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Why this week's 49ers-Packers game could help shape the NFL's next decade

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In this file photo, head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49 ers talks with Jimmy Garoppolo prior to Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium on February 2, 2020 in Miami, Florida.

In this file photo, head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers talks with Jimmy Garoppolo (10) prior to Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium on February 2, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/TNS)

To the naked eye, the 2011 Washington Football Team was a wholly unremarkable collection of talent that stumbled to a forgettable 5-11 record and last-place finish in the NFC East.

A decade later, fans aren't exactly clamoring to see Rex Grossman throw deep to Jabar Gaffney again, but it's increasingly clear that team has an outsized impact on the way the modern NFL operates.

A peek at Mike Shanahan's Washington coaching staff reveals why.

His offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, his quarterbacks coach, Matt LaFleur, and his tight ends coach, Sean McVay, are three of the four head coaches vying for a berth in next week's NFC Championship Game. Kyle's offense never scored 30 points in a game, LaFleur couldn't coax more touchdowns than interceptions out of Grossman, and McVay's two-time Pro Bowl tight end, Chris Cooley, recorded eight catches before landing on injured reserve, but game planning sessions proved to be a meeting of minds that shaped today's most dynamic offenses.

If recent history is any indication, the next decade will be dominated by Shanahan, LaFleur, McVay and their current assistants, who are poised to become the latest branches on the league's fastest-growing coaching trees.

49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, 37, and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, 38, each acknowledged Wednesday plans to interview with teams looking to fill head coaching vacancies. Ryans is talking with the Minnesota Vikings, who have also reportedly spoken to assistants working under LaFleur, the Packers head coach, and McVay, the Rams head coach.

"I've seen head coach qualities out of DeMeco when he was a player, when he was a quality control (coach), when he was a linebacker coach, and now when he is a coordinator," Kyle Shanahan said last week. "So he's always had those qualities. It's just about him getting the reps and getting the experience. It's a matter of time with him."

The Vikings are reportedly interested in Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as well as Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who coached alongside Kyle Shanahan in Washington from 2012-2014 and again with the Atlanta Falcons from 2015-2016.

McDaniel, meanwhile, is a candidate with the Miami Dolphins, who have reportedly also requested permission to speak with Rams assistant head coach Thomas Brown.

"(Mike is) really good at what he does," Shanahan said of McDaniel Tuesday. "He's himself. He's one of the smartest coaches I've been around and he's been huge to our team and huge for me throughout my entire career."

Ryans is only in his first season as the 49ers' defensive coordinator, but he followed in the footsteps of Robert Saleh, who became one of the most visible branches on Shanahan's coaching tree last offseason when he left San Francisco to become the head coach of the New York Jets.

Saleh never worked under Mike Shanahan in Washington, but he was part of an earlier NFL staff that also maintains significant influence in coaching circles around the league. Saleh's first NFL coaching job came in 2006, when he served as the defensive quality control coach under Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak.

Kubiak's Texans staffs employed Kyle Shanahan as a wide receivers coach and LaFleur and McDaniel as offensive assistants. Those Texans teams also featured one of the league's premier middle linebackers, Ryans, who won the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2006 before being named to his first Pro Bowl in 2007.

Ryans didn't retire until 2015 and didn't start coaching until joining Shanahan's first 49ers staff as a defensive quality control coach in 2017, but his rise has been rapid.

"I don't want to lose (Ryans) yet," Kyle Shanahan said rather candidly. "So hopefully, for my sake, and the Niners' sake, they let him get a few more years here. But I know he's ready."

Neither Ryans nor McDaniel has more than a year of formal coordinator experience, but their youth isn't a deterrent in league circles. NFL franchises have been aggressive in recent years pursuing young, innovative minds to lead their teams, particularly after McVay and Shanahan built strong reputations as first-time head coaches.

In 2017, McVay became the youngest head coach in NFL history at 30 and soon was the youngest to lead his team to a Super Bowl appearance at 33. Shanahan was by far the youngest coach in San Francisco franchise history when he took over the 49ers at 37 and was still the second-youngest coach in the NFL when he won the 2019 NFC title game at 40.

Since the end of the 2018 season, 10 NFL franchises — more than 30% of teams — have hired new head coaches who were under 45 years old. McVay, 35, remains the youngest NFL head coach, and two members of his tree, Bengals coach Zac Taylor and Chargers coach Brandon Staley, have yet to turn 40.

Age may not matter much, but a mastery of the craft and an ability to build genuine, authentic relationships with players certainly does. That's one of the reasons McDaniel looks prepared to take the next step.

"When I first started working with Kyle in Houston, one of the first things that stood out to me when he was giving me advice was it's extremely important to be authentic," McDaniel said Wednesday. "The bottom line is players want to succeed as much if not more than coaches and they're living their dream so if you can show them you're a tool in realizing their dream, that's all they want."

When the 49ers meet the Packers at Lambeau Field on Saturday, the outcome will do more than dictate which team advances to the NFC Championship Game and which will have its season end on the spot. The assistant coaches working under Shanahan and LaFleur will have another high-profile opportunity to leave an impression on decision-makers around the league searching for the next rising star.

The men in charge support those endeavors, too.

"I didn't want people to hold me back when I had a chance to improve my career, a chance to help my family out and go forward," the 49ers' Shanahan said last winter. "That's why, if you have someone who's getting a huge opportunity, that's something that me, John (Lynch), I know Jed (York), we always want to try to do what's best for the organization, but we also want to help people out."

Given the current trends in NFL hiring patterns and the up-and-coming assistants gaining credibility each week, there's a good chance coaches involved in Saturday's game such as Ryans, McDaniel and Hackett will play major roles in shaping the way the league looks in the coming years.

Shanahan's 49ers' staff and Lafleur's Packers' staff may not feature the same kind of star power the 2011 Washington meeting rooms contained, but a decade ago, no one would have guessed the type of impact that group would have in the years ahead.

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