Shanahan, as Falcons coordinator, with McVay, then the Redskins’ coordinator, and Washington coach Jay Gruden in 2015.

McVay to this day still has many of Gruden’s mannerisms. This was even more pronounced early in his career—something Shanahan and others would tease him about. The two young Redskins coaches admired one another, but their lives were not aligned for a close out-of-office friendship. McVay was a bachelor; Shanahan had a wife and young kids. They also have different personalities.

Wide receiver Pierre Garçon played for both Shanahan and McVay in Washington and now is with the former in San Francisco. He describes McVay as more playful, but touts Shanahan’s dry humor, which even after six years, can be hard for the veteran to detect. He’ll crack a joke when you’re not expecting, he says. And now he’s the head coach, so it’s even harder to know if he’s serious or not. When young guys come in, they’re not sure if he’s messing with them or if he’s being serious, because he keeps such a straight face.

They also see a game with its recent past and immediate future in mind. They don’t just spin a rolodex and pick out a play and hope it works, says Cousins. They have a reason for every play they call. And I think in coaching that isn’t as common as you think. A lot of coaches feel comfortable just pulling plays out of a hat and hoping a few of them work.

If the Niners and Rams fulfill expectations, plenty of NFL teams will start searching for the next young offensive-minded head coach. LaFleur’s background with both men, especially if it’s coupled with a strong performance from a Titans offense that lacks speed at wide receiver and is partly reworking quarterback Marcus Mariota, would propel him up many lists. (Though brace yourself for a cold dismissal if you bring this up to him. We’re just trying to get the next practice right, he says.)

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