Kyle Shanahan’s Carbonara
A culinary guide to the NFL’s best offensive system
What follows is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote from “The Playbook vol 2.”
«If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they oughta let you shop for the groceries!».
It’s been more than twenty years since Bill Parcells expressed his frustration towards the New England Patriots’ front office interference in the team’s roster management. Regardless of “Big Tuna”’s quarrels with Robert Kraft, this iconic quote underlines the similarities between two apparently different jobs, the chef and the football coach. Think about it: just like a chef, a coach has a staff to coordinate, has to manage stress and long shifts, has to work an Sundays. Most importantly, a chef has to come up with recipes and has to select the best ingredients to cook those recipes with. Just like the best chefs are renowned for a recipe or a culinary style, NFL coaches differ from each other in terms of ingredients and preparation. What would be Wink Martindale’s workhorse dish? Probably something extra spicy like the blitzes he unleashes on opposing quarterbacks. It’s even easier to picture Jason Garrett serving the blandest, saddest plate of boiled broccoli you’ll ever taste, which would stille be a more satisfying and thrilling experience than watching punt after punt from the Giants offense.
In the gigantic food court that is the NFL we can find tens of ever evolving tactical recipes, some mouth watering, some disgusting — still looking at you, Giants. Right now, there’s a recipe that is all the rage on the offensive side of the ball.
It’s a simple recipe, which has been handed down from one generation to the next, gaining more and more success. A family recipe jealously guarded but in any case continuously modernized, increasingly followed and imitated in the various restaurants of the league. We have already talked about this recipe in the first The Playbook and in a certain sense we could not do otherwise, because its popularity makes it impossible to understand the current NFL without what we will call the Shanahan family carbonara.
Shanahan like Kyle, the current head coach of the 49ers, but even more Shanahan like Mike, Kyle’s father and true inventor of the recipe we are going to get to know. To get a taste of this dish just watch any NFL game, as next year eight NFL teams (49ers, Rams, Packers, Vikings, Bengals, Falcons, Browns, Seahawks and Jets) will have their offensive plays called by a coach belonging to this coaching tree. And it doesn’t stop there, because there is not a single attack in the NFL that is not even marginally influenced by the success of this offensive recipe. In short, everyone wants to cook Kyle Shanahan’s carbonara, but before tasting it, let’s try to explain this culinary parallel.
First of all, the carbonara makes everyone agree. It is difficult to find someone who does not like it, just as it is not easy to find someone who disdains the tactical system of the Shanahans. Second, carbonara is rather simple to make. What we are about to know is a system popularised by its relative simplicity of execution. As incredibly complex and detailed as it is, this offensive system is the easiest for an NFL quarterback to master. For this reason, and for reasons that we will deepen in this chapter, the Shanahans’ system manages to elevate the game of the QBs who have to execute it, turning very limited quarterbacks into passable starters, average passers into Pro Bowlers, and excellent players into MVPs.
Carbonara is a “simple” recipe, which manages to extract an incredible taste by combining a few ingredients. The same can be said of this offense: this system has now evolved reaching heights of arabesque sophistication, but at its core we find the same two or three basic simple ingredients, just like eggs pecorino cheese and guanciale (italian bacon) in the carbonara. These basic ingredients are perfectly recognizable in all the branches that this offensive philosophy has taken, but what makes the discourse incredibly interesting — while in a certain sense deepening the carbonara metaphor — is that every single exponent of this coaching tree has given his own twist to the recipe.
There are those who put more egg yolks than egg whites in the carbonara, those who add parmesan to the pecorino, and those who prefer short to long pasta. Likewise, Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and all the other coaches we will know in this chapter have developed their own version of the system.
Are you ready? Bon appetit!
The Original Recipe
Although this system has never been given a catchy nickname like West Coast offense, Air Raid or Run ‘n Shoot (or Carbonara) — it is usually referred to as outside zone / play action or wide zone / boot, which not accidentally are also the main ingredients. It’s crazy to think that in the homeland of marketing and branding no one has been able to come up with a less cumbersome formula, but what matters is that on the pitch these two elements — outside zone and bootleg, run plays and run fakes, blend in a way perfect, like pecorino and eggs forming that delicious carbonara cream. The ingredients of the Carbonara à la Shanahan are precisely these: run plays to the outside and and fake runs that turn in to play action passes. These ingredients had been sitting on the NFL tactical shelf for ages before they were systemically married by three decisive characters in the history of the NFL: Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak and Alex Gibbs. In the chapter “The pains of young Sean” we had already told you how the three found themselves in Denver in the 90s and how their system had taken hold. Shanahan was the team’s head coach, Kubiak the offensive coordinator and Alex Gibbs the offensive line coach. The three will decide to base their system on runs attacking (or menacing to attack) the edge of the line. Exploiting more agile and less pachydermic than average offensive linemen, these plays force the defense to expand in the direction of the race and thus open a gap that allows the running back to find space beyond the defensive line. Despite what the name suggests, infact, this space will not necessarily be found on the outside, along the sideline, because in most cases the defense will overplay the outside path so much that it will be forced to leave space in the center, so the running back will have the possibility to make a “cutback” and return to the center of the field.
Both outside and wide zone runs (two slightly dissimilar but still closely related run plays) share both a lateral flow and a “reactive” nature: just like a Ju-Jitzu master, they inflict pain by using the opponent’s strenght against themselves: if the defense is closing the outside, the running back will choose an inside path and viceversa.
The defense also determines the type of blocks the offensive line will use. The wide zone is based on a system of paired blocks called “double teams” or “combo blocks”. In a nutshell, two blockers handle the defensive lineman placed in front or between them until one of them manages to “seal” him (reaching or scoop blocking) internally. At that point, the free O-lineman releases and goes “looking for work” on the second level of the defense, exerting punishment on a linebacker or an unlucky safety. If everything goes as planned and the running back reads the blocks correctly, there’s not much the defense can do to stop it. This coordination between the offensive linemen makes the outside zones the most “choreographic” run in football, just like dancing bears in a circus, the offensive linemen move in sync and dominate by collaboration rather than the pure and simple physical domination required by other more brutal and “in your face” styles of runs. This style of running worked so well it led the Broncos to two Super Bowls. The secret of the system is not only the quality of the running scheme, but also the complementarity between runs and passes. The second ingredient of the recipe concerns the passing game and in particular the play action. In the NFL no single play, however well thought out it is, can work over and over again: eventually the defense will be able to adjust and dismantle it. It is therefore essential to have a counter (a “constraint play” as the current lingo has it), a complement to your main play, which in the case of the wide zone are first and foremost bootlegs.
Bootlegs start out exactly like an outside run, with the QB turning his back to the defense and the line moving sideways. Only as the quarterback and running back cross each other’s path, the former holds the ball and rolls to the side opposite to what turned out to be not a run, but a run fake. By the time the defenders notice the feint, it’s too late. With all the defensive front desperately slipping towards the (fake) run, the opposite side, the one towards which the quarterback is running, remains unmanned, so the QB has space and time to launch “on the move” towards receivers who sprint towards the areas unguarded thanks to the run fake. It’s a gorgeous dynamic in its simplicity, and it’s maddening to face for a defense that is stressed in opposite directions. The last ingredient — the guanciale — is sort of the cherry on top and varies slightly from one coach to another, but is still always closely linked to the other two. For example, some teams use an additional fake: run fake, ball to the quarterback who fakes the long pass and then taps the ball to the running back for a screen pass. Another important and very popular guanciale-like ingredient among these coaches are jet sweeps: at the moment of the snap a receiver sprints at full speed behind the QB, sometimes he is entrusted with the ball, and in that case we speak of jet sweeps, other times that jet player works only as a decoy to distract one or more defenders and distract attention from the running back, which will have more space to run. The secret, in this system, is not only the quality of the ingredients taken individually, but the harmony with which they blend perfectly. It is a Gattopardesque (Gattopardo being a famous XIX century italian novel) system in which everything changes while everything stays the same: the dynamics of wide zone and bootlegs are so similar that for the defense there is no way to understand what is about to hit them until even a couple of seconds after the snap. These attacks are often called run centric and the reason is legitimate given the centrality of outside zone. However, this is a limiting definition, because especially in the latest versions of the system the real damage to the defenses comes thanks to the deep and intermediate passes generated by the play action. Defenses overload the scrimmage line, linebackers rush
forward to seek the tackle only to see the ball thrown overhead towards a free receiver. In the first The Playbook we saw the flood concept (the combination of a deep, an intermediate and a short route that “flood” one side of the field), which is indeed the ideal complement to the outside zone, but there are several other types of play action designed to punish the aggressiveness of linebackers. One of them is the Drift Concept, which is illustrated below.
It is these simple and often limited to just one half of the field reads that make the system so quarterback friendly. Statistical “doping” for quarterbacks is what has finally made the system popular in the NFL after years of struggling to establish itself. Despite the glories of Denver and the excellent results obtained by Shanahan, Gibbs and Kubiak in their subsequent stops, the NFL took a long time to realize the real potential of this system. The Shanahan’s has long remained a respectable restaurant, but it took a while for it to explode in a McDonald’s like franchise. In the early 2000s and 2010s the NFL was dominated by either “traditional” versions of the West Coast Offense, old school, smashmouth running games and early versions of spread attacks with many receivers stretching the field. Offenses often managed by brilliant and flawless “field generals” like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. The NFL has spent decades hopelessly looking for the new Brady, only to realise that perhaps it was smarter to rely on a system that knew how to be devastating without Tom Brady under center. The league finally opted for the simpler solution, and the credit for convincing it goes to Mike’s son, Kyle Shanahan.
Family Business: Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers
Kyle Shanahan has been breathing wide zone since he got old enough to be a ball boy for Dad’s teams ind Denver. He cherished the dream of playing in the NFL — he was also a good receiver at Texas - until his physical limitations prevented him to do so. At that point Kyle discovered his true calling, that of coaching. His father warned him about the risks of coming into the league as someone’s son: “if you want to be respected in this league — he told him — you have to cut your teeth under someone else, you can’t coach with me right away.” So Kyle went to Tampa Bay to gain experience under Jon Gruden (current Raiders coach) and there he discovered that there was a world outside of his father’s scheme. «I soon realized that our system was very simple, we had few concepts but we used them perfectly. Gruden, on the other hand, was like a mad scientist who tried so many different things ». Kyle found himself like the son of a restaurateur from Trastevere who ends up in one of those huge restaurants with an all you can eat buffet. That experience was fundamental because it opened up the horizons of a young coach, preventing him from remaining too anchored to the family tradition. For this reason, Kyle Shanahan’s carbonara is constantly evolving. The base is always the same, but not a year goes by without Kyle adding a new nuance, a new procedure that wasn’t there before, a different time cooking technique. It’s a very delicate balance, because it’s very easy to ruin a traditional recipe, but Shanahan has always managed to find it. The reason, to put it simply, is that we are talking about an absolute genius in the history of this sport. For some, like tight end Austin Hooper, Shanahan is even a guru: «in Atlanta we called him Nostradamus, he always knew what the defense would do and he had the right scheme to beat them. I’ve never seen anything like it. ‘ Hooper was a cog in one of the most powerful offensive machines in history, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, Kyle’s crown jewel as an NFL playcaller, whose exploits granted Shanahan the 49ers coaching job. It’s in northern California that Kyle’s uncanny ability to evolve while remaining true to his origins was in full display. Instead of copy-pasting Atlanta’s bombs away style — with deep play action shots from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones, Shanny tailored his recipe to Jimmy Garoppolo’s strenghts: rythm and timing passing on shorter routes run by true yards after catch monsters like Deebo Samuel and George Kittle. Another trait that Shanahan maximised in his playmakers is “positional fluidity”: unlike Atlanta’s prototypical players (Julio as the perfect X receiver, Hooper as the Y tight end, Sanu as the blocking and underneath receiver) most of his players were (and still are) able to play multiple positions. Kyle Juszczyk is the perfect example: a fullback that can open lanes as a blocker on one play and line up outside to catch a deep pass on the next. Year after year Shanahan expanded the limits of his wide zone offense to include multiple formations (the vaunted spilt back gun for example) and personnel packages (the Deadpool package with Deebo in the backfield). One of the most important changes made by Shanahan is therefore the increase in the use of the shotgun (or splitback gun), particularly in the running game. For example, from 2019 to 2020 shotgun running attempts jumped from 106 to 154, a considerable increase which testifies once more the versatility of this attack.
In addition to the desire to tether the offense to the players on the roster, there is another reason behind this inexhaustible creativity. All these innovations, in fact, are not whims of a playcaller bored by his own system, but they were necessary to survive in a league where, without tactical innovations, you’re going to be swallowed up by the opposition’s countermeasures. Shanahan, who has always had a holistic version of football, said a few years ago: “When I was in Tampa I did everything to infiltrate defensive meetings. At the time we had the number 1 defense in the league and I was trying to see offensive football from their perspective. It is only by putting yourself in the shoes of the defense that you can understand how to attack it ».
Since the best defenses know how to adapt to any threat brought by the offense, a good offensive playcaller must know how to be one step ahead and change before the opponents close the gap. Shanahan has understood that it is only a matter of time before the defenses find the solution to counter — or at least better contain — the “traditional” outside zones, as the Patriots did very well in the Super Bowl won against the Rams of one of his disciples like Sean McVay. In addition to increasing the use of Pitch and Toss (actions in which the QB does not put the ball in the belly of the RB, but “throws” it with a rugby pass), which allow the running backs to attack the outside of the field faster on zone racing, Shanahan resorted to concepts that are conceptually opposed to zone racing. We are talking about “gap” races, such as counter and power, races that involve a “pulling lineman” a line man who crosses the grid and opens the way for running back. As mentioned, these are races diametrically opposed to those in the area, but Shanahan has not had any problem inserting them with increasing constancy in his attack. The zenith of this new course was touched in the 2019 NFC Championship game, the one in which Garoppolo threw only 8 times and the 49ers’ running game demolished the Packers defense with its variety. In summary, Shanahan has been able to evolve his system with coherence and foresight, adding formations and schemes designed to always be one step ahead of the competition. Not even this enormous intellectual work, however, was enough. Hampered by injuries, the 49ers have taken at least two steps back from the great season that brought them to the Super Bowl. To tell the truth, even in the season of the defeat against the Chiefs it was evident how sometimes the system worked not thanks to the quarterback, but in spite of him. In order to get back to competing for a Lombardi Trophy, Shanahan deemed it necessary to upgrade from Jimmy G, who was too fickle, bruised and limited. Even in his best version, Garoppolo is still a QB that needs to be backed up by a perfect system and adds little to the attack potential other than limiting the playbook extension. So, Shanahan decided to mortgage the future of the franchise by offering three first rounds of the draft in order to get to position number 3 and select Trey Lance, the quarterback of North Dakota State.
The choice was somewhat surprising: for a while everyone thought that Shanahan was betting everything on Mac Jones from Alabama, a traditional pocket passer, similar to Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo, the last passers trained by Mike’s son. Lance represents a total break from this continuity. He is young and inexperienced, having thrown very few balls in his career, and still struggles to place the ball with precision and timing. On the other hand, he has athleticism and an arm that the QBs mentioned above never even dreamed of having. For Shanahan, Lance’s choice still represents a sort of return to the past, but at a different stage in his career, a past in which the quarterback was the heart of the running game. Everyone knows about Robert Griffin III and his prodigious rookie season. In 2012, the then Redskins destroyed the NFL by introducing the zone read and showing the world the advantages of including the quarterback in the course game. Few remember that the mastermind behind that pattern was Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan left the running quarterback after the failure of the RGIII project, but in the meantime that concept has been carried forward to give us quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson. After nearly ten years of immobile passers, Kyle has decided to cash in on the dividends of his original insight.
How will Trey Lance’s 49ers play? They certainly won’t be Lamar’s Ravens. The QB running game will be important, but it will never be the alpha and omega of the game. Also because it doesn’t need to be. Shanahan only needs the threat brought by the QB to make the rest of the system more devastating. Kyle recently stated that “even in Washington with RGIII our running game was 30% zone read and 70% outside zone traditional. The zone read is not dead, it is true that the defense can neutralize it, but to do so it is forced to give us other plays. The point is that everyone was afraid of the zone read, so they played to defend it and this opened up the rest of our playbook ». Trey Lance will allow Shanahan to play 11 on 11 football, forcing the defense to also consider the quarterback in the run defense, and this will open up more portions of the field. Much like RGIII, Lance has the arm to punish on deep defenses that are forced to lean forward to defend the racing game. It is not certain that Lance will be starting Week 1, but at some point he will be. Its presence will bring the true secret ingredient, which is both tactical and psychological : fear. To get his offense back on track Shanahan needs the defense to be afraid of two things: deep throws, which prevent you from focusing against runs, and quarterback runs, which instead force the defense to focus on run defense. Is the concept of conflict clear? Jimmy Garoppolo does not scare opposing defenses and never will. Conversely, Trey Lance in this system has the potential to become one of the most terrifying QBs in the league. You can be sure that the idea of an athletic and ballistic prodigy playing a Shanahan-designed attack populated by fearful receivers like Kittle, Samuel and Aiyuk will keep every single defensive coordinator in the league up at night. Lance’s talent can make these 49ers the perfect recipe that Shanahan has been chasing all his life, one that simultaneously contains all the ingredients of offensive success in one dish. His father’s running game, modernized and varied to be even more unpredictable. The threat of the quarterback run, essential to keep the defenses honest. A passing game at last with long range. How do you stop that?
Revolutions in the NFL are often started in the messiest, darkest corners of teams facilities. Back in the early 90s, Steve Mariucci, Jon Gruden and Andy Reid were sharing an office as assistants to Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren. The three would go on to evolve the West Coast Offense they inherited from their mentor, morphing it into their own version of offensive dominance. Almost 20 years later, the NFL offensive landscape changed again when Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur found themselves working in the same coaching staff. The staff in question was that of the 2012 then Washington Redskins coached by Mike Shanahan, as Commanders fans are cruelly reminded every time these offensive gurus face each other with their current teams. Just like apprentices learning from the three Michelin Stars Chef, Kyle, Sean and Matt started developing their own version of the wide zone offense. Ten years later, all of them are élite offensive coaches whose offenses are both similar and different at the same time. McVay was appointed head coach of the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 and immediately took the team out of the mud with his own adaptation of the Shanahans’ recipe.
Nicknamed “Boy wonder”, McVay was equally obsessed with playcalling and hairstyling — his friends mocked him for being all too aware of how brilliant and good loking he was. In a sense, McVay’s carbonara reflects his personality. We could call it a gourmet carbonara, the one you get in those fancy restaurants where the waiter wears suit and every item on the menu is described in no less than 30 words.
McVay’s carbonara would be a lighter dish than Shanahan’s. Less guanciale fat, smaller portions, proper pasta-souce ratio. The Rams play in fact a light offense, in the sense that — especially during his first three years in LA — they employed 11 personnel at the highest rate in the league. This is the secret ingredient that made their offense virtually unstoppable for stretches: their ability to run out of light personnel packages forced defenses into an unresolvable dilemma: if they matched LA’s light personnel with 5 defensive backs on the field, they would get trounced by the best rushing game in the league, if instead they went heavier and kept 3 linebackers, they would be too slow to stop play action passes. This versatility was possible because the Rams had two of the best run blocking receivers in the league in Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods.
Another staple of McVay’s recipe is “plating”. His playbook is relatively slim compared to Shanahan’s and LaFleur’s: instead of overloading his players with tons of different plays, McVay uses a few core running, playaction and dropback passing concepts. Furthermore, he has been in a way monotonous in terms of formations: he’s running game is almost entirely called from singleback (quarterback under center, one back), giving up the menace and unpredictability represented by a fullback in the backfield. In a league where repetition and predictability would get you out of business in the blink of an eye, it’s fair to wonder how McVay held the league hostage despite offering such a small offensive menu. The answer is, again, “plating”. It’s the way McVay “serves” those offensive plays, the use of personnel, motion, the sequencing of the calls, the variations of tempo, that makes all the difference. The expression “illusion of complexity” perfectly captures McVay’s ability to mask the simplicity of his system behind a curtain of deception that has long been blinding NFL defenses.
After pillaging defenses for two years, McVay’s system was exposed by Vic Fangio, Matt Patricia and most notably Bill Belichick in the second half of the 2018 season. The three employed a defensive structure that stymied both the wide zone running and the playaction passing off of it, sabotaging what used to be a perfect machine. The machine needed to be perfect because of Jared Goff, a quarterback who could only be successful if guided, aided and supported by coaching and surrounding talent. His limitations became so claustrophobic that they led to McVay desperately needing to upgrade his system, but being unable to do so because of his mediocre quarterback. It’s no wonder why, after two up and down seasons, McVay decided to go nuclear and bring in Matt Stafford, a quarterback whose arm talent and experience could finally open a system that is going to be less gimmicky, more vertical and more varied. Stafford can operate from the gun, read out and execute concepts that Goff simply can’t and won’t. There’s no doubt his contribution will expand what McVay can put on his offensive menu.