How the Shanahan family legacy is informing the draft’s toughest decision

  • Senior Writer for and ESPN The Magazine
  • Joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri.
  • Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.

IN THE AFTERMATH, the son was at a podium below Hard Rock Stadium, trying to explain for the second time in four years why a team that he was a member of had blown a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl. The father stood near the entrance to the San Francisco 49ers locker room, his eyes both angry and stunned. Mike Shanahan was 67 years old at the time, but he always has been one of those men who never seems to age. Losses — some of which felt eerily similar to this one — wore on him more than time. For most of the night, they had watched Kyle’s quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, outplay Patrick Mahomes. Then, with six minutes left and San Francisco up 20-10, the 49ers’ defense collapsed. Mahomes threw two touchdown passes in a four-minute span. With 2:39 to go, Garoppolo had a chance to pull off what he had done seven times in his short career, what he had watched Tom Brady pull off twice up close in Super Bowls: a last-minute comeback. He hit two passes for 24 yards.

You know what happened next. A tipped pass. A near interception. An overthrow deep to Emmanuel Sanders, for what might have been a go-ahead touchdown. A fourth-down sack, and the ball back to the Chiefs to seal it. Mahomes, passed over by nine teams in the 2017 draft, was named MVP and raised the bar forever on what a quarterback can accomplish in his first two seasons as a starter. Garoppolo, and Kyle Shanahan, were left to replay missed opportunities. The line in the NFL between very, very good and immortal was again drawn — and again, the Shanahan family had found itself on the wrong side of it.

BARELY MORE THAN a year later, in mid-March, Kyle Shanahan stood in front of a virtual press conference and tried to explain the blockbuster trade of the 2021 draft: why the 49ers shipped two future first-round picks and a third-round pick, and swapped first-rounders this year, to move up for a chance to pick who likely will be the third quarterback selected. Like his dad, Kyle has always looked young — has always had a precociousness to him — but by now, after one winning season as a head coach and being a part of two close Super Bowl losses the past five years, he looks like a veteran, 41-year-old who feels the press of time. He wore a beard, highlighted by streaks of gray. This trade was a big bet, and he knew it. He explained the decision in honest terms, of seeing a rare opportunity to draft one of a few quarterbacks with whom he feels comfortable, and then said something even more honest about risk assessment, which he uttered so fast it was easy to miss.

“There’s a risk any season you go into without a top-five QB.”

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