Which NFC West coach is the better football mind?
By: Chris Thomas
When NFL teams are going through the process of hiring a new head coach, they look to hire a head coach that could become what Sean McVay has been for the Los Angeles Rams and Kyle Shanahan for the San Fransisco 49ers. Both McVay and Shanahan have a lot in common. Not only do they coach teams in the NFC West, but they are also young offensive gurus that are both from the Jon Gruden coaching tree and already considered two of the league’s best head coaches. Since the two of them have so much in common and play with each other twice a year they are constantly compared. Both have been head coaches of their respective teams since 2017 so the leagues have been exposed to both coaches in action for a couple of seasons.
If the two were compared who is considered who would be considered the better coach. There are multiple categories that could be compared between both coaches that will dictate who is the better coach. Here is the comparison of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan.
Success before landing a head coaching job
Even before McVay and Shanahan were head coaches they were both considered two great young offensive minds. Here is a recap of what they did before they landed their current positions.
McVay started with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an offensive assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. After four seasons as an assistant coach in Washington, he became the team’s offensive coordinator in 2014 replacing Kyle Shanahan.
During McVay’s first year as the team’s offensive coordinator Washington was around the middle of the league in every offensive category but was below average in every category except total yards, passing yards, and rushing touchdowns. That is solid considering the inconsistency they had at quarterback with Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, and Colt McCoy starting games throughout the season.
In year two as Washington’s offensive coordinator, the team’s offense took a leap forward. Washington was able to win the NFC East with a 9-7 record and improve to become a top-15 offense in almost all offensive categories. Their offense was led by the combination of quarterback Kirk Cousins (who was the team’s full-time starting quarterback) and tight end Jordan Reed.
During the 2016 season, McVay appeared to have a great grip on his offense. They finished the year 8-7-1 but had Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson finish the year with over 1,000+ receiving yards and three touchdowns each. Also, Jamison Crowder had 847 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Kirk Cousins had a career-high 4,917 yards and made the Pro Bowl. This offensive performance helped McVay get hired as the youngest head coach in NFL history.
Similar to McVay, Shannon started his NFL coaching career as an Offensive quality control coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004. He had a lot more years of experience in the NFL and as an offensive coordinator before landing his opportunity with the 49ers.
After two seasons as the Houston Texan’s wide receiver and quarterback coach Shanahan was promoted to Texan’s offensive coordinator in 2008. They finished with a top-10 passing offense and top-15 rushing attack. The following season they finished in the top-10 in the league in points scored, total yards, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. Matt Schaub made the Pro Bowl that season after throwing 4,770 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Shanahan then spent the next four seasons in Washington as their offensive coordinator. He coached Washington to be a top-10 passing offense with an aging Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman under center. The next season was not so fruitful as the team had a 5-11 record with Grossman as the full time starter. Washington’s offense in 2011 was near the bottom of the league in almost every category. But the following season in 2012 was one of the most dynamic that Shanahan has ever coached. Shanahan’s offense, that featured second overall pick Robert Griffin III under center and sixth round pick rookie Alfred Morris leading the team in carries, got Washington to 10-6 and into the playoffs. Their rushing attack in 2012 was first in rushing yards, second in rushing touchdowns, and third in rushing attempts in the league. Alfred Morris had a break out year with 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. Also Griffin III rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2013 Washington did not perform as well as they did the year before, but managed to maintain a near elite rushing attack. Morris followed up his outstanding rookie season with 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns.
During the 2014 season Shanahan spent the year with the Cleveland Browns. Shanahan was dealing with a team with bellow average talent with a few young pieces that needed some development as well. So his team did not produce at the level that he would have liked. In specific offensive stats Cleveland was all over the spectrum as far as production compared to the rest of the league. But overall Cleveland finished near the bottom of the league.
After resigning in Cleveland, Shanahan spent the next two seasons in Atlanta. The Falcons finished with a top-10 passing offense in 2015 in Shanahan’s offense. Atlanta had three Pro Bowlers on the offensive side of the ball that season including Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. The next season the Atlanta Falcons had one of (if not) the best offenses in the entire league. They finished first in the league in points. Atlanta also was second in the league in total yards and passing touchdowns. They were also third in the league in passing yards and rushing touchdowns. The Falcons rushing attack finished as the fifth-ranked in the league in rushing yards. Matt Ryan had the best season of his career being named First Team All-Pro and league MVP after throwing for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns. Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones were once again named Pro Bowlers after finishing the year with over 1,400+ scrimmage yards each.
Winner: Kyle Shanahan
Since both McVay and Shanahan have been highly regarded head coaches since 2017 organizations have poached assistants from their staff to bring a similar playing style and impact to their teams. If a coaching staff keeps losing assistant coaches every year that means that staff is able to produce consistent success and that the head coach is considered a good teacher to his assistants. Here are their former assistants who have gotten promotions on other rosters.
During McVay’s first season as the Rams head coach his offensive coordinator was Matt LaFleur. Shortly later LaFleur became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. LaFleur has had one the best starts to a coaching career in NFL history posting a 26-6 record with two NFC Championship appearances.
Zac Taylor, who formerly the Rams quarterback coach in 2018, was hired as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2019. Even though Taylor has not had great success in his first two seasons as a head coach, it is meaningful that he went straight from quarterback coach to head coach after coaching under McVay.
Even though he is technically a part of Vic Fangio’s coaching tree, Brandon Staley’s hiring as the Los Angeles Charger’s head coach should be considered another plus or Sean McVay. After letting go of Wade Phillips in 2020, the Rams hired Denver Bronco’s outside linebacker coach Brandon Staley to fill their void at defensive coordinator. In his first season in the role, Staley’s defense was the best in the league and earned him an NFL head coaching job despite a lack of overall coaching experience.
Shane Waldron has never been a NFL head coach, but was an assistant coach on McVay’s staff for four years who has earned a promotion this past offseason. After being the teams passing game coordinator for three seasons Waldron was just hired as the Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator this offseason.
The only members of Kyle Shanahan’s coaching tree who were promoted to a higher role on a different team are Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur. This offseason the New York Jets hired Robert Saleh to be the team’s head coach after being the 49ers defensive coordinator for the past four seasons. Saleh is considered one of the best defensive coaches in the league and a great culture guy to have in the locker room. Saleh brought over 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur to be the team’s offensive coordinator.
Winner: Sean McVay
Offensive Production throughout the years
Both coaches’ careers have been defined by their offensive success. So when comparing both coaches it is extremely important to consider the exact production of their offenses since they became head coaches.
During Sean McVay’s first season with the Rams, they had a top-10 offense. They were tenth in the league in total yards (5,784 yards) and led the league in points scored (averaged 29.9 per game). That season the Rams were tenth in passing yards (3,831 yards) and sixth in passing touchdowns (28). They also finished the year eighth in rushing yards (1,953) and fifth in rushing touchdowns (17). Second-year quarterback Jared Goff was named a Pro Bowler that season. Running back Todd Gurley was named a First-Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler.
In 2018 the Rams offense was in the conversation for best in the league. They finished second in both total yards (6,738) and points scored (32.9 per game). Los Angeles was fifth in the league in passing yards (4,507) and eighth in the league in passing touchdowns (32). They also finished the year with the third-most rushing yards (2,231) and second in the league in rushing touchdowns (23). Jared Goff was named to the Pro Bowl for the second year in a row. Also, Todd Gurley was named First Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler for the second straight year.
The next year the Rams offense was not as dominant as they were in the prior two seasons. Los Angeles did have the seventh most total yards in the league (5,998) and eleventh in points scored (24.6 per game). They finished in the top-5 once again in passing yards with the fourth-most in the league (4,499) but finished 19th in passing touchdowns (22) that season. They also finished near the bottom of the league in rushing yards ranking 26th in the league (1,499). But the Rams did finish fourth in the league in rushing touchdowns (20). They did not have a single offensive Pro Bowler that season.
This year the Rams offense was solid but not as flashy as it had been in previous years. They finished just outside the top-ten in total yards (6,032) and 22nd in points (18.5 per game). The Rams were 13th in the league in passing yards (4,014) and 26th in passing touchdowns (20). Their running game did improve as they finished tenth in the league in both rushing yards (1,460) and touchdowns (19). For the second straight year the Rams did not have an offensive Pro Bowler.
Kyle Shanahan did not have outstanding offensive numbers during his first season with the 49ers. They finished 12th in the league in total yards (5,587) and 20th in the league in points (20.7 per game). San Fransisco had the ninth-most passing yards (3,925) in the league despite having three different starting quarterbacks throughout the season in C.J. Beathard, Brian Hoyer, and Jimmy Garoppolo. But they also finished 28th in the league in passing touchdowns (15). The 49ers finished 21st in the league in rushing yards (1,662) and seventh in the league in rushing touchdowns (15). The only Pro Bowler out of the 49ers skill players that season was fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
His year did not go very well either offensively since starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was limited to three games due to injury. They finished 16th in the league in total yards (5,769) and 21st i the league in total points (21.3). Despite having backup quarterback play throughout the season they finished 15th in the league in passing yards (3,867) and 17th in passing touchdowns (26). The 49ers rushing attack was okay that season as well after finishing the year 13th in rushing yards (1,902) and 30th in rushing touchdowns (7). Second-year tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk were the only 49ers Pro Bowl position players.
In 2019 the 49ers offense was one of the most dangerous in the league. They finished the year fourth in total yards (6,097) and second in total points (29.9 per game). San Fransisco had a solid passing offense finishing 13th in passing yards (3,792) and tenth in passing touchdowns (28). Their running attack is what made them so dominant. The 49ers were second in the league in rushing yards (2,305) and led the league in rushing touchdowns (23). Despite how well the 49ers played they only had two Pro Bowlers in George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk. But Kittle was also named first-team All-Pro after breaking the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season (now currently held by Travis Kelce).
This past season the 49ers offense came back to earth and was okay. This was due to all the major injures the 49ers suffered across their roster. They finished 15th in the league in total yards (5,922) and 21st in the league in total points (23.5). The 49ers were 12th in the league in passing yards (4,033) and 19th in the league in passing touchdowns (25) even though they had three starting quarterbacks throughout the season in Jimmy Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard, and Nick Mullens. Their running attack was dynamic for a backfield that suffered multiple injuries throughout the season. They finished 15th in the league in rushing yards (1,889) and tenth in rushing touchdowns (19). Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was the 49ers only Pro Bowler this past season.
Winner: Sean McVay
Elevating Player Production
An important part of evaluating coaching is paying attention to how the coach’s scheme or coaching has positively impacted the players. A great coach should be able to elevate the play of a disappointing player or a late round draft pick. Here are examples of offensive players who played better once they played for Sean McVay’s Rams or Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers.
The Los Angeles Rams front office has always surrounded Sean McVay with premier talent. So it is hard to pick out many players that were impacted by McVay’s coaching. However, two players who made huge jumps once they played for McVay in Los Angeles were wide receiver Robert Woods and quarterback Jared Goff. Before signing with the Rams in 2017, Woods had never broken 700 receiving yards or six touchdowns in Buffalo. He was widely regarded as a bust, considering he was a former second-round pick who was supposed to eventually become the Bills top receiver. But since joining Los Angeles, Woods has two seasons with over 1,100 receiving yards and three seasons with 5+ receiving touchdowns. McVay has turned Woods into a number one receiving option for the Rams. While during Jared Goff’s rookie season he lost all seven starts, averaged 155.6 passing yards per game, and threw five touchdowns to seven interceptions. He did not look great at all. McVay turned that quarterback into a two-time Pro Bowler during the next two seasons. Even though Goff was never dynamic, he was a fantastic distributor who knew how to use the weapons around him.
Kyle Shanahan on the other hand has multiple examples of players who have flourished and played at their highest level under him. He turned fifth-round pick tight end George Kittle into one of the best weapons in the NFL. Kittle is without a doubt the 49er’s number one receiving option and has had two 1,000+ yard receiving seasons in the past three years. Shanahan has also gotten great production out of undrafted free-agent running backs. He turned Raheem Mostert, who was cut by six different teams, into a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber running back. Shanahan has also gotten outstanding production out of former undrafted free agent Jeff Wilson Jr. who has eleven rushing touchdowns in the past two seasons. On the offensive line former first-round pick Laken Tomlinson struggled during his first few seasons in Detroit but has established himself as an important piece of the 49er’s offensive line the past couple of years. Shanahan has also gotten great production out of former Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens who has developed into a solid backup.
Winner: Kyle Shanahan
Head to Head Record versus opposing coach
Since Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are both head coaches in the NFC West it is important to note how they have performed against each other. They have played each other eight times over the last four seasons. In head-to-head action against each other Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers have beaten Sean McVay’s Rams five times out of the eight games they have played. San Fransisco has won the last four times they have played Los Angeles. The 49ers averaged 27 points a game when playing the Rams since 2017. While the Rams have averaged 28.8 points per game against the 49ers during that span.
Winner: Kyle Shanahan
Team Record since 2017
Not only the head to head record of both Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay be considered, but the overall record is very important when determining who has been the better head coach.
Since being named the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, Sean McVay has a 43-21 regular-season record. That is the fourth-best record in the NFL during that span. They also have two division titles in the last four seasons.
Kyle Shanahan has not had fantastic success overall during the regular season since entering the league. He is below .500 with a 29-35 record which is the 18th best during the league in that span. They have finished with the second worst record in the league twice under Shanahan. But San Fransisco did win the division in 2019-20.
Winner: Sean McVay
A huge factor in this decision is how both teams have performed in the playoffs also will determine whether Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay has the upper hand. Since Sean McVay has become the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams they have been to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. While Kyle Shanahan has only brought the San 49ers to the playoffs once in his first four seasons in the league. Both have made it to the Super Bowl but both fell short.
In 2017 the Rams made the playoffs in McVay’s first season. But fell short losing in the Wild Card round the Atlanta Falcons 26-13. The following season the Rams had a bye in the wild card round and beat the Dallas Cowboys 30-22 in the Divisional round. The next week Los Angeles beat the New Orleans Saints in a controversial game in overtime 26-23. But their offense failed to show up during the Super Bowl when they lost 13-3 to the New England Patriots. After missing the playoffs in 2019, the Rams made the playoffs this year. In the Wild Card round the Rams defeated the Seattle Seahawks at home 30-20. But they fell short of the NFC Championship game when they lost to the Green Bay Packers 32-17 in Green Bay.
The 49ers were the number one seed during the 2019-20 season. They had a bye in the first round and beat the red hot Minnesota Vikings 27-10 behind a dominant running game in the Divisional round. The next week San Fransisco demolished the Green Bay Packers defeating them in the NFC Championship 37-20. Running back Raheem Mostert rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns during that game. But the 49ers just fell short of a Super Bowl victory losing to the Kansas City Chiefs 31-20.
Winner: Kyle Shanahan
When comparing important factors of both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan’s coaching career the clear-cut winner is Kyle Shanahan. Despite not having the great overall team success, Shanahan is outstanding at elevating players and getting high levels of production out of players who may be backups for a different team. His multiple years as an offensive coordinator prepared him very well for his head coaching job and has him looking like a veteran coach despite only having the job for four seasons. That veteran experience has shown up in the film room because he has done well against division rivals like Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams since becoming the 49ers head coach. In 2019 Shanahan showed that when his team is healthy that his offense could be as dominant as any in the NFL despite not having premier talent at every position.