Kyle Shanahan is a target of fans who are angry about the team’s uneven performance on offense in a disappointing 3-9 season. His game plans and play-calling have been criticized by many within the media, as the top offense in the NFL last season clearly has regressed. The bigger problem for Mike Shanahan, however, is his son’s poor relationship with quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The friction between the team’s top assistant on offense and its most important player — and the fact that the head coach is stuck in the middle — is proof that hiring your children can be risky. Assuming the Shanahans remain with the Redskins, Kyle must reconnect with Griffin, who isn’t going anywhere. It won’t be easy.
Since late last season, it has been known within the organization that Griffin isn’t happy working with Kyle. Their differences over play-calling resulted in Griffin losing trust in him, Redskins people with knowledge of the situation say, and that can’t help but affect the quarterback’s relationship with the guy who runs the football operation.
Whenever Griffin disagrees with Kyle about the direction of the offense — it has happened often — he isn’t merely at odds with a high-ranking assistant coach. He is challenging the person whose father ultimately determines how the Redskins play. From Griffin’s perspective, it’s always two against one. Former Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb knows the feeling.
During McNabb’s season with the Redskins in 2010, he clashed with Kyle about everything from play-calling to the tone he used when criticizing the six-time Pro Bowler’s performance in front of the team, a person close to McNabb once told me. McNabb never believed he had the support of the head coach in his disputes with the offensive coordinator, which isn’t surprising.
Kyle left a good position running the Houston Texans’ offense to help his father rebuild the Redskins. The last thing Mike Shanahan wants to do is undermine his son, whom he’s grooming to be a head coach. In appearing to unconditionally support Kyle, though, Mike contributed to alienating McNabb and now Griffin.
That’s the sort of problem that can occur for teams led by powerful father-son coaching tandems. It’s exactly what Snyder doesn’t want.
When Marty Schottenheimer coached the Redskins in 2001, Schottenheimer’s son, Brian, was the quarterbacks coach. Snyder was uncomfortable with the whole father-son dynamic on his coaching staff.
Snyder fired Schottenheimer after the 2001 season and vowed never to permit another Redskins coach to hire his son for a significant coaching role, a former Redskins official recalled before the Shanahans joined the franchise (Coy Gibbs was a low-level assistant during Joe Gibbs’s second stint with the team). Why did Snyder change his mind? He needed Mike Shanahan to coach the Redskins.
During the 2009 season, the Redskins appeared to hit rock bottom. At 4-12, the team was a national punchline under the overmatched Jim Zorn, and hiring Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl winner, restored desperately needed credibility. So Snyder gave Shanahan everything he wanted, including permission to hire his son as his top lieutenant on offense.
In an October 2011 interview with my colleague Mike Wise, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden outlined the predicament in making his son, Jeff, his offensive coordinator with the Seminoles.
“If you hire your son, you better win all your games, because he’s usually the first to get criticized,” Bowden said. “If you lose, people want to know why. They goin’ to think up a reason. And if they can’t think up a reason, they gonna go after your daggum son.”
The fact that Kyle is an accomplished coach and often correct only complicates matters.
He argued against trading for McNabb. We all know how that turned out. With Griffin, Kyle quickly determined major changes were needed in Washington’s offense to help smooth the transition to the NFL for the Heisman Trophy winner, who did not direct a pro-style offense in college. Kyle designed a college option-style offense similar to the one Griffin played in at Baylor, and Griffin was selected the 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year.
The Redskins last season led the league in rushing, tied for first in yards per play and were third in passing efficiency. In Kyle’s last season in Houston, the Texans topped the NFL in passing. In backing his son, Mike Shanahan has supported a coach who gets results.
Still, the Redskins gave up four high-round draft picks for the rights to draft Griffin, who spent time in the offseason hanging out with Snyder. Kyle can’t win that battle.
When Kyle decided he wanted to become a coach, his father told him they couldn’t work together until he had proved himself on other staffs. Perhaps Mike should have just stopped at they couldn’t work together.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.