Last week's NFC championship game matchup was something no Redskins fan wanted to see: a former Washington assistant would be heading to Super Bowl LIV in Miami as the head coach of another team.
Kyle Shanahan's 49ers dominated Matt LaFleur's Packers, as San Francisco returned to the grand stage of the sport for the first time since it fell to the Ravens in 2013. Shanahan, of course, served as the Redskins' offensive coordinator from 2010-2013 under his father, Mike. Both were fired at the end of the 2013 season. LaFleur served as the Redskins' quarterback coach under the Shanahans during those four years.
In his third year at the helm in San Francisco, Shanahan, who just turned 40 this past December, turned the 49ers into one of the NFL's most complete teams and built them to be Super Bowl contenders for years to come. On the offensive side of the football, Shanahan's zone running scheme worked wonders. The 49ers finished second in rushing yards per game (trailing only the Ravens) and fourth in total offense. But San Francisco's defense was just as dominant. The unit finished second in total defense and allowed an average of just 169 passing yards per game, the NFL's best.
So how did he go from a young offensive coordinator in Washington to one of the brightest head coaches in the NFL?
Shanahan arrived in Washington to work under his father in 2010 after four years in Houston, with the last two as the Texans' offensive coordinator. In 2010 and 2011, the Redskins offense finished in the bottom third of the league. But things quickly turned around in 2012, largely due to the arrival of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Redskins had the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league, averaging just under 28 points per game. Washington finished 10-6 and earned its first division title since 1999.
But in 2013, things went south. Quickly. Without playing a preseason snap while still recovering from an ACL injury he suffered the previous January, Griffin returned for Week 1. The Redskins started out 0-3, and Griffin looked like just a shell of his former self. As the Redskins slipped to 3-10, the Shanahans decided to bench Griffin for the final three games of the season and preserve his health for the 2014 season. The Shanahans and front office had multiple issues they didn't agree on, which led to the firing of both Kyle and Mike.
It was not a pleasant breakup. Earlier this year, Shanahan was asked what coaches considering the Redskins' top job should think about before signing with Washington. His response was telling.
"I’m probably not the person they want to call on that advice," he said.
Following his divorce with the Burgundy and Gold, the younger Shanahan became the offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. Led by veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer, Cleveland started out 7-4. The Browns, who lacked plenty of star power, faltered down the stretch, closing the season with five straight losses; their 7-9 record finished last in the AFC North.
Following the season, Shanahan and the front office disagreed on the direction of the franchise moving forward. The Browns had taken quarterback Johnny Manziel a year prior, and management wanted him to be the quarterback moving forward. That decision angered Shanahan, and he resigned from the position.
Less than two weeks later, he was hired as the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator in January 2015. The results in his first year with the Falcons were mixed, as the team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. But in his second year in Atlanta, the Falcons offense took off. Atlanta's offense was multi-dimensional; both its rushing and passing attacks were good enough for top-five finishes across the NFL. Quarterback Matt Ryan enjoyed the best season of his career, taking home NFL MVP honors.
But what Shanahan's legacy in Atlanta is best remembered for is his performance in Super Bowl LI against the Patriots. The Falcons jumped out to a 28-3 lead over New England, partially due to brilliant play-calling and execution from Shanahan. But as the Falcons squandered away the four-possession lead, many were critical of Shanahan's play-calling and lack of time run off the clock. The Patriots came all the way back to force overtime and never allowed the Falcons to possess the ball in the extra frame, leaving the promising coordinator on the wrong end of the largest Super Bowl comeback in history.
The 25-point blown lead would be Shanahan's final act in Atlanta. The San Francisco 49ers saw enough potential in Shanahan to name him the team's head coach on Feb. 6, 2017, just one day after the Super Bowl.
In Shanahan's first season at the helm, the 49ers struggled, largely due to inconsistent play at the quarterback position. San Francisco dropped its first nine games of the season before Shanahan earned his first win as a head coach. But in November 2017, the 49ers traded for promising quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, giving up just a second-round pick.
Change was coming. Shanahan finally got the signal-caller he needed to run his offense.
Garoppolo won the final five games of the season, providing hope and promise for the future. The 49ers seemed destined to be a playoff-contending team in 2018. But in Week 2 of the 2018 season, the quarterback tore his ACL, ending the season. The 49ers struggled the rest of the year, finishing with just four wins and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
The 49ers selected Nick Bosa with that pick, adding the Ohio State pass rusher to an already loaded defensive line. Between a balanced offensive attack and the NFL's top defense, Shanahan's 49ers finished the 2019 season with a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Earlier this season, the 49ers shut out Washington in the stadium Shanahan called home for four seasons. At the time, the 49ers were undefeated, while the Redskins were 1-6 and had recently just fired their head coach.
"Everything we’ve done is to try to bring the right people in, to get people who really care about football and really have one intention and that’s to make it in football and to win," Shanahan said earlier this year on how he turned the culture around in San Francisco. "When you do that, and I do think we have a bunch of good people here, the culture kind of takes care of itself. We’ve got people who live and die football and they know how to treat each other, and it’s one of the more fun groups and higher character groups that I’ve been around."
After the victory over Washington (which Shanahan swore wasn't personal), he gave the game ball to his dad.
Several weeks later, the two shared a similar moment, when Shanahan's 49ers were crowned NFC champions. Following the 49ers' Jan. 19 victory over the Packers, Shanahan stood on stage next to his father, Mike. The younger Shanahan was handed the George Halas Trophy on stage and then proceeded to immediately hug his dad.
The duo was at the helm in Washington just six years ago.
Now, three places later, Kyle Shanahan is one win away from being on top of the football world.
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