MIAMI — The secret to stopping Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl may be having another Patrick Mahomes on your roster who you can practice against with regularity. Many teams don’t have this luxury, but the San Francisco 49ers are confident that they are being prepared by a spitting image.
Safety Jimmie Ward said of the practice squad hero: “He gets us sometimes. He does the no look passes the way Mahomes has been doing them. Throwing back shoulder. He’s got a little cannon on him.”
Quarterback Nick Mullens said: “He knows exactly what he’s doing back there. He knows how to manipulate defenders. He knows how to look the other way to get a defender to go over in the other direction. It’s all about understanding the defense. He thinks like a quarterback, and, in practice, it’s his one time to shine.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who is most frequently plagued by the team’s top-secret Swiss army knife during heated walkthrough practice battles: “Sometimes it’s frustrating that he knows the quarterback position so much that he’s actually more advanced than some of the quarterbacks we play in terms of looking players off. It’s actually funny. I’m like, ‘hey dude, the quarterback we’re facing is this kind of player [one who doesn’t look off defenders as much]. I need you to do that.‘ And he’s like ‘OK. OK. OK. I gotcha. My bad.’”
Still lanky and trim at the age of 40, listed at 6′ 3″, 170 pounds, some may mistake the ringer for a tall cashier at Zumiez or a retired semi-famous halfpipe snowboarder. And perhaps that unassuming look is part of the mystique. Saleh said that throughout offseason training activities, the man has been known to assume the identities of everyone from Drew Brees to Aaron Rodgers with a high degree of effectiveness.
But the team knows him better as Kyle Shanahan—the head football coach.
“You’d be surprised,” said Saleh, who, himself looks like he could spring into live game action at any second and break a reporter-sized person into multiple pieces. “I bet you if he still had the athleticism … but talking about his mind, he knows where to go with the football, how to diagnose and read coverages, I bet he’d be in the top half of the league.”
Earlier this week, Shanahan said that, even as far back as grade school basketball, people assumed he was on a team because his dad, two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, was famous. But as the 49ers round out their preparation for Super Bowl LIV, the ironic part is that, in some small way, his hands-on presence during practice may have had something to do with their success. It shines a light on who Shanahan was before he became the NFL’s schematic wunderkind, back when he was a receiver trying to crack the starting lineup at the University of Texas.
Those who knew him back before he was the team’s practice Mahomes aren’t surprised at his steady but silent ascent into the realm of revered quarterbacks.
North Carolina football coach Mack Brown, who coached Shanahan in college while at Texas, said that the receiver group he had when Shanahan was in school was “one of the best receiving corps I’d ever been around” and featured NFL talent like future first-round pick Roy Williams and B.J. Johnson.
“And Kyle still played,” Brown said. “It was because he knew how to do everything right. He was the ultimate team guy. He only cared about winning. It makes me smile when I hear he’s the scout team quarterback, because he would have done anything to help us win.”
At the time, Shanahan was obsessed with precision route running as a tool to mitigate what may have been a difference in speed. Brown said Shanahan reminded him a bit of Raymond Berry, the Hall of Fame Colts receiver from the 1950s and ’60s who was once described by legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford as “the hero to everybody who wasn’t very athletic.”
Shanahan translated that into a coaching career teaching players how to gain releases from pesky defensive backs and find separation under any circumstance, which, occasionally comes with some grainy visual teaching aids from early in the millennium.
“He’ll pull out tape of his days at Texas and here’s this gangly white guy just running routes, breaking people off, and I’m like mannn,” Saleh said.
It was only natural that this progressed to the quarterback position. Mullens said the quarterback room will often get a full report on Shanahan’s exploits during his daily walkthrough periods. Tight end George Kittle also gets the frequent breakdowns but remains skeptical: “He always tells everyone how he’s dicing people up. I don’t know. I mean, his receivers are the equipment staff.”
Regardless, it has created a healthy practice competitiveness during practice periods that are typically sleepy; more instructional than kinetic. At the best, Shanahan’s quarterbacking skills can prepare the defense for the mental chess match that often ensues between the passer and opposing secondary. At the worst, his growing legend can motivate the pass rushers who have to watch him dice up their teammates without any recourse.
“He’s an athlete,” Dee Ford said. “Very underrated athlete.”
When asked if he would consider what Shanahan does to the defense during practice a “dicing,” Ford said: “Well, we can’t hit him so, I dunno. We’ll let him have it.”
Like most good quarterbacks, Shanahan is not to be sacked in practice.
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