Limitless: The Kyle Shanahan Offense

Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

I know nothing about football.

I’m fascinated by the strategy, creativity and intellectual thinking involved in orchestrating an offense. But truthfully, my knowledge on the matter is rudimentary at best.

I decided to kickstart my journey towards unparalleled football wisdom by purchasing a book by Taylor Kolste, entitled “Breaking Down the 2018 L.A. Rams Offense”. At the time of purchase, my Bengals had recently hired former Rams quarterback coach Zac Taylor as their head coach. I wanted to get a feel for the kind of offense that Taylor might bring to Cincinnati, assuming he would lean heavily on concepts from McVay’s highly productive unit.

Unfortunately, I’m excessively lazy in pursuit of my goals. I didn’t get around to sinking my teeth into the book in earnest until quite recently, and I haven’t come close to finishing it yet. I’ve wrapped up the primary concepts that make up McVay’s running game, and will soon move onto studying the play-action elements of his offense (whenever I decide to pull the finger out).

Wait a second, what the hell does Kyle Shanahan have to do with any of this? If you didn’t know, Shanahan, McVay and Matt LaFleur are the three disciples that descended from the Washington Redskins coaching staff of the early 2010s. Suffice to say, their philosophies as offensive minds overlap to a certain degree. It would have made sense for me to simply write about McVay, but I figured I’d stretch out some interesting themes from his offense and see how they feature in Shanahan’s scheme, given that he’s the man currently preparing for a Super Bowl.

I don’t wish to suggest that studying the Rams offense will automatically tell me a great deal about Shanahan’s system, but there are unquestionably a number of similarities. As I discovered in Kolste’s book and through further research, one such similarity is particularly intriguing.

Under center

In 2018, the Rams were under center 63% of the time (h/t Sharp Football Stats). This was the highest percentage in the NFL, with Shanahan’s 49ers following closely behind at 56%. For reference, the league average that year was 38%.

In 2019, the Minnesota Vikings blew everyone else out of the water with a whopping 70% of their plays being run from under center. But who was second and third this season? Shanahan (58%) and McVay (56%). The average across the league was 37%.

Back in 2016, Shanahan coordinated an exceptionally productive Atlanta Falcons offense, leading the league with 34.1 points per game while also being under center more than any other team (61%). He was asked why he favours being under center, as opposed to the shotgun-heavy approach that has become so prevalent league-wide:

“Every time you’re under center, you’ve got a lot more run options and a lot more play-action options and a lot more movement options off of your runs. Your play choices are endless. You can do everything. Once you get into the gun, certain things are like cut in half. Play-action is not as good because it happens quicker. You can’t hold the ball out there for as long… it just eliminates being as balanced.”

Play action

This season, only six quarterbacks had a higher percentage of their passes come off of play-action than Jimmy Garoppolo (28% of his throws). Shanahan’s play-action scheme was highly effective; Garoppolo led the league in passing yards off play-action with 1,670 yards.

One observation made by Kolste regarding the use of play-action stands out in particular. Logically, one may assume that at a certain point, defenses facing a heavy dose of play-action begin to smarten up and refrain from zealously committing themselves to the potential run. Kolste notes, however, that this is not the case:

“Analytics have shown that the efficiency of play-action passes does not decrease with usage. Defenses do not stop biting on a run-action even if a team is continually faking the run. In theory, there is no limit on how much a team can run play-action before it starts to decrease in efficiency.”

Josh Hermsmeyer underwent the incredibly tedious task of tracking the movement of linebackers in response to play-action, using Next Gen Stats from 2017. He wanted to find out whether linebackers continued to move out of position to defend the ‘run’ when teams repeatedly used play-action – would defenders keep biting on run fakes if you keep calling play-action passes?

The answer? Yes.

“Across the entire sample of 91 games and 1,235 plays, I found no correlation at all between the number of times a team ran the play-action and total yards of wasted ground by middle linebackers… given what we know about the effectiveness of the play, the self-imposed threshold set by play-callers of roughly six to nine play-action fakes per game is likely too low.”

In 2019, Jared Goff led the league with 12.1 passing attempts off play-action per game. Garoppolo was at 8.3 attempts per game, which just about cracks the top-10 in the league. McVay is clearly the bigger proponent of a heavy play-action approach, pushing himself well beyond the “self-imposed threshold” mentioned by Hermsmeyer. Meanwhile, Shanahan’s quarterback remains just below that threshold, but when factoring in total pass attempts and the team’s reliance on their ground attack (2nd most rushing attempts in the league), it’s undeniable that play-action is a key component of the 49ers offense (it’s also worth noting that my numbers don’t factor in play-action calls that don’t result in a pass attempt e.g. sacks, so the number of play-action calls per game will naturally be marginally higher than the number of pass attempts off play-action per game).


Shanahan is onto something – the options available to him and his offense are endless. Defenses can’t stop his deadly zone running game (144 rushing yards/game, 4.6 yards/carry). Run fakes carried out from under center are more effective due to timing, according to Shanahan himself. His quarterback led the league in passing yards off of play-action and in theory, there is no limit on how many play-action passes Shanahan can call before it becomes ineffective – it will continue to be productive despite the regularity with which he calls such plays.

With McVay coming back down to earth somewhat in 2019, Shanahan has rightfully ascended to the throne as the brightest offensive mind in football. Long may he reign.