Mike Shanahan stood near midfield with a rolled-up sheet of paper in his hand, chatting purposefully with a couple of members of the cadre of loyal assistant coaches who surround him. He watched intently as his franchise quarterback, the one with the otherworldly gifts that make Super Bowl triumphs seem well within reach, and his workhorse running back, stolen in the sixth round of the NFL draft, went through their practice-field routines.
It could have been 1998 in Denver. But it wasn’t.
It was Thursday in Ashburn.
The vindication of Michael Edward Shanahan has become apparent to all in the past few weeks, as he has coached the Washington Redskins to six consecutive wins and maneuvered them to the cusp of an NFC East title that would be secured with a triumph Sunday night over the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field. Shanahan has pushed all the right coaching buttons for a team whose season seemed broken beyond repair in early November. He has both the Redskins and himself in position to begin recapturing past glories.
“You’ve got to give everybody credit when credit is due,” veteran Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss said. “He’s the coach. He deserves credit.”
The reaffirmation of Shanahan, the two-time Super Bowl winner with the Broncos hired by the Redskins in 2010 to reverse their sagging fortunes, as an elite NFL coach has been years, not weeks, in the making. He took plenty of lumps and did plenty of losing for 21 / 2 seasons while remaking the Redskins, gathering a nucleus of the players he wanted.
Then he got his new John Elway in Robert Griffin III. He got his new Terrell Davis in Alfred Morris. He clung stubbornly to his long-held core beliefs about how to build a team; he refused to let go of his insistence that things would work for him here just as they did in Denver. But he also did enough bending around the edges to accommodate Griffin’s unique skill set and to connect with a younger generation of players.
The result is, quite possibly, a contender with some lasting power, one that could bring Shanahan — at some point — the third career Super Bowl victory he is said by associates to covet dearly and the Redskins a fourth Lombardi Trophy to go with the trio of them secured more than two decades ago in Joe Gibbs’s first coaching go-around in D.C.
“You’re really starting to see the guys that he’s brought in stand up,” Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “Blue-collar guys. It’s starting to pay off for us now when we had to face a little adversity. I think that’s only going to continue to get better as he continues to bring guys in and we continue to bond underneath his scheme and model that he’s had set up for the last 20 years he’s been in the league.”
Watching from afar, Ted Sundquist wasn’t as stunned as many onlookers were when Shanahan said following the Redskins’ loss on Nov. 4 to the Carolina Panthers that the rest of their season would be about evaluating players. The loss dropped the Redskins to 3-6, and some saw it as a sign that Shanahan was giving up on the season far too soon. Sundquist, who spent six of his 16 years in the Broncos’ front office as the team’s general manager, saw it as a tactic, a ploy designed to provoke his players.
“The comment that was made about playing for next year when the team was, what, 3-6, I think he was trying to get a response,” Sundquist said. “He wanted to see which young players would step forward and which would not. That’s not uncommon with him.”
The Redskins regrouped during their bye week following the Panthers game, elected Griffin a team captain upon their return and haven’t lost since. But even when the team was 3-6, Shanahan was saying he could see progress.
“Number one, you know the character of the guys on your football team,” Shanahan said recently, sitting in a hallway at Redskins Park. “You know how hard they’re working. You take a look at some of the things that you’ve done . . . the different things that go into putting a good team together. . . . You’ve just got to look at not turning the football over. You’re running the football. You’re throwing the football.
“But you’re losing some tight games,” he continued. “Well, guys have just got to pick up their games a little bit more if it’s offense, if it’s defense or it’s special teams. Once you do win, like we did, then all of a sudden a snowball starts to go. That’s where the confidence comes in. . . . You get the right people that buy in, that work. That’s how you put a team together.”
There are few people more unwavering than a football coach, particularly one with a résumé filled with past success. Yet at the low point of this season, the Redskins were 14-27 under Shanahan. Counting his final three seasons in Denver before he was fired by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, Shanahan was 38-51 in his previous 89 NFL games.
There was room to wonder if he’d lost his touch, and if Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was getting his money’s worth after handing Shanahan a five-year contract worth about $7 million per season. There were whispers around the league that Shanahan was in this venture only for the paycheck.
The Redskins’ winning streak has changed everything. Those whispers are gone. Shanahan still hasn’t coached a team to the playoffs since the 2005 season. He still has only one playoff victory since the second of his two straight Super Bowl championships with the Broncos in the 1998 season. His still has never won a Super Bowl as a head coach without Elway, his Hall of Fame quarterback in Denver, and Davis, the sixth-round draft choice who churned out a combined 3,758 rushing yards in the Broncos’ two championship seasons.
But there are plenty of possibilities for the Redskins with Griffin, the rookie quarterback who was elected to the Pro Bowl on Wednesday, and Morris, a sixth-round pick in April who has emerged from training-camp obscurity to bulldoze his way to 1,413 rushing yards so far in his debut NFL season.
“The biggest piece is that quarterback position and they’ve got a guy who not only is the kind of pro you want on the field, but the kind of pro you want off the field,” Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said recently. “With the guy they’ve got, he’s a great guy. He’s a great guy off the field. And that’s the biggest thing. That’s the biggest thing that’s going to keep this franchise going and keep this franchise relevant far after I’m gone.”
Shanahan told his players before the season that this Redskins team was better than they knew. He knew, even then, that Griffin’s mobility would make the young quarterback’s offensive line look good. He believed that newcomer Pierre Garcon could be a centerpiece, a true No. 1 wide receiver even though Garcon never had filled that role in four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
When there were calls for Shanahan to oust special teams coach Danny Smith early in the season and for him to dismiss defensive coordinator Jim Haslett at midseason, he ignored them.
He’s had key assistants like running backs coach Bobby Turner, defensive line coach Jacob Burney and linebackers coach Bob Slowik with him since his Denver days. As always, Shanahan preached to his players about doing things the right way, about working hard and minding the tiniest of details.
“The overall process since he’s been here, harping on the little things, the accountability, the attention to detail — now you’re starting to see the fruits of his labor as far as putting his scheme in place,” Alexander said. “I don’t think it’s any one thing he did this year that kind of just like changed it. He’s the type of guy that [says], ‘This model has worked for me for the last 20 years I’ve been in the league. I’m gonna stick to it.’ ”
Moss said that Shanahan is unchanged since first arriving at Redskins Park.
“Same guy,” Moss said. “Tough. Making sure that we’re going to go out there and play hard. And at the same time, a cool guy. A lot of coaches don’t have all those personalities. He can be cool. He can be tough. He can be everything. He’s a complete coach, man.”
But there have been wrinkles, modifications, changes with the times.
“It’s a taxing job,” Sundquist said. “It’s stressful to the mind and to the body. . . . Some guys only know how to coach one generation of players. Unless you can open up and say, ‘I’m not dealing with John Elway’s generation any more. I’m not even dealing with [former Broncos wide receiver] Rod Smith’s generation anymore,’ it’s not going to work. Are you going to dig in your heels and say, ‘I’m going to deal with players the way I dealt with them in the ’90s,’ or are you going to change?”
Shanahan turned 60 in August. His quarterback, Griffin, is 22. When Elway was winning Super Bowls for Shanahan, the two were separated in age by only eight years.
“It appears to me they’ve been able to adjust the way they convey the message,” Sundquist said, adding that Shanahan’s son, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, might deserve some of the credit for that. “I do think it’s the same message. I think it’s a tribute not only to Mike Shanahan, but to the entire organization.”
The Shanahans concocted an offensive system for Griffin by blending elements always used by Mike Shanahan-coached teams (zone blocking, “stretch” running plays) with college-style ingredients to use Griffin’s skills (the pistol formation, triple-option running plays).
“He’s a very old-school coach but at the same time has mixed a lot of the new-school stuff, too, as far as taking care of players’ bodies,” Alexander said. “As long as you’re taking care of your job — there’s a time to play and there’s a time to work. He does a great job of communicating that to his players and allowing us to have some free time, but when it’s time to work, you’ve got to get down to it.”
Shanahan can be as controlling as the next coach. He lobbied unsuccessfully in training camp to keep news of the Redskins’ practice-field option plays from being reported widely, even with those practices open to the public as well as media members. He defended the Redskins’ press-box announcement that Griffin was “shaken up” and was questionable to return to an October game in which the rookie exited after suffering a concussion, even though the team was fined $20,000 for violating injury-reporting rules.
The path to success in Washington has been rocky at times. He had to rid the organization of players such as high-priced defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to get the team he wanted. He made his own missteps that slowed the progress, as when he traded for veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, only to find that McNabb wasn’t the answer.
But the corner perhaps has been turned, whether the Redskins win Sunday night or not. Shanahan has a team he likes. And the feeling is mutual.
“You have this . . . legendary head coach,” Alexander said. “He’s been successful. . . . He’s almost like this unapproachable guy. But after getting to know him and meeting him, you understand that he’s a players’ coach, real down to earth, very approachable, open for suggestions. I like him a lot.”