless you are capable of doing anything for your team.
And when he came to San Francisco, Shanahan built the 49ers with that as the guiding principle.
In turn, Shanahan’s Niners have become the vanguard of an irreversible movement around the NFL, just like the Warriors were in the NBA.
Watch an NBA game today, and the influences on the product are obvious — almost heavy-handed. Five years later, everyone is trying to play like the 2015 Warriors.
Those Golden State teams were playing positionless basketball. The point guard was a shooter and the center was the main distributor of the basketball — and, oh yeah, that guy was 6-foot-6.
With a cacophony of 3-point shots in a pick-heavy motion offense and a swarming, long, but not-all-that-tall defense in which everyone could guard anyone, the Warriors became a basketball revolution.
The versatility and unselfishness of the Warriors’ five made them unpredictable, and that unpredictability made them ever-so-dangerous.
The 49ers are doing the same thing in football.
“He’s created a positionless offense,” Alex Rollins, who breaks down 49ers plays on his popular YouTube channel, said. “You get five skill position players on every play — tight end, running backs, wide receivers, and in his offense, any of those guys can play any of those positions.”
And the man who moves around most often is fullback Kyle Juszczyk — the Draymond Green of the Niners.
He’s not a two-way player like Green — those don’t exist in the NFL anymore — but on the offensive end, Juszczyk’s smarts, jack-of-all-trades play, and willingness to do the dirty work makes him indispensable to the 49ers in ways that other teams couldn’t quite understand — just like Green for the Warriors.
Now, the fullback — a position that was fading from the pass-happy NFL in recent years — is typically used as a lead blocker in the run game. Juszczyk certainly does that — he’s an elite blocker. But he also presents a mismatch to the defense on all passing plays, lining up all across the field and taking on every role imaginable. Statistically speaking, he was the 49ers’ most effective receiver this year, though he only caught 20 balls.
“We call him the offensive weapon for a reason,” quarterback Nick Mullens said.
All those roles and responsibilities can be too much for some players, but Juszczyk, who was one of Shanahan’s first signings for the 49ers, has taken it all in stride.
“We put a lot on him, and we haven’t put too much on him yet,” Shanahan said of Juszczyk. “He’s been able to handle it each time. I’ll say that’s because of his Harvard education, but he’s a hell of a football player who doesn’t get nervous about anything.”
It’s not just Juszczyk. Tight end George Kittle is the 49ers’ best (and most willing) run blocker, and San Francisco’s best rushing plays this year have been when wide receivers and tight ends carry the ball. Rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel, in particular, has become a key rusher in Shanahan’s offense as of late — he’s averaging an incredible 14 yards per carry since Week 13.
The multiplicity of the 49ers is such that they will often run the same plays, but with the same players in a different position. Does the defense key in on the man or the formation? I couldn’t tell you, but neither can every defensive coach in the league.
The 49ers, despite not being part of any conversation about “the league’s most talented offenses” were second in the NFL in points this year.
The Niners even have a motion-style offense like the Warriors.
Shanahan loves pre-snap movement. No one in the NFL uses it more, and it’s not even close. On early 80 percent of the 49ers plays — there’s a Niner moving around the field in a predetermined way. This forces the defense to show its hand, in one way or another.
“I don’t know why every other team in the NFL isn’t doing it,” Rollins said. “It’s free information.”
But seeing Shanahan’s success, the rest of the NFL is starting to come around to his way of thinking. It’s a copycat league, after all.
According to Pro Football Focus, in 2018, the average NFL team used pre-snap motion four percent of the time. The 49ers were moving before 71 percent of snaps.
This year, the league average has jumped to 47 percent.
Which teams used pre-snap motion/shifts most often in 2019? [via PFF]
1. SF (79%)
2. BAL (71%)
3. NE (64%)
T4. KC (61%)
T4. TEN (61%)
6. DAL (60%)
7. CAR (58%)
T8. DEN (55%)
T8 LAC (55%)
10. PIT (50%)
T28. MIA (35%)
T28. ARI (35%)
30. NYJ (32%)
31. BUF (31%)
32. JAX (25%)
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) January 24, 2020
An offense where anyone can strike from anywhere on the field and everyone is moving around all the time?
Best of luck stopping that.
Remember when we were saying that about the Dubs?
“You’ve got an MVP, a defensive MVP, guys who seem really not to care how it gets done,” Shanahan said of the Warriors. “They all just go out there and ball and see where the weakness in the defense is, and wherever that ends up, that guy shoots. That’s a lot how I see offense.”
And given the success of the Warriors and how they captured the Bay Area — and the entire world’s — imagination, it’s clear that the 49ers, under Shanahan, have the kind of offense we want to see, too.