Football is a cyclical game. Teams are always trying new things—plays, formations, coverages—to get an edge. Some innovations work for a few weeks, some for a season. Others, like creative pre-snap motion, become part of every team’s playbook. In time, every innovation is either foiled or copied.
The NFL is in the midst of another schematic revolution. In the past two decades, innovations percolated from the college level up to the pros. This time, though, teams around the league are embracing an old brand of football with a modern face.
At the fore of this revolution are the San Francisco 49ers, representing the NFC in this weekend’s Super Bowl. San Francisco led the league in every major offensive category this season, including rushing and passing efficiency. Their coach, Kyle Shanahan, is a wunderkind who has befuddled opposing defensive coordinators and elevated his quarterback, Brock Purdy, from the final man selected in the 2022 NFL draft to the heights of the football world. Shanahan’s assistants have filled coaching vacancies around the league as teams strive to imitate San Francisco’s success.
Shanahan succeeds by zigging as the football world zags. Where high school and college teams across the country have traded neck-roll-wearing fullbacks and plodding tight ends for speedier wide receivers, Shanahan’s 49ers use a fullback more than any other team. Colleges have all but ditched traditional under-center formations for the shotgun, while Shanahan’s pro-style, under-center formations call to mind your father’s 49ers. And as the football world seeks to stretch defenses with wide, spread sets, Shanahan uses condensed formations—with the wide receivers aligned close to the tight ends and offensive linemen.
Shanahan’s offense is predicated on the “outside zone,” which his father, Mike, used to win consecutive Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999. The premise is simple. At the snap, all five offensive linemen take steps in concert to the “play side” of the formation. Their goal: to “outflank,” or beat to the sideline, the defender in their “zone.” If they succeed in sealing off their assigned defender, the running back is left with a huge gap to the play side.
If they don’t—or if the defense anticipates the play and “outflanks” the offense—the running back is often left with a giant “cut back” lane on the opposite side of the play:
As The Ringer’s Ben Solak notes, because this play requires the defense to move laterally, Shanahan can set up passing plays that mirror his running plays, leading to easy throws for the quarterback:
2019 was the year Kittle was a First-Team All-Pro and the second straight season he put up 1,000 yards receiving. And don’t forget – he also helped lead an exciting 49ers team to a Super Bowl appearance. 🙌pic.twitter.com/M4Gmz1ZuiK— NFL (@NFL) April 15, 2022
Each of these plays, you’ll notice, uses a fullback—the bulky blocker who lines up in front of the running back. At the start of the 2024 season, only 14 NFL teams listed a fullback on their roster; at the college level, the fullback position is all but extinct. Not in San Francisco. Shanahan signed fullback Kyle Juszczyk to a $21 million contract in 2017, the largest for a fullback in league history. “When you have a fullback out there, that’s the only time an offense can fully dictate what’s going on,” Shanahan said. “If you don’t have a fullback in there, there are certain things a defense can do where you have to throw the ball.”
Making this choice in an era that puts a premium on speed, Shanahan has cracked the code. By using “heavier” personnel, he forces defensive coordinators to make a decision: play a beefier linebacker to match the offense’s power in the running game, at the risk of having a slower defender on the field for a pass, or stick with a quicker, scrawnier defensive back who is better able to cover the pass but could get exposed by San Francisco’s brawling fullback and tight end on a running play. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
This is characteristic of how Shanahan’s offense succeeds: he gets defenses to anticipate one thing, only to deliver something else. He breaks the huddle with an All-Pro running back and fullback, only to line up with an empty backfield. He plays the running back, Christian McCaffrey, as a wide receiver, and the wide receiver, Deebo Samuel, as a running back. He motions a tight end and pulls an offensive lineman right, then throws a screen pass left. For Shanahan, what started as a spin-off of his father’s wide-zone scheme has become an exercise in deception. As Solak put it, “The keystone of the 49ers offense is that you think it’s one thing, and it turns out it’s something else.”
The Shanahan system is not without critics, and it bucks the prevailing philosophy at the high school and college levels. The antithesis to his approach is that popularized by the late Mike Leach, the eccentric Texas Tech and Mississippi State head coach who midwifed the “Air Raid” offense into the football mainstream. The Air Raid is an up-tempo, no-huddle offense predicated on passing and snapping the ball as many times as possible. It is a relatively simple system, with short, often five-to-seven-word play calls, which communicate to the quarterback, receivers, and linemen one of a handful of staple route combinations (where the receivers run after the snap) and protection schemes (how the line blocks defensive pass rushers).
Where Shanahan uses long huddles and short running plays to keep opposing offenses on the sideline, Leach believed that “the greatest time of possession in the world is a touchdown.” Leach disdained the strategic precision of Shanahan-style offenses, with their 17-word play calls and elaborate pre-snap motions, for the chaos of a pass-first, on-the-move offense that never gave defenses a chance to adjust.
Whether Shanahan’s or Leach’s vision wins out in the long run remains to be seen. Coincidentally, though, one crucial player in this Sunday’s Super Bowl—Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes—played in an Air Raid offense at Texas Tech. Consider this year’s Super Bowl a referendum, perhaps, on the future of America’s game.
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