The Mike McDaniel-Kyle Shanahan Origin Story

Since their earliest days in a cramped Houston office, Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel have been a formidable duo. On Sunday, the partners will be opponents.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The best game (basically) no one can watch is on Sunday in the Bay Area. The Miami Dolphins, led by Mike McDaniel, visit Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers.

But a quirk of TV scheduling logistics (and NBC’s love affair for the Dallas Cowboys) means that none of the top five TV markets — which make up for more than a sixth of all U.S. households — will get the game without DirecTV.

That’s a shame.

They’ll be missing not only a great game but a fascinating story: McDaniel — Coach of the Year candidate — trying to figure out how to beat the guy that basically made his career.

How Mike McDaniel Met Kyle Shanahan

McDaniel and Shanahan combined have nearly four decades of NFL coaching experience. But Sunday will be the first time they stand on opposing sidelines.

That makes sense, though, considering that before this year, McDaniel never had a full-time NFL coaching job for a team that didn’t have Shanahan on his staff.

This is a true big brother, little brother situation.

“Wherever I went, except a couple years he was out [of the league], he was always my assistant, so we were always grooming him,” Shanahan said.

Along with being three years older than McDaniel, Shanahan has always outranked him — including most recently in San Francisco, where McDaniel was the offensive coordinator in 2021, but Shanahan was the head coach and called the plays.

MORE: The Miami Dolphins’ Chances of Beating the San Francisco 49ers Have Improved Significantly

McDaniel owes his career to the Shanahan family. His first taste of NFL life was in 2000, when he was a ballboy for the Denver Broncos, who were coached at the time by Kyle’s father Mike.

After McDaniel graduated from Yale in 2005, he returned to Denver as a coaching intern. A year later, he joined Kyle on Gary Kubiak’s Houston Texans coaching staff.

“At first, I didn’t know him at all,” Shanahan told Bay Area reporters Wednesday. “Kubiak put him in my office and that’s how it starts.”

It was the start of something special.

For the next decade and a half, the two bright young offensive coaches were nearly inseparable. They would go on to work together in Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco — twice winning the NFC Championship only to fall short in the Super Bowl.

Much of that is ground long covered. What wasn’t really known, until this week: Why.

‘Our Computer’

There are thousands upon thousands of aspiring young coaches whose paths cross at an early age. What was it about this connection that turned out to be so special — and lasting?

“I don’t know. I’m hard to get rid of,” McDaniel said here Wednesday. “I think I recognized him as an ambitious coach that got into it to help players. I recognized in him early that he really could help players grow and live out their dreams.

“He knew more than anybody that I’d been around about football so you try to be a resource, and you try not to miss opportunities, especially ones right in front of your face. So maybe he felt bad for me or maybe he recognized that I was listening. Either way, it was a great working relationship that I’m very much grateful, indebted, and really don’t know where I’d be without it.”

In so many words, Shanahan characterized their early dynamic as the nerd and the jock. McDaniel, at 5-9, had a hard ceiling as an athlete. Shanahan was a Division I wide receiver who played with Roy Williams, Cedric Benson, and Chris Simms at Texas.

“He was a lot more educated in terms of he went to Yale, and I went to some good schools, but it was for sports, so he was very like well-read and typing everything up, and I was so much football and he just soaked everything in, memorized everything,” Shanahan said of their earliest days together.

“And whatever happened, he was someone I could always carry the conversation with what’s going on in the receiver room, really how I saw football, and he could soak it all in and he spent three years of that.

“I went to [coach] quarterbacks and he came with me to quarterbacks, and then I was the coordinator the third year, and he was doing everything we needed for a coordinator in the third year, so we had all the experience together and then he ended up leaving going to [the United Football League].

“And then when I got to Washington, bringing him back, it was just no one had been one-on-one with me that long, so that was kind of the neatest thing about it.

“And Mike, I’d always say he was our computer like, ‘What did I say on this last year at this time?’ and Mike could always retain that stuff and was really good at it. And then we went through so much together, how different Washington was then Houston, just schematically how many things that we had to change.

“I also think anytime you have a [quality control coach], those are the guys as a coordinator you depend on the most. When you’re a coordinator and the players come in, everyone goes to their offices and teaches the players, and then you go back in your room and you try to put a plan together. And there’s not many people available that aren’t in rooms coaching the tight ends or the O-line.”

Mike McDaniel-Kyle Shanahan I

All these years later, they are atop their profession, coaching teams with Super Bowl aspirations. It would only be natural for nerves, at least for McDaniel, but it’s not like he hasn’t had high-profile coaching showdowns already in his short time in Miami.

In just 11 games, he’s already beaten three Super Bowl champions: Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, and Mike Tomlin. The moment wasn’t too big for him then. And he insists it won’t be too big [or awkward] for him now.

“No, absolutely not,” he said. “The relationships with everyone are real… But that’s neither here nor there. The players, the people in the building, and the coaching staff; everyone is depending on me to do my job as they’re dependent – I directly affect a lot of people in that regard. So it’s very easy for me because it’s principally, I think, the incorrect way to look at it. This isn’t a team to service me.”

McDaniel added: “They have a very good team, coached very well, and they play really hard. …This is just great football between two teams that haven’t lost in a minute, and generally, when you haven’t lost in a minute, you don’t want to feel that feeling, so there’s a lot of incentive on both sides to make sure that they end up on top.

“And isn’t that why we do football? That’s why we follow it. That’s why you guys report it. It’s not because I say cool things or look cool. I promise you that. It’s because you really appreciate in life when things have to be earned, not given. And this will be a game that the winner will definitely earn for sure.”

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