Maybe one day Mike Shanahan will be freed from his captor, that starchy grim-faced figure who stands at the lectern in an iron emotionless grip. You wonder if the inner Shanny will ever appear from behind the façade, dart out like one of his bootlegs. Regardless, it’s time to acknowledge that Shanahan, that crease-mouthed, dry-toned old-schooler, should be a candidate for NFL coach of the year.
Anyone still think he is a stale re-tread? Anyone still think he is past it and doesn’t know how to put up big numbers in the modern NFL? Or how to draft, sign, and build a roster? Anyone still think he’s just a rigid control freak whose methods can’t work on young players?
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“You guys don’t know it, but you’re a lot better than you think you are,” he told the Redskins, and they believed him.
It’s an interesting question why Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris, Kirk Cousins, Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, and company chose to buy into a 60-year-old whose last big season was in 2005, and who seemed to think the season was over in early November. But they did. Whatever the qualifications for coach of the year, Shanahan put himself squarely in the conversation after coaxing a 38-point performance from the rookie backup Cousins, and flipping a team that started 3-6 to the top of the NFC East. But it’s not just the five straight victories Shanahan deserves recognition for, but rather his longer-term combination of guile and good sense, and his close-lipped ability to withstand withering criticism while trying to build a team the right way.
For whatever reason, maybe a strategic one, Shanahan likes to play the clipped, monosyllabic bore in front of the media. His main quality appears to be a hard head, topped by a helmet of hair that looks like steel filaments. But there is a more intriguing Shanahan in there somewhere, or at least an edgier one, a gambler who keeps his cards close. He has a daredevil streak: In the offseason he likes to go to the Caribbean to bungee-jump and parasail. Once, he dove off a 60-foot cliff into the ocean. He also makes annual trips to Vegas for high-stakes poker.
If you think about it, much of what Shanahan has done with the Redskins is all about risk management. He went all-in on drafting RGIII, shoving his chips to the center of the table on a player he believed was a once-in-a-lifetime comet. One of his biggest, and surely most stressful, gambles was on his own son Kyle, betting that the kid was a first-rate offensive coordinator. Shanahan has not batted 1.000 since assuming control of the team, of course — Donovan McNabb was an expensive setback — but he at least had the sense not to double down on his bad bets, which took some guts. He refused to throw good money after bad with Albert Haynesworth. He knew a lousy hand when he saw it.
But we may also be witnessing the validation of Shanahan’s good judgment on less obvious players. Griffin is such a dazzling piece of eye candy that it has been tempting to attribute the reversal of fortune entirely to him.