Washington Redskins’ Kyle Shanahan: A lifetime of proving he belongs
By Kent Babb,
Kyle Shanahan stands in his office at Redskins Park, flipping through the 154 gridded pages of a brown composition book.
It’s rare that this pad, more a football journal for the Washington Redskins’ 32-year-old offensive coordinator, is beyond a few yards away. It’s with him at the team facility, at home, in his SUV. In this one and the stack on the bottom shelf behind him — filled and filed away throughout the season — he draws plays and leaves himself notes, working through situations and what-if scenarios each week.
“Just scribbles,” he says of the stream-of-consciousness elements that form the Redskins’ weekly game plan.
These days, anything is possible, and any idea is worth scrawling on these pages. Shanahan was given a gift this past offseason, a supremely talented rookie quarterback named Robert Griffin III, and with it a chance to reclaim his career. The previous two seasons had been disappointing, and a young star in coaching had lost his shine. He clashed two years ago with quarterback Donovan McNabb. Last year, Shanahan’s offense struggled with two unremarkable quarterbacks.
The difficulties amplified a notion that has chased and bothered Shanahan throughout much of his life: that he’s only been successful, at making varsity teams years ago or in this corner office in Ashburn, because he’s been trading off the name of his father, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan.
“I want to prove to people,” Kyle says, “that that’s not the case.”
For years, he distanced himself from his dad, running from perception and trying to validate his own ability – to himself as much as anyone.
His father has guided him, but Kyle says his successes are his own – as a player at the University of Texas, then later as a young assistant coach, and, with Houston in 2008, at the time the National Football League’s youngest coordinator.
“He’s so much further along than I was,” says Mike Shanahan, who took his first head coaching job at age 35. “It’s not even close.”
As the Redskins return to playoff relevance, riding an unpredictable and thrilling offense to a three-game winning streak, Shanahan’s creativity has attracted some of the spotlight. There are believers in his influence, and there are doubters. Some suggest he represents the next generation of coaching genius.
“One of the real bright young minds in this business,” University of Texas Coach Mack Brown says.
Others could say that a man who rode his dad’s coattails this far is now just riding someone else’s momentum – this time a 22-year-old phenomenon – to national prominence. But even some of Shanahan’s critics are beginning to believe.
“From year one till now, he’s better than what he was,” says Brian Mitchell, a local media personality and former Redskins player. “Has he arrived? I’m not going to say completely.”
This much, though, is clear: With most any possibility alive, Kyle Shanahan has the chance to do something remarkable. It starts by putting pen to paper, then watching all those scribbles come to life.
‘Go out there and earn it’
Years ago, Kyle kept his father in the shadows. Mike Shanahan won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, and he attended some of his son’s games at Texas. But he didn’t join other players’ parents afterward, and he rarely went to dinners with Kyle and his friends.
Says former Longhorns wide receiver Sloan Thomas, “If his name wasn’t that, you would never know that he was Mike Shanahan’s son.”
Kyle had learned that work can be overshadowed by his last name. High school teammates whispered that Kyle made the basketball team only because his dad called plays for John Elway. He heard the jeers when he spent summers working out with Ed McCaffrey and Bill Romanowski, two star players, and assisting at football camps. And he felt alone when, shortly before his senior football season, he mended his broken collarbone not in his high school’s training room but at the Broncos’ medical facility. It wasn’t just teammates; coaches, too, spoke of entitlement and the NFL coach’s son thinking he was better than his peers.
“Had to deal with that all year,” Kyle recalls now.
Over time, the young player became sensitive to the suggestion that any triumph had been greased by his father’s accomplishments, not his own.
“Whether it’s real or not,” he says, “it’s going to be my last name.”
Still, he wanted to be a football player, and who better to ask for direction than a coach who had won two Super Bowls? Kyle was a high school quarterback in the mid-1990s when he argued with his dad, insisting that he was doing everything possible to improve his speed and passing. The elder Shanahan shook his head, telling the boy that results were the offspring of work and time.
“You want a career in football,” Mike recalls telling him, “you’ve got to go out there and earn it.”
Mike Shanahan outlined for his only son — Mike and Peggy Shanahan also have a daughter, Krystal — a training regimen worthy of an NFL player: five days a week, throughout he summer. Be at the track at specific times, for specific lengths of time, and do exactly what the plan called for. Kyle committed himself, interrupting gatherings with friends to run and practice his passing.
“Just kept doing it and kept doing it,” he says, and when the season began, his times were faster and his throws more crisp.
Years earlier, Mike was disappointed in his eighth-grade son’s time, a little less than eight minutes, in the mile run. He again put him on a six-week, hour-a-day program. Forty- and 100-yard dashes, quarter-mile sprints, and when the program was over, Mike says proudly, Kyle ran the mile in 5 minutes 32 seconds.
“Beat everybody by well over 100 yards,” Mike says.
Kyle’s training led to a scholarship offer at Duke, but Kyle wanted a greater challenge – preferably away from Denver, where “Shanahan” was more than just a name. He transfered from Duke and walked on as a receiver at Texas in 2000, eventually earning a scholarship. Thomas, the former Longhorns player, says Kyle wasn’t the team’s most athletic player, but his dedication made him one of its most advanced.
“It took us all through college to figure out what he already knew,” Thomas says.
He later went to Brown, the Texas coach, with the same questions he’d asked his dad: Why had coaches done this? What else had they considered?
Brown says he was happy to oblige. He also was willing to satisfy another of Kyle’s requests: In Austin, he didn’t want to be known as Mike’s son.
“He wanted to be Kyle,” Brown says.
‘I wanted to show him’
After he graduated, Kyle told his father that he wanted to join the family business. He says now that he hoped, again, to test himself away from his father’s spotlight. He refused to pursue a spot on Mike’s staff. The elder Shanahan remembers it differently.
“He never had an option,” Mike says.
He instead became a graduate assistant at UCLA before joining Jon Gruden’s staff in Tampa Bay as an offensive quality control coach in 2004. Kyle was hundreds of miles from his father, but Mike Shanahan’s words followed him: To coach offense, you must first understand defense.
Kyle sat in meetings with defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin and his assistant, Raheem Morris, then left to shadow defensive line coach Rod Marinelli and coordinator Monte Kiffin.
“Really, he was just figuring out ways how to beat us,” says Morris, now Washington’s secondary coach,
He left Tampa in 2006 to join Gary Kubiak’s staff in Houston. He coached receivers, then quarterbacks, and realizing Kyle’s ambition, Kubiak and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman let Kyle design third-down concepts. When Sherman left in ’08, Kubiak promoted the youngster. An NFL offense belonged to Kyle, who was 28.
With Kubiak’s supervision, the Texans finished Kyle’s two seasons as coordinator in the top five in total offense. Still, the old theories circulated: Kubiak had been a backup quarterback in Denver. Had he just done Mike Shanahan a favor?
“People acted like I got that just because my dad worked with him,” Kyle says. “But I had earned it.”
No matter how far he ran, there was always a connection if someone looked hard enough. Brown, the head coach at Texas, and Mike Shanahan were old friends; the coach at UCLA, Karl Dorrell, coached wide receivers for the Broncos; Gruden and Mike had each worked for George Seifert in San Francisco. Now Kubiak had hired and promoted his former coach’s son.
“I didn’t say one thing to Gary,” Mike says now.
“It had nothing to do with his dad,” Sherman says. “This guy can stand by himself.”
Kyle says that, when the Broncos fired his father in 2008, he realized something: He had been too consumed by perception. If Kyle could coach, why did he care what others thought? He decided that, whenever Mike returned to football, he would follow him.
“No matter what the situation was,” Kyle says.
After Mike joined the Redskins in 2010, he warned his son that leaving Houston would be risky. Heck, it could be a career-killer. But if he truly wanted this, he’d see how a team was built.
Kyle was resolute. He had his reasons, personal and professional. He wanted to work for his father and allow his wife, Mandy, and two children to live close to his parents. Above all, one person’s opinion still mattered.
“I wanted to show him,” Kyle says of his father, “that I thought I was pretty good.”
‘He was in complete charge’
In February 2010, Kyle began teaching Mike, himself an offensive master, his offensive philosophy. It was similar to the zone offense Kyle had learned watching his dad’s teams years earlier, but with his own nuances. Mike listened, but he learned the most – and saw his controversial hire validated – by seeing how Kyle led meetings; how he commanded respect when he had no idea his father was watching in his office on a closed-circuit feed.
“Running game, pass protections – no matter what it was, you could tell that he was in complete charge.” Mike says.
Then things changed. The Redskins had acquired McNabb that spring, a potential franchise quarterback for a team trying to rebrand itself. Kyle wanted McNabb to adapt to his offense, and McNabb wanted to play as he had in Philadelphia. It didn’t help that McNabb was three years older than Kyle, with six Pro Bowls on his résumé.
Their trust in one another deteriorated, and late that season, the Redskins benched McNabb for Rex Grossman. Was McNabb truly ineffective, or had Kyle’s ego, fueled by his career’s fast start, consumed him?
“You bring him to your team, you find a way to work with him,” says Mitchell, the former Redskins player and McNabb’s distant cousin. “You don’t bring him in and try to change everything.”
The drama went public, and McNabb’s agent released a statement blaming Kyle for McNabb’s disappointing season in which he threw a career-high 15 interceptions and fumbled 10 times.
“The Shanahans – both Mike and more specifically Kyle – have made this an extremely difficult relationship to maintain,” the statement read.
McNabb, who declined an interview request for this story through his new agent, reportedly wanted the Redskins to release him in December 2010. The team instead traded him the next summer for draft picks.
Even now, the turmoil of that season and the way he and McNabb parted weighs on Kyle.
“He’s got a chance to be in the Hall of Fame,” Kyle says, “and when he came here toward the end of his career, there’s a lot of pressure on him to succeed; a lot of pressure on us to succeed.
“People made a big deal about our relationship, and from a relationship standpoint, we were fine” he added. “I liked Donovan; he was a good dude to me. We got along well. But I think, just from a football standpoint, him and I failed each other.”
The next season wasn’t much better. With Grossman and John Beck at quarterback, the Redskins were 29th in the league in scoring in 2011. Kyle says the past two seasons taught him that what he experienced in Houston is rare.
“It was the first time I hadn’t succeeded in my career, and that was hard on me personally,” he says. “. . . I was always confident in what I could do. I knew what I was doing. I wanted to keep working and give it another chance.”
The months passed, and sometimes Kyle leaned on his father’s experience. Mike told his son these were temporary setbacks, that no matter how things seemed, maybe someday he would find that soulmate player. Mike had inherited Steve Young in San Francisco and Elway in Denver. Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen for Kyle?
“Once you do get that guy, you’ll know it,” Mike says. “. . .You can tell from the first day.”
‘This could work’
Their first meeting was in February at the NFL Scouting Combine. Robert Griffin III remembers Kyle grilling him about offenses. Kyle recalls being impressed with Griffin’s responses.
A month later, Mike Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen were preparing a defining draft gamble: trading three first-round picks to move up to No. 2 overall. The target was either Andrew Luck or Griffin. They asked Kyle what he thought.
“I want him,” Kyle recalls telling them about Griffin. “I was never going to say no.”
He says he didn’t think about his own career; rather, he saw Griffin as a major upgrade at the team’s most vital position. Still, those closest to Kyle knew he had perhaps the most to gain from a transcendent, NFL-ready quarterback.
“You guys will grow together,” Mike says he told his son.
When Indianapolis selected Luck at No. 1, Washington didn’t hesitate. The Redskins had their quarterback.
But a new challenge emerged: The offense Kyle had honed required a pocket passer, and it was Griffin’s mobility that made him special. This time, however, he wouldn’t force a quarterback to accommodate his scheme; he would design plays to fit Griffin, taking advantage of his speed and easing him toward becoming an elite passer.
The process was taxing, but his father’s words again echoed in Kyle’s mind: work and time. He spent hours last spring studying video of zone-read offenses: Cam Newton in Carolina, Tim Tebow in Denver, Vince Young in Tennessee. He also did what he’d done in Tampa Bay, scanning defenses for weaknesses. Kyle didn’t interview other coaches or watch college film; he only wanted to see how it worked in the NFL.
“It kind of rejuvenated me,” he says.
The days turned to weeks, then months. Some days were better than others.
“I’d be like, ‘Man, I’m done with this.’ ” he says. “Then we would do something different, and I’d be like, ‘All right, this could work.’ ”
Kyle admits that he had no idea whether this offense, which relied on pre-snap motion, a reliable running game and an avoidance of turnovers, would succeed. It was asking a lot of a rookie.
“Now, everything is good,” Griffin says, months after those first meetings. “We know the system, he knows how I learn things and how to get me in the right situations. But at first, it was a grind.”
“As a coordinator, I’m seeing him use everything he has; use all the tools around him,” Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss adds.
In the regular season’s first week, Griffin and Kyle led the Redskins to a 40-32 win against the New Orleans Saints. Their comfort grew from there, Kyle tinkering and Griffin adapting.
Washington is now 6-6, with an offense ranked seventh in the league. In Monday night’s win against the New York Giants, Kyle and Griffin showed a diverse, methodical approach that didn’t abandon the run, wasn’t one-dimensional and showcased the marriage of Kyle’s ideas and Griffin’s abilities.
From that has come trust.
“He’s never told me something,” Griffin says, “that wasn’t true in the game.”
Faith has come from the head coach’s office, too. Nearly three years after his father studied Kyle, waiting to see how he handled himself, Mike says his son now has his unconditional confidence.
“The one thing I don’t worry about is our offensive staff,” Mike says, sitting in front of a bank of flat-screen televisions in his office on which he sometimes watches assistant coaches’ meetings with their position players.
Kyle says Mike has let him call “every single play” since he was hired, though Mike retains oversight of the game plan that Kyle and line coach Chris Foerster build each week, including power to alter or eliminate plays and formations. That happens less often now.
Still, Mike and Kyle squabble sometimes, the collision of two strong personalities who also share a bloodline.
“Sometimes he just doesn’t want to deal with me,” Kyle says, “and he’ll end up walking away from it. I can tell when he’s had enough.”
A little more than two weeks ago, Kyle opened his composition book and wrote “DALLAS” as the heading. He listed in black ink the 21 plays he hoped to open with against the Cowboys, whom the Redskins would defeat 38-31 on national television.
As he does each week, Mike inspected the pages, checking his son’s work and making notes, finally reaching Kyle’s proposed opening plays.
Before returning it, Mike wrote four words in large blue letters: “Go with your gut.”
‘A win-win for both of them’
Kyle stands in the sunlight as a photographer steadies his lens, his neck craning and eyes drifting toward the field. He’s not checking on what his quarterbacks are doing after practice. He’s making sure they don’t see him.
“It’d be real embarrassing,” he says as the photographer tries to regain Kyle’s attention.
The thing is, more eyes are fixed on Kyle now, which is unlikely to change. His reputation as a young star restored, his words and actions will be scrutinized. Successful coordinators don’t usually stay coordinators. They become head coaches.
Kyle has never interviewed for a head coaching position, but he admits to thinking about it for years.
“My whole life, that’s always been my goal, to be a head coach,” he says. “I’d say now, though, I think about it less than I ever have. I feel like I’m maturing a little bit.”
Kyle, who will turn 33 next Friday, says there’s more for him to learn. He occasionally seems uncomfortable around the media and was fined earlier this season for berating a replacement official. What matters most, though, is how he tutors and connects with Griffin, the player who can teach Kyle about patience and creativity as much as Kyle can teach him.
“A win-win for both of them,” Brown, the Texas coach, says.
For now, Kyle seems content to remain a coordinator, to push the limits with a rookie who plays as if he has never failed, to stay mostly hidden in his father’s shadow. He says he’s now comfortable in his own skin, and more than that, with his last name.
“It still bugs me a little bit,” he admits.
A moment later, he continues.
“I’ve got to get over worrying about proving everything to people.”
As this season finishes, Kyle’s tests are only beginning. In the NFL, the only thing more difficult than working your way to the top is proving – to outsiders but, mostly, to yourself – that you belong.
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