In spring 2010, Washington’s new offensive coaching staff met for the first time. Coordinator Kyle Shanahan was leading a conversation about blocking the back side of a run play when tight ends coach Jon Embree offered up a suggestion.
Embree had worked for head coach Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, with the Denver Broncos 10 years earlier. Kyle liked Embree’s approach. He agreed with the suggestion, and the group moved on to the next play. Not 30 seconds later, the door to the room flew open. “No, no, no, no, no — nuh-uh,” Mike Shanahan said, according to Embree. “I don’t want to do it that way. And here’s why …”
“All the coaches were like, ‘Where did he come from?” Embree said.
Mike came from his office. He knew he didn’t like the blocking variation, intervening at the moment to fix the error before the staff wasted any more time, because he’d watched and listened to the entire discussion on a live feed from the meeting room that was playing out on screens in his office.
The elder Shanahan set up his facilities this way since his head coaching tenure with the Broncos, which included two Super Bowl victories. Kyle has taken a lot from his dad’s career and applied it to his own, including watching over his players and coaches from a perch high atop the organization. As Kyle prepares to coach his San Francisco 49ers in their second Super Bowl in five years, the surveillance state is just as much a part of the Shanahan tree as the outside zone run game.
It might not seem like an ideal workplace setup, but the majority of players and coaches interviewed for this story didn’t find the cameras intrusive. For current Niners and former Shanahan guys, this is just part of the job. Many said they assume they are being recorded and listened to at all times.
“I mean, you already know (Kyle) watches,” San Francisco left tackle Trent Williams said, laughing. “It’s like being on ‘Big Brother.’” Williams started his career under Mike Shanahan in Washington in 2010, so he’s used to this level of oversight. “I did some dumb rookie mistake and (Mike) busted in the room as soon as that play came on the screen afterward,” he said.
Is 49ers’ Brock Purdy the next Drew Brees? We asked an expert — Brees himself
In 2020, COVID protocols forced teams to update their video technology and make every meeting virtually accessible. When players and coaches were allowed to meet in person again, Kyle kept using the Zoom feature. Now, he can speak in a meeting room from his own office simply by unmuting himself. If he’s not physically in the room, he can be listening in — and he pays close attention to the quarterbacks.
“We always call that screen in our room the voice of God,” said third-string quarterback Brandon Allen.
“His voice just comes in from heaven,” said run game coordinator and offensive line coach Chris Foerster.
“We’d be talking about something, and he’d unmute and say, ‘Actually, you read it this way,’ and then he would mute again,” said quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who played for San Francisco in 2021. “So you gotta be careful what you say.”
The roots of the Shanahans’ video system took hold in another era of 49ers football.
When Mike Shanahan was hired as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 1992, he spent several weeks cramming. Bill Walsh had left to coach Stanford, and he left behind an enormous video library of teachings to help new coaches and players catch up quickly to his West Coast offense.
Shanahan saw the value in having material to refer back to, and when he got his second chance at a head coaching gig (in Denver in 1995 after a short-lived stint in charge of the L.A. Raiders from 1988-89) he made one important upgrade to Walsh’s method. The cameras in the Broncos’ meeting rooms didn’t just record for posterity; Shanahan created a live feed. He outfitted each position room with a CCTV-style camera aimed at the screen that showed the film players watched every day. Each of those cameras fed into his office, where he could toggle the audio from room to room.
“Mike was totally committed to it and took it to another level,” said Gary Kubiak, a longtime Shanahan assistant before taking over in Houston and Denver himself. “As a head coach, you can’t be everywhere. But if you’re sitting in your office and you want to know what’s going on in the receiver meeting or what’s going on at the linebacker meeting, you can flip on and just watch your coach teach or watch him handle his players.”
When Kubiak became a head coach in Houston in 2006, he ran a modified Shanahan surveillance scheme with cameras set up in the three meeting rooms. “You can’t be in three places at one time,” he said.
Several former Shanahan players said the head coach explained that the cameras were there for players’ use; they wouldn’t ever have to miss a meeting if they couldn’t be there in person. “But I imagined it was also just as important to know what your coaches were coaching — and maybe even more important,” said former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson.
“As my time expanded in the NFL, I realized it was more of a way for him to monitor the meetings and then keep coaches accountable because players would very rarely use that feature,” said former Washington tight end Logan Paulsen, who played for both Mike and Kyle. “The expectation was (players) would always be there.”
John Beck, who played quarterback for Mike and Kyle in Washington, is the rare player who utilized the camera footage. When he was traded to Washington during the 2010 preseason, he met with Kyle and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, now the Packers head coach. Beck was handed a case of DVDs where Kyle explained every read a quarterback would need to know in his offense. Beck spent his days at practice and in meetings. During the evenings, he worked his way through the stack of DVDs.
Beck said Mike once told him, “If I see a player making mistakes, the first thing I want to do is go to the coach: Was this communicated? Was he taught correctly? Because how can I expect the player to be doing it right if it hasn’t been communicated effectively, taught effectively and the player fully understood it.”
This, the coaching of coaches, seems to be the system’s primary use.
Foerster was the offensive line coach on Mike’s Washington staff. Under former O-line coach Alex Gibbs in Denver, Friday run game meetings had consisted of the coach ripping into all 11 offensive players, not just his linemen. But in 2010, Foerster was holding his first Friday meeting, and as he looked across a room full of veteran players, he thought to himself, “Am I going to yell at Santana Moss, all these guys?” From his office, Mike listened to Foerster going easy on the 10-year veteran receiver and the rest of the offense. But he didn’t listen long.
“All of a sudden, the door flies open and he comes in from his office,” Foerster said. “And he’s like, ‘Hey coach. This, Santana, that’s unacceptable. You have to get your ass in there and block that guy. And coach, you have to coach him harder to go do it.’
“I’m like, oh crap, here we go.”
As Foerster remembers it, Kyle sat at the back of the room, taking it all in.
Moss doesn’t remember this specific meeting. He said he actually doesn’t remember seeing the cameras in Washington at all. But when Mike was hired, Moss was familiar with Mike’s reputation for recording, he said, because he heard a story about how a Denver player was caught on tape stealing pizza from another position’s meeting room. And, come to think of it …
“He did used to come in at odd times of different individual meetings,” Moss said. “And I always wondered, like, how he knew to come in right there — how he knew that we were on this particular part of the tape.”
Paulsen also played outside of the Shanahan tree, and he noticed a difference in the level of detail among the Shanahans and the coaches in their tree. The different branches agreed.
“There’s details, and then there’s what those two guys do,” said Embree, now the Dolphins’ tight ends/assistant head coach. “They always say everybody runs the same plays. In theory, we do. But it’s the coaching points, it’s the little things that separate that play from being a 2-yard gain to an 8-yard gain to maybe a touchdown.”
“Not every assistant coach is made equally,” Jackson said. “You’re not gonna have 20-25 Matt LaFleurs on your staff, so it is one of those things where I think it helps the head coaches monitor the guys who they think might need a little bit of help understanding the big picture or explaining it.”
Paulsen thinks the camera system was an inventive method of quality control that helped streamline the coaching process.
“There would be places where I played where we’d get a presentation from the offensive line coach that wasn’t very detailed or didn’t really capture the vision of the team or what we are going to do that week from a run game standpoint, and then our position coach would have to retread that,” Paulsen said. “The offensive coordinator didn’t have the knowledge to identify that the meeting hadn’t gone well with the run game coordinator … and then make the corrections that need to be made.”
“At first, some coaches were like, ‘Uh oh, why does he want to hear what I’m saying?’ And they get paranoid,” Embree said. “But really with (Mike), as it is with Kyle, it was just making sure we’re saying the same thing. It’s so important that you speak the same language.”
Mike went so far as to take his camera setup on the road. Karl Dorell, who coached receivers in Denver from 2000-02 before head coaching stints at UCLA and Colorado, said the Broncos would bring the cameras to training camp at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colo., about an hour’s drive north. He remembered seeing Mike sitting at the back of a meeting room in front of a television listening to the other position meetings on headphones.
“To me, just understanding that there could be cameras anywhere,” Dorrell said. “Anywhere that I’ve been since then, I’ve always been extremely organized. Because you just don’t know … ”
In each meeting room in Denver, there was what looked like a normal light switch right next to the door. Washington-era Shanahan players described a dial. Either way, there was a method for coaches and players to turn off their audio feed for moments of freedom.
Every once in a while, Jackson’s position coach flipped the switch off, but “it wasn’t like some kind of mutiny.” “He wasn’t trying to talk sh– about the head coach,” Jackson said. “He was just trying to give some kind of real talk. There’s maybe a player at another position that did something stupid, and he wants to talk sh– about him.”
Paulsen said during a players-only meeting in his Washington years, “Mike came in, and out of respect for the players was like, ‘Hey, guys, make sure you turn the volume down on this if you don’t want me to hear it,’” So they did. Another time, Paulsen said, a representative of the NFLPA came to visit during the season ahead of the 2010 lockout, and they knew to turn the dial down so they could talk independently of the coaches.
“Mike’s like, ‘I get it. You guys want to sit in there and talk bad about me, talk bad about anyone, I don’t care. There’s a switch, you can turn your camera off, and it shuts everything down,” Embree said. “You guys can do whatever, just when you’re talking about football, make sure it’s on. It literally was not a ‘Big Brother’ thing.”
Because the Niners use Zoom technology to record and stream meetings, coaches can mute their feeds if they choose. Running backs coach Bobby Turner, a Shanahan staffer since 1996, said he turns the audio off any time he needs to have a personal conversation with a player.
Foerster said he forgets about the cameras. In Washington, he sometimes wouldn’t remember to turn the audio back on, and Mike’s assistant would come to his office and remind him. Every now and then, his current 49ers linemen will respond to a question by looking up at the camera and pointing at it, a sign for the coach to click the microphone icon and mute the feed.
He thinks the system actually makes players more comfortable because it eliminates the need for Kyle to be in the room with them. “Oftentimes the head coach walks in a meeting room and everybody changes,” Foerster said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And you don’t ask as many questions.”
That echoes a point Kyle made to The Athletic in 2020.
“I went to other places where they didn’t do that and I started to notice how much I hated it, just as a coordinator,” Shanahan said. “‘Cause I wanted the head coach to not have to come in and say, ‘Hey, did you cover this? Did you cover this?’ I’m like, ‘Why don’t you just watch? I covered it all and you’ll like it.’ But then they’d come in and watch and then everyone couldn’t talk and be themselves.”
For others, the rolling cameras can feel more like a breach of trust. Some coaches outside the Shanahan tree find the practice odd, and even some inside the tree had their reservations. Some players said they couldn’t help but censor themselves in their meeting rooms. “I would always taper back my jokes in there,” Sudfeld said. “I would try to make funny looks more than I would try to say stuff.”
Turner said he doesn’t know what players think about the cameras because he’s never asked. “This is what we do,” he said.
In a way, the system has democratized the Shanahans’ team facilities. Players and coaches alike know they are being judged, and it holds the entire organization to a higher standard. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking to think someone’s listening to you,” said 49ers assistant quarterbacks coach Klay Kubiak, Gary’s son. “But someone with that kind of experience and knowledge giving you their feedback and their expertise, it’s awesome.”
Plus, film doesn’t lie. In the offseason, Gary Kubiak said, coaches rewatched their own meetings, studying them as a form of self-scouting.
“A lot of people don’t do that — take a look at yourself and say, ‘Dang, if I was a player sitting in that room, I wouldn’t have understood that,’” Kubiak said. “So it makes you a better football coach.”
If anyone understands that, it might be Kyle Shanahan.
In 2012, Kyle reimagined Washington’s offense to fit rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, but he and Mike disagreed over certain aspects of the attack. After one meeting, Kyle headed to his father’s office, proud of his installation of the offense. He asked Mike what he thought. “He goes, ‘It was the worst install I’ve ever seen,” Kyle told ESPN a decade later. The two didn’t talk for days.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Turner said.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Greg Fiume, Cooper Neill / Getty Images)