Back in January of 2010 when Mike Shanahan was hired as coach of the Washington Redskins and his son, Kyle Shanahan said he wanted in on the reclamation project, the elder Shanahan told the younger, “Don’t do it.”
Kyle Shanahan had just completed his second season as the offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, directing top-five offenses in both 2008 and 2009, and was considered one of NFL coaching’s rising stars. He had his system in place, a franchise quarterback, impact playmakers and a seasoned line. The Redskins had very little to work with and would have to be built from scratch. Success would continue in Houston, but was years away in Washington.
Shanahan ignored his father’s advice, however, and insisted on following him to Washington as offensive coordinator. The going has been rough — maybe rougher than either Shanahan anticipated.
But after two seasons of failed quarterback experiments, injuries in the backfield and along the offensive line and limited playmakers at the receiver position, the vision in Kyle Shanahan’s head finally has started coming together on the field. And reflecting on the journey to this point, the play-caller sees himself as a wiser, more effective coach.
This offseason — two years after the biggest move was the trade for Donovan McNabb, who failed miserably in Washington, and a year after team brass focused their efforts on upgrading the defense – the Redskins addressed the offense in free agency and the draft.
Now with Robert Griffin III at quarterback, three promising young backs in Alfred Morris, Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr., a wide receiver unit led by Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss, and an explosive tight end in Fred Davis, Shanahan believes that he finally has the ingredients of a high-powered attack.
“I feel a lot more confident,” Shanahan said Thursday, three days before Washington opens the season in New Orleans. “I think we’ve improved our personnel each year since we got here, and I definitely feel better this year than I did last year, and the second year I felt better than I did the first year.”
Shanahan always had confidence in his system. He saw it work for his father on Super Bowl teams in San Francisco and Denver, and the same offense was helping the Texans progress from basement dweller to playoff team.
“It’s a proven offense, but you need to have everything working together, everyone doing exactly what what they’re supposed to do, getting down their timing,” said quarterback Rex Grossman, a backup in Houston and starter of 16 games in Washington before he made way for Griffin.
The proper blend of cohesion and talent has been lacking. As a result, the tried-and-true offense and the bright, young offensive mind calling the plays were stalled. Last season, Washington ranked 26th in scoring, mustering only 18 points a game and losing six games by a touchdown or less.
Their post-season evaluations convinced Redskins coaches that the problem wasn’t ineffective schemes, but a lack of talent.
“You’re looking for those difference makers,” Mike Shanahan said, “guys that can take that slant route or fade and can go the distance. . . Nobody does it without talent. You’ve got to have talent to be one of the better teams on offense and defense in the league.”
The Redskins believe that Griffin will ignite the offense with his ability to make plays with both his arm and his legs. They believe that Garcon, who last season averaged 13.5 yards a catch and scored six touchdowns, Morgan (14.7 yards per catch in 2011), a resurgent Moss, improving Hankerson and Davis will give the quarterback plenty of playmakers to turn to. Morris could be a diamond in the rough at running back, and continuity along the offensive line, where the starters are n their second or third seasons in the system, is expected to help give Washington balance, though injuries have been a problem.
“As far as passing routes,” Grossman said, “there are some matchups that you can take advantage of by going out and spending the money and getting some of the receivers that we got and now having the speed that we have. Robert’s ability to run might slow down the rush a little bit. They have to worry about containment, and that means we might have more time to do some creative plays down the field.”
Based on what he has on paper, Kyle Shanahan has been able to expand the playbook. Griffin is a natural fit for the roll-out passes of the offense, and he will bring a new dimension as the Redskins implement some of the designed quarterback keepers that Griffin ran at Baylor. More talented receivers will enable the Redskins to more effectively attack defenses.
At the same time, Kyle Shanahan believes the talent increase has simplified his job.
“You don’t have to do as much or have to be as creative when you have some guys that can make some plays,” he explained. “You just want to get the ball in their hands however that is.”
He admits that the last two years have been trying, but he believes the trials have had benefits.
“When you go through hard stuff, it’s what have you learned from it?,” he said. “You either get better or worse from a situation. I feel strongly that it’s made me better.”
Two days from now, the Redskins hope to see signs of the same progress on the field.