By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
In parenting, it’s called helicoptering. And maybe it’s time to wonder whether the same problem has begun to infect the NFL.
The past two Super Bowls have featured wunderkind coaches, after all, but a funny thing has happened to both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan on the grandest stage in sports over the last two years: they went belly up. Or more specifically, their quarterbacks did, which raises the question of helicopter coaching and its self-destructive effects.
Allow us to explain further: parents today are guilty of micromanaging every aspect of their children’s lives, often to self-defeating levels. When the children become adults, they frequently are incapable of making decisions and/or dealing with conflict, largely because Mommy and Daddy aren’t there to do it for them.
Now maybe it’s time to wonder whether the same thing is happening with quarterbacks.
At the center of all this is San Francisco 49ers coach Shanahan, who so micromanaged 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo this postseason that an entirely predictable thing happened when Shanahan and the Niners had to break glass in Super Bowl LIV: Garoppolo failed miserably. Jimmy G went 3-for-11 for 36 yards with an interception and a sack as the Niners completely melted down, and now it’s time to wonder whether Shanahan and Garoppolo – like McVay and quarterback Jared Goff a year ago – will ever again replicate what felt like breakout seasons.
Let’s stick with Shanahan for a moment, who has been credited with developing, among others, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan and now Garoppolo, the last of whom he adopted from Bill Belichick. Fairly or unfairly, Cousins, Ryan and Garoppolo now all have the stain of collapsing under pressure, which might be pure coincidence were it not for the nature of Shanahan’s offense. All of those quarterbacks were protected from making mistakes, to a degree, which is to say that the hard work was done for them.
So what happened when it came for those quarterbacks to simply drop back and assess the field, to make plays? They couldn’t. Against the Patriots in the Super Bowl three years ago, Ryan went a seemingly respectable 4-for-6 for 82 yards in the fourth quarter, but he was also sacked twice for 23 yards in losses, including one strip-sack fumble that changed the game and another that helped take the Atlanta Falcons out of range for what would have been a game-sealing field goal. Last year, Goff went 7-of-13 with for 79 yards when the Rams were within a score in the fourth quarter, getting sacked once and throwing an interception near the New England goal line.
Get the picture? Gag job, gag job, gag job. All three of those quarterbacks had excellent regular seasons and, in the case of Ryan, produced an MVP award. But when the system started to crack, they proved incapable making any diagnoses let alone finding a cure.
So what’s the common denominator? Shanahan – and in this case, we mean Mike. Kyle Shanahan, McVay and Green Bay Packers coach Matt Lafleur all served as assistants under Mike Shanahan in Washington, where running the football was emphasized. And before anyone suggests that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers hardly belongs in the same group with Goff, Ryan and Garoppolo – and he doesn’t – let’s focus on the offense Green Bay ran with Lafleur as coach. The Packers ran the ball a great deal more this year, which seems smart, but Rodgers continued to regress. In the NFC Championship Game, he threw two interceptions, fumbled three times and was sacked three more. The Packers got slaughtered.
Look, no one is saying Mike Shanahan is an idiot. Hardy. His approach produced Super Bowl titles at Denver in 1997 and 1998, when the Broncos rumbled to titles behind running back Terrell Davis. But the obvious problem is that the NFL has changed dramatically in the last 22 years – and that Mike Shanahan had John Elway as a quarterback.
In the end, here’s the point: franchise quarterbacks like Elway are hard to find. (We get it.) But while systems like the ones run by McVay and Shanahan are designed to make decision-making easier for relatively inexperienced NFL quarterbacks, they are also restrictive. And when it inevitably comes time for the quarterbacks to make a play – to make a snap-decision – they have proven incapable, at least in part because Daddy has been protecting them and making all of the decisions for them. Welcome to the world of helicopter coaching.
Is that an oversimplification? Maybe.
But Andy Reid has a different system in Kansas City and a different young quarterback whom he has developed very differently.
And now he has a Super Bowl championship, too.