Battle of the Coaches

On 2 February, the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs  competed at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens for the honour of becoming Super Bowl LIV champions. Here, we’re examining the people calling the shots: the head coaches and coordinators on the sidelines for the 49ers and the Chiefs.

So, how do the coaching teams compare?

Backgrounds of Shanahan and Reid

The San Francisco 49ers head coach and offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, is only in his third season as an NFL head coach. Hired by the 49ers as a part of their big rebuild in 2017, this season marks Shanahan’s first trip to the playoffs and, of course, the Super Bowl.

However, Shanahan isn’t a newcomer to the NFL, with his father, Mike, being a three-time Super Bowl winner as a head coach. Kyle took on many roles around the NFL, serving under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, Gary Kubiak in Houston, his father with the Redskins, Mike Pettine with the Cleveland Browns, and most famously under Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons.

Shanahan was a fundamental part of the Atlanta Falcons’ run to Super Bowl LI as the team’s offensive coordinator. The Falcons finished the season as the highest-scoring offence and even took a 28-3 lead against the New Patriots in the Super Bowl. However, that game turned on Shanahan, with the coordinator being too aggressive at times and the team losing 34-28 in overtime.

Shanahan has built his team up from 6-10 in 2017 and 4-12 in 2018 – finishing a place higher in the NFC West than in the year prior – to then suddenly going 13-3 in 2019. The 49ers landed atop the NFC and then picked apart the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.

Andy Reid, otherwise known as ‘Big Red’, is another story altogether.

Given his first head coaching job with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, Reid is now credited as being one of – if not the – most influential offensive coaches in the NFL due to how many members of his past teams have gone on to coach across the league.

Reid spent 14 years in Philly, getting to the playoffs on nine occasions, the Conference Championship game on four occasions, and to the Super Bowl once, losing to the New Patriots at Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004. From 2013 to now, Reid has been the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, only missing the playoffs in one of his seven seasons at Arrowhead.

Super Bowl LIV marks the storied coach’s second crack at the Vince Lombardi Trophy, with his team coming from behind in both playoff matches against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans to win by convincing margins. The regular season saw the team hit by many key injuries, most notably Mahomes, but they still managed to land a 12-4 record.

Backgrounds of the Offensive and Defensive Coordinators

In San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan works as the team’s head coach and primary offensive coordinator. He’s been noted by many, including his team’s defenceman, as being able to deploy schemes that baffle defences. It’s said that his savvy as an offensive coordinator spawns from his time with the Buccaneers as the offensive assistant, when he’d sit in on the meetings of the superstar defensive staff to learn how defenceman are coached.

On the other side of the ball, it’s former college tight end Robert Saleh. Having been the defensive quality control coach for the Seattle Seahawks in their Legion of Boom era, Saleh then became the linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014, joining the 49ers before the start of the 2017 season as defensive coordinator – his first official job in the role.

For the Kansas City Chiefs, although Andy Reid is hailed as a grand offensive coach, it’s Eric Bieniemy who’s in the ear of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Bieniemy has grown from being a running backs coach in college football to being an NFL running backs coach with the Vikings and then returning to college ball as an offensive coordinator. In 2013, he came to the Chiefs as the running backs coach, being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2018 and guiding Mahomes to over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his first full season.

Steve Spagnuolo is an incredibly experienced coach in the NFL, having been in the league for 20 seasons with seven different teams. His first big-league role came as the player personnel intern for the Redskins in 1983, after which he spent time in defensive coaching roles for Lafayette, the Barcelona Dragons, Maine, Rutgers, Bowling Green, and Frankfurt Galaxy. Since 1999, Spagnuolo has been in the NFL in various defensive coaching roles and as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams for three years. He joined the Chiefs before the start of the 2019 season.

Favourite Offensive and Defensive Schemes

On offence, the 49ers tend to use a combination of play-action passes mixed in with their zone running game, which features outside and inside runs. If a defence is playing aggressively, the 49ers will pop out some gap-scheme runs, and if the opposition is keen on stopping the ground game, they’ll be punished by play action and Garoppolo’s quick release.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh initially came to Santa Clara intending to reprise the Legion of Boom, even bringing in cornerback Richard Sherman. This season, as the schemes weren’t working, Saleh has switched to a wide-nine formation on a 4-3 stacked defence with a free-roaming strong safety. The scheme puts his defensive end on the shoulder of the opposing tight end, creating better angles to get at the quarterback with active linebackers ready to plug the gaps in the line if necessary.

Eric Bieniemy and Andy Reid play to the strengths of their personnel, which means utilising Mahomes’ MVP-calibre arm. When setting up on offence, the Chiefs will line up with many potential options for the QB, with the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman lining-up. Then, there’s a lot of motion designed to expose the true intent of the defensive coverage as well as create favourable matchups for receivers.

The seasoned Steve Spagnuolo has become famous for his incredibly aggressive 4-3 base defence which often features multiple blitzes, including schemes that bring corners and safeties in to blitz. For the Chiefs, he still likes to blitz from the second level, with the likes of Frak Clarke and Chris Jones battling on the outside and inside of the line, but schemes have evolved over the years. Now, there are a few planned disguise coverage schemes which utilise the skill of Tyrann Mathieu, as well as more zone coverage in the secondary and plenty of offensive line movement.

Head-to-Head record

With Kyle Shanahan being so new to the role of head coach and the Chiefs and 49ers being split by the conferences, there has only been one meeting between the 49ers head coach and Andy Reid.

On 23 September 2018, the 49ers came to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Chiefs and their shiny new quarterback. The game saw Kansas City score five touchdowns in its first five possessions of the game, with the 49ers attempting to mount a thunderous comeback, only to see Garoppolo get injured on the team’s final drive, finishing the game 38-27 to the Chiefs.

There was plenty of variety and aggression on both sides of the ball for both teams that lead us to believe that Super Bowl LIV was an epic showcase of American football.