Sometimes you have to take a step down in order to climb up.
Rich Scangarello is familiar with this route. The 49ers’ new quarterbacks coach was in a cozy spot in 2014 as the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona University. He had a six-figure salary, plenty of autonomy and, in his estimation, lived in one of the most beautiful areas of the country — 85 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The following year, however, he left that lifestyle to take an entry-level position with the Atlanta Falcons, one that slashed his salary by 70 percent and had him living in another coach’s spare bedroom. It was the type of job that usually goes to a 20-something fresh out of college. Scangarello was in his 40s.
“I don’t even know if it had a title,” said Kyle Shanahan, who at the time was the Falcons’ new offensive coordinator. “It was as low as you could be.”
Shanahan didn’t know Scangarello then. But Scangarello knew him.
Scangarello grew up in Roseville, went to college at Sacramento State and began his coaching career as an assistant at UC Davis where he worked with Division II All-American quarterbacks Kevin Daft and J.T. O’Sullivan.
In 2009 he was hired by the Oakland Raiders to work with the team’s quarterbacks. A year earlier, the Texans had hired Shanahan to run their offense, making him, at age 28, the youngest coordinator in the league. While Scangarello was in Oakland, Shanahan’s Texans offense averaged nearly 300 passing yards a game, the best in the league.
His system hit Scangarello like a thunderbolt. It was impressive, ingenious and meshed so well with Scangarello’s own ideas that he began adopting key components at the next stops in his career.
“I started to model my offense after his,” he said. “It’s what I always believed from afar. The truth is that I taught off of his film and he didn’t even know it for years.”
But to fully understand the offense, Scangarello, 44, realized he would have to work under Shanahan. So when a lowly offensive line position — an internship, really — became available in Atlanta, Scangarello jumped at the opportunity despite the minimum-wage salary and maximum-hours commitment.
“The truth is it completed me in the cycle of knowing everything about this system,” he said. “… I really took the job in Atlanta for free, quite honestly. And I wasn’t afraid. I was willing to do the work and I really just wanted to be around coach Shanahan.”
Over the course of the Falcons’ 2015 season, Scangarello learned the details of the run game, the play-action fakes and the quarterback-keeper plays for which Shanahan is renown. He said the biggest different between the West Coast offense he had been running in college and Shanahan’s system was the passing game.
“I would say the one thing I could truly appreciate beyond anything with coach Shanahan is that he’s trying to score on every single play he calls,” Scangarello said. “And I never thought that way as a play caller in the pass game. Sometimes I was thinking more about staying on schedule. And he was always thinking, ‘How can we attack the defense and create explosive (plays)?’ It really changed my mindset for the better.”
That’s also needs to be the mindset of the quarterbacks he will coach this year: They not only must be fearless when it comes to dealing with an oncoming pass rush, they have to have the guts to attempt big plays down the field.
“As we assembled this (quarterbacks) room, that was a non-negotiable quality,” Scangarello said. “We felt all four of them really have that trait that gives them a chance to be successful.”
Shanahan, meanwhile, said that during the 2015 offseason he quickly began to appreciate Scangarello’s appetite to learn.
“I thought he was just an o-line guy at first because I didn’t know him,” he said. “And then he starts asking me questions about plays I ran, like, six years ago. And I start to wonder, ‘Who is this guy?’ It was obvious he knows what he’s talking about, and now I’m interested. He learned it for himself, and that’s how good coaches are. They just don’t memorize what someone said. They want to know why it works, how to coach it, how players see it.”
Shanahan said he tried to get Scangarello to stick around for the Falcons’ 2016 season, too, but there were no assistant-coach openings and Scangerello was unwilling to spend another year renting someone’s spare bedroom. He went to Wagner College instead and ran that school’s offense.
“It would have been hard to stay another year,” he said. “It would have been a huge strain financially.”
“Of course,” he added with a smile, “if I had known they were going to the Super Bowl, I probably would have stayed.”