How 49ers' Mike McDaniel's NFL journey started as child with Broncos


MIAMI, Fla. -- Mike McDaniel lost his Denver Broncos hat as a 10-year-old attending training camp in his hometown of Greeley, Colorado.

He cried.

That incident more than a quarter-century ago began his path toward his current role of 49ers run-game coordinator and one of the most-trusted members of Kyle Shanahan’s coaching staff.

The 49ers rolled through the NFC side of the bracket with a dominating run game. The Ivy League-educated McDaniel, 36, is an unsung member of the team’s postseason success.

“He’s really, really instrumental in the offense, as far as game-planning and designing runs,” 49ers veteran left tackle Joe Staley said. “He’s very, very special as a coordinator.

“He’s right up there with Kyle, as far as his overall knowledge of football. Those guys blow me away with their understanding of the game.”

Shanahan has worked longer with McDaniel than anyone else in the league. McDaniel has worked with Shanahan in Houston, Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta before coming with him to the 49ers in 2017.

“Mike is as important as anyone I work with,” Shanahan said.

McDaniel always envisioned getting into this line of work. As a youth football player, McDaniel set a goal. Inside his helmet he scribbled a message to himself, “I will be in the NFL.”

Even at that early age, McDaniel knew the odds were against him to play professional football. But he had a dream to be a head coach. McDaniel continues to get closer to accomplishing that goal, though he said he has not thought about it for a while with the 49ers getting set to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday.

“It’s the power of the team we’re on,” McDaniel said. “One of the strengths of this team is everyone understanding their current job has implications to everyone around them. Honestly, I haven’t even thought about the future. It’s all about the now.

“I know down the road, all those things will happen. But I’m not in a rush for that to come across my plate when you’re playing with the closest group of men you’ve coached with or coached in your life.”

McDaniel’s road to the NFL began in the summer of 1993.

He is the only child of Donna McDaniel, a single mom. He attended Broncos training camp every day at the University of Northern Colorado, where the team trained from 1982 to 2002. When one day he lost his hat and broke down in tears, Gary McCune of the Broncos video staff took notice and got him a new hat.

Young McDaniel introduced McCune to his mom. They ended up getting married. Then, McDaniel became a ball boy for the Broncos when he was in high school.

His mom gave him incentives for straight A’s. He earned video games -- Game Boys to Nintendo to Sega -- before being rewarded with a six-cylinder Mustang when he turned 16. Good grades became habit-forming and led him to the Ivy League.

He attended Yale, where he played wide receiver and majored in history. McDaniel would come back during the summers and work with the Broncos. Then-Broncos coach Mike Shanahan hired McDaniel as an intern after he graduated. He added value to the coaching staff because of his ability to navigate the latest technology.

“Coach Shanahan wanted overlays,” McDaniel said. “He wanted to be able to see the play on the screen with the play call and that took data entry that none of the assistant coaches wanted to do. So when I got there, I just nailed down any little odd job I could, so they could hopefully keep me for the season, and that sure enough they did.”

The Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship Game in 2005, in his first season on staff. Then, McDaniel went with Gary Kubiak, who left the Broncos staff to become Houston Texans head coach.

Kubiak hired Kyle Shanahan as his receivers coach, and McDaniel’s job was to assist Shanahan. McDaniel and Shanahan did not know each other. They knew only of each other at that point.

Now, aside from a two-season stint as running backs coach on Dennis Green’s staff with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League, McDaniel has been with Kyle Shanahan ever since in his coaching career.

Shanahan, McDaniel and Mike LaFleur -- the 49ers’ passing game coordinator -- are part of a revolution of young, bright coaches throughout the NFL.

“Paired up with Kyle Shanahan, who is the best at taking film and showing players how they can improve their technique,” McDaniel said. “All football players want to be good at what they’re doing. So if you can add value to them, if you can show them what you have to offer that can help them do what they love to do better, it doesn’t matter what you look like.

“I thought I could be help and look at things a different way. Once I got to the NFL, you’ve got to prove to them that you're worth listening to.”

The 49ers implement a unique and complex running scheme that has been particularly effective in postseason wins over Minnesota and Green Bay. Tevin Coleman rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Minnesota, and Raheem Mostert set the franchise record with 220 yards and four TDs against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

A year ago, Shanahan denied permission to McDaniel and LaFleur to leave for coordinator positions with Arizona and Green Bay, respectively. Those jobs did not include play-calling duties. Shanahan reasons that they are already his coordinators, so why would he allow a good coach to leave the 49ers for the same job?

Neither McDaniel nor LaFleur calls plays with the 49ers, but both have significant responsibilities in taking the lead on Mondays and Tuesdays in putting together the game plans. It is a collaborative effort with everyone on the staff, including offensive line coach John Benton, running backs coach Bobby Turner, tight ends coach Jon Embree and receivers coach Wes Welker.

[RELATED: Coleman looks good, seems ready for his Super Bowl role]

McDaniel and LaFleur could have kept their options open for next season by declining to sign contract extensions. But a year ago, they both signed deals through the 2020 season, and will likely sign new deals this offseason through 2021.

“It was cool to know someone valued your work,” McDaniel said of the interest Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury expressed in hiring him last year. “More importantly, it was cool from a professional standpoint to hear, ‘No, you’re valued here. We want you here.’

“All of it was important. You understand this is a business, and the second you sign a contract, OK, just as I hope they hold up their end of the bargain, I’m going to hold up mine. It was cool on both ends.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8:30 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.

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