When the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers square off in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, it will not just be a meeting of the league’s most talented quarterback against its most complete team. It will also be a matchup of the two greatest offensive minds in the game today.
They are in different stages of career and their journeys to this point have been markedly different, but no other offensive coach in the league does creativity and innovation to the level of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and 49ers boss Kyle Shanahan.
Despite the strength of the Niners defense and the improvements made by that of the Chiefs down the stretch, you will find few in Miami willing to bet against a shootout at Hard Rock Stadium.
It’s a 61-year-old veteran against the 40-year-old christened as a genius almost throughout the league, and their intelligence and incredible acumen are sure to help keep the scoreboard ticking in what many expect to be a classic Super Bowl.
Kansas City Chiefs – Andy Reid
A former assistant of Mike Holmgren with the Green Bay Packers, Reid was schooled in the West Coast offense that Holmgren was immersed in during his time working under the legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh.
The West Coast is an offense that is built on the principle of getting the ball to the receivers in space from them to gain yardage after the catch.
Reid has stuck to that tenet of the scheme, but the genius in his approach lies with how he has incorporated the deep pass. The West Coast system may be designed to put players in space, but the Chiefs, through drafting the likes of Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, have added players so fast that they create their own space.
Star quarterback Patrick Mahomes attempted a deep pass of 20 yards or more at the ninth-highest rate in the NFL this season, despite missing the best part of 11 quarters with a knee injury, with the 2.4 yards of separation from the nearest defender his receivers averaged on those passes the second-highest amount in the league.
Such is Reid’s faith in Mahomes’ arm and the speed of his receivers, that one of the Chiefs’ most frequent play-calls if four verticals – essentially just four receivers running straight down the field.
— NFL (@NFL) December 29, 2019
The raw pace the Chiefs have at their disposal allows Reid the luxury of stretching defenses deep, but he also uses their physical gifts to test opponents horizontally as well. Reid will frequently send his running back in motion to shift defenders over to a certain side of the field and make them respect the possibility of a short throw to that area, opening greater pockets of space downfield.
— NFL (@NFL) September 15, 2019
Respect for such motion is a result of the impact Hill has made on jet sweeps and reverses out of the backfield, the former fifth-round pick adept at ripping off significant gains through plays that are effectively an extension of the running game.
— NFL (@NFL) January 19, 2020
Further downfield, Reid also utilizes the speed of his wideouts with deep crossing patterns that give defenders, as Raiders safety Karl Joseph found out in Week 2, a difficult decision to make as to who to cover. The combination of the Chiefs’ speed and Reid’s play-calls so often puts defenses in a bind, which is something his opposite number Shanahan seemingly revels in finding new ways to do.
— NFL (@NFL) September 15, 2019
San Francisco 49ers – Kyle Shanahan
The only team that ranks above the Chiefs in average separation on deep passes is the 49ers. Jimmy Garoppolo’s completion percentage of 58.1 on deep throws is the best in the league, above Mahomes in second (47.1).
San Francisco and Garoppolo’s presence at the top of those respective lists will surprise many given their postseason successes over the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers were built around a dominant running game.
But the fact the Niners are able to flourish on the ground and send it deep is testament to Shanahan, who creates huge holes for his troop of electric running backs with an outside zone scheme that is an extension of what his father Mike ran in Denver and Washington. Shanahan also does an excellent job of recognising a defense’s weak link and relentlessly taking advantage of it to get his receivers open.
A master of misdirection and disguise, no coach in the NFL relies on motion and play-action more than Shanahan, and the results have been devastatingly impressive for a team that finished the regular season second in points per game with 29.9.
The two players that are most crucial to Shanahan’s consistent success with deception are Kyle Juszczyk and rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Juszczyk is the Niners’ Swiss Army knife. Many balked at the $21millon contract the Niners gave the fullback in 2017, but he has more than proved his worth.
The Niners do not use him as strictly a traditional fullback, they deploy him as a tight end and as a slot receiver as well as in the backfield, and the fact he has the athleticism to block and catch passes from each of those spots makes it near-impossible to decipher what his responsibility on a given play.
— NFL (@NFL) December 30, 2019
Deebo Samuel put ’em in a spin cycle.
— NFL (@NFL) December 30, 2019
Juszczyk was the lead blocker on Samuel’s touchdown on a reverse in the 49ers’ crucial Week 17 win at the Seattle Seahawks that clinched a bye and homefield advantage in the playoffs for San Francisco.
Samuel has slotted seamlessly into the offense, racking 802 receiving yards, but the threat of him as a runner out of the backfield has allowed Shanahan to add another dimension to his attack, forcing defenders to hesitate when he comes across the formation, as they did when he ended up being the lead blocker for one of four Raheem Mostert touchdowns in the NFC Championship game.
— NFL (@NFL) January 20, 2020
Stopping the Niners’ diverse ground attack will be a primary focus of Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo but, with Shanahan being such a savant of disguise and having the likes of Juszczyk and Samuel at his disposal, it is difficult how to see that goal can be achieved in what will be a points fest if he and Reid perform at their play-calling peak.