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Super Bowl LI features coordinated genius from both teams

HOUSTON -- The Super Bowl should, in theory, be a stage occupied by the best.

The best teams, with the best players and coaches, squaring off to determine the champion of the NFL.

It doesn't always work out quite that way, although Super Bowl LI comes as close as any.

The New England Patriots arguably have the best quarterback in the history of the game, Tom Brady, and the undisputed best coach, Bill Belichick. Their roster does include one of the NFL's greatest tight ends, Western New Yorker Rob Gronkowski, although he'll miss the game while recovering from back surgery.

The Atlanta Falcons have a great quarterback of their own, Matt Ryan, and arguably the game's best wide receiver, Julio Jones. They also have a coach, Dan Quinn, who established himself as one of the NFL's best defensive coordinators before leading his team to the biggest game of all in only his second season in the top job.

Both teams share something else that falls into the "best" category. Combined, they have three of the league's standout coordinators.

Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons' offensive coordinator, is, in fact, going to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers soon after the final second ticks off the clock Sunday at NRG Stadium. He did a remarkable job of building the NFL's top-scoring offense. He did wonders to help Ryan elevate his game to elite status, by making use of Jones and all of his other targets, while finally getting over the hump of winning in the postseason. He did amazing work teaching his offensive linemen how to run an outside zone rushing attack, which has allowed Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to thrive.

Josh McDaniels, back for a second stint as the Patriots' offensive coordinator, was another hot head-coaching candidate, but chose to sit out this round of openings and could very well be sticking around to become Belichick's eventual successor. With a playbook and game plans that work every inch of the field largely through short and intermediate passing, he has done magnificent work helping Brady play, at 39, like a much younger quarterback. He has developed a running game that features the sledgehammer running of LeGarrette Blount and the explosiveness of Dion Lewis. He even managed to get good enough play out of backup quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett to allow the Pats to go 3-1 while Brady served his Deflategate suspension at the beginning of the season.

Matt Patricia, the Patriots' defensive coordinator, has earned a great deal of recognition for his contributions to the defense that led the league in fewest points allowed and ranked eighth overall. Although the Patriots traded two of their better defensive players -- end Chandler Jones, to the Arizona Cardinals last offseason, and linebacker Jamie Collins, to the Cleveland Browns at the end of October -- they still found ways to generate pressure and consistently take away the strengths of opposing offenses.

Shanahan is the son of Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls as coach of the Denver Broncos. Kyle was Mike's offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins. The younger Shanahan has worked with other well-known coaches, including Jon Gruden with Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Gary Kubiak with the Houston Texans.

Still, he has strived to build his own identity, which is a large part of the reason his father isn't expected to join him on the 49ers' staff.

"You take in all of your experiences and what you've learned from other people," Shanahan said. "But you want to develop your own opinion and your own way of seeing things. You hope to be around the right people who taught you how to do that."

Mike Shanahan was clearly a large part of that.

"I think I always wanted to coach my whole life, whether I said it or not," Kyle said. "It's all I've known growing up around football. It's almost all I've been into since I've been little. It's distracted me from everything that I've done, especially school, things like that.

"I always tried to tell my mom to just be patient, it'll play out for us in the long run. Fortunately, it did. If I wouldn't have chosen football, I probably would have been in trouble because I was pretty one-track mind my whole life."

McDaniels, who failed as a head coach of the Broncos the first time he left the Pats, and Patricia are burdened by the history of Belichick disciples who haven't succeeded as head coaches. The list also includes former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

McDaniels believes he has grown from the Denver experience.

"All the experiences that I’ve had in coaching, I hope, have made me a better person and coach," he said. "I think there is just so much about this game. This business is about people and trying to put together the right group of people. Allow them to have the right responsibilities and trust them to do their job. Try to be a great resource for them and help them in any way that you can.

"At the same time, you always learn from them. There’s a lot of bright people in this game. They can teach us all things. I think some of the things that I failed at I hope I’ve learned from and am better for it. I think I am. Hopefully, I'll continue to grow as a coach as I go forward.”

Perhaps McDaniels' greatest accomplishment in his second stint with the Patriots is the way he has been able to maximize the skills of a receiving corps hardly viewed as having an abundance of talent. For the most part, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and former Bill Chris Hogan are smaller targets who don't share the dynamic playmaking skills of Jones.

But McDaniels finds a way to have them line up, often at the same time, and consistently find openings in coverage.

“The biggest thing for us, our system is broad enough that we try to adapt it and apply it to the guys that we have," McDaniels said. "Whatever their skillsets are and whatever their talents may be, we try to do things that showcase those things or allow them to be successful. We’re not looking for one specific type of player at one position -- receiver, running back, whatever. We can take them big, we can take them small, we can take them fast, quick, powerful, whatever it is and try and use them the best we can.

"The biggest thing for us is trying to put players in positions where they can do things well and be effective at. As long as it’s a broad enough group of things you’re picking from, hopefully you can take the guys you have, understand that there’s going to be things that change from week to week in our league and our season. Then try and create something that will allow us to be successful, move the ball and score points."

For Patricia, it's all about minimizing scoring, something the Patriots consistently do well even when they give up a great deal of yardage.

The Falcons will present a challenge unlike any other the Patriots have seen in a long time. Stopping them seems unlikely. Patricia talks more in terms of "slowing them down."

"I mean, this is a great offense," he said. "You’ve got to give all the credit to them. They have a smart coordinator. He does a great job of scheming up the offense and putting his players in position to make plays. They have great skill players, a great quarterback. I think one of the things that’s not talked about enough is their offensive line. They do a great job of the blocking schemes that they ask them to do. They’re very athletic. They really do a good job of the pocket. They keep the guys off the quarterback. He’s been able to hold the ball or get the ball out on time to his skill players."

Patricia is known for three things: Wearing his cap backwards, his thick and shaggy black beard, and having a pencil behind his ear. The pencil comes from the fact he has a degree in aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he played football, and "it's old school … we used to draw everything" using "the good, old, basic pencil."

He isn't much for taking any credit for his scheming, which is consistent with Belichick's Patriot Way. Patricia stays exceptionally humble.

"I still try to go to work and make sure my key card works," he said. "That’s why I don’t leave the building; they have to throw me out if they’re going to get rid of me. But I think it’s just get in, work hard and try to show whatever your job is that day, that you’re worthy of coming in the next day. That’s kind of how we approach it.”

Based on the result, that key card should continue to work for the foreseeable future … unless Patricia gets a head-coaching shot.

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