As the shock subsides from the Falcons’ perplexing loss in Super Bowl LI, we can all acknowledge that, yes, Kyle Shanahan has some very good traits as a head-coaching hire. He’s young. He’s willing to walk into a mess in Santa Clara. The offense he designed in Atlanta put up silly numbers this season. And he has spent most of his life around the game of football.
But is that last trait really a major asset?
Seems like it should be. Shanahan spent years shagging balls at practice alongside his dad, Mike. They watched film together, and young Kyle got early lessons in how to interact with players, how to rides the ups and downs of sports, how to deal with the media. All of that should help him.
Except for one thing: The record of previous second-generation NFL coaches is dubious.
Strangely, I can find only six previous coaching “dynasties” using the pro-football-reference database. I expected more. And to be honest, there could be more. I could not ascertain, for example, whether Dick Rauch (Pottsville Maroons, 1925-27; New York Yankees, 1928; Boston Bulldogs, 1929) was the father of John Rauch (Oakland Raiders, 1966-68; Buffalo Bills, 1969-1970). He could have been, but without taking a deep dive into the research, I saw nothing to tell me the Rauches were related. So I’m just going with what I know for sure here.
And that is six Father’s Day coaching combos: Don and David Shula, Bum and Wade Phillips, Dick and Mike Nolan, Jim Mora (the elder) and Jim Mora (the younger), Buddy and Rex Ryan, and Jim and John Fassel.
OK, John (Bones) Fassel was a mere interim coach for the Rams this year. If you want to eliminate him, so be it. I’m keeping him. His 0-3 record is officially on the books.
Of the other family coaching trees, three clearly favored the father. The most egregious gap was between the Shulas. Don won 347 NFL games, including postseason, still the most in league history. David was 19-52 in 4½ years with the Bengals; his winning percentage of .268 is third worst ever among guys who coached for four-plus seasons. They are the John and Julian Lennon of the NFL.
Moving on, experienced 49ers fans will attest that Dick Nolan was a better coach than Mike Nolan. Dick won 71 NFL games (though he had an overall losing record) and led his team to the playoffs three times. Mike went 18-37 in 4½ years with the 49ers, nearly destroyed Alex Smith and was so ineffective that the team eventually figured Mike Singletary was a better idea.
And let’s go ahead and say that the first Jim Mora was better than the second. James Lawrence Mora, now coaching at UCLA, actually won a playoff game, something that James Ernest Mora never accomplished. But the first Jim went 125-112 in 15 years of coaching with two teams, while JM2 went 32-34 in four seasons. Advantage, old guy.
That brings us to the two coaches who equaled their fathers’ legacies. If you ask most fans who was a better coach, Bum Phillips or his son Wade, most people will probably choose Bum. But as I’ve written before, Wade has been an underrated head coach. His regular-season winning percentage of .562 is better than that of Marv Levy, Chuck Knox and Jimmy Johnson, and just behind Bill Parcells and Chuck Noll on the all-time chart. What killed Wade’s reputation was his 1-5 record in the postseason. Bum (4-3 in the playoffs) was much better in that regard, and might be even more highly esteemed if he didn’t spend his final five seasons coaching the woeful Saints. In any case, Wade isn’t exactly trapped in the old man’s shadow.
And then there are the Ryans, whose first names sound like trusted family dogs. Buddy was 55-58-1 in seven seasons and, like old Jim Mora, never managed to win a playoff game. Rex’s record stands at 65-68, which includes four postseason wins. Who would you rather have as your cantankerous head coach? I’d give the edge to Rex, but it’s close.
All in all, the first-generation coaches boast a .571 winning percentage and 27 playoff wins. The second generation has a .452 winning percentage and six playoff wins. And if you think that the moderate success of Wade Phillips and Rex Ryan disproves the theory – well, is this the bar you’re setting for Kyle Shanahan? Because you probably could have hired Wade Phillips or Rex Ryan for the job if their records impress you that much.
The failure of the second generation begs a question: Why?
Here’s my theory. There are a lot of factors that help someone land a job in the NFL, as in any walk of life. And one of the biggest is connections. We like the people we’ve worked with before, or (especially) had beers with after work. We trust former coworkers to help us replicate whatever success we shared in the past.
Kyle Shanahan has strong credentials as an offensive assistant, no doubt about it. He also has impeccable connections, thanks in part to his father’s influence. Perhaps we overestimate those connections. They certainly helped Shanahan get the 49ers job. It’s an advantage that guys like Anthony Lynn and Vance Joseph did not enjoy.
This is not to say Shanahan has no chance to be a great coach. Only that there’s a reason the juniors don’t usually do as well as the seniors when they get to this level, and that Kyle Shanahan, as of yet, is no Mike Shanahan.