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?
“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.
Lord knows he’s the biggest piece. But his absence because of a sprained knee revealed the subtler aspects of the job Shanahan has done; it’s not just Griffin carrying this team.
The receivers got as open for Cousins as they did for Griffin, without the Pistol formation. And it’s one thing to block for Griffin, another for the young offensive line to perform as it did for Cousins. Shanahan’s confidence in players such as Kory Lichtensteiger, at one time mystifying, now seems merited. We will know still more about Shanahan’s eye in the coming two weeks, with injuries to Tyler Polumbus and Will Montgomery. Shanahan has made a host of sixth- and seventh-round draft picks on whom he will count for “quality depth.” It may not be RGIII or Morris who wins him a coaching award in the end, but a Tom Compton, Josh LeRibeus, Adam Gettis.
If Shanahan has a signature, it’s his faith in the young, seemingly undersized marginal, try-hard player, guys who have a hint of desperation, who play, as he puts it, “like every game is a playoff game.” Such as Rob Jackson, the seventh-rounder who was waived, released, signed to the practice squad and released again, but who kept coming back through work habit and willingness to be a special teams player, until he blossomed into a starting linebacker.
“We’ve got a lot of guys going the right direction,” Shanahan says. “It’s started to turn. We believe in each other and believe we’re going to win. Once you start winning those close games, you expect it.”
No matter how the next two games play out, we can already say that Shanahan has turned a dysfunctional wreck of a franchise, ravaged by years of incompetence, into a contender with a future. The Redskins, for the first time in a decade, are a desirable destination for a reason other than Daniel Snyder’s over-paying checkbook. After watching the elegant teaching job Shanahan has done this season, what agent won’t be happy to place a client in his hands? Right now there are free agents and draft prospects all across the country thinking, “I wonder if he can do that for me?”
For all that the Redskins have mortgaged themselves with cap problems, expenditures and lack of draft choices, Shanahan has done a very good job of what once seemed impossible: dragging them out of their Groundhog Day past and giving them a tomorrow.
For previous Sally Jenkins columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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