By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010; D01
DENVER -- In the days after he was fired as the coach and executive vice president of the Denver Broncos last winter, Mike Shanahan took an office not far from the team's complex. He staffed it with his longtime personal assistant and set up the room as if he was still a coach, installing television screens and a tape machine.
He devised a way to have piles of coaching-quality game films delivered to the office and dedicated five to six hours of each day to evaluating players, breaking down offenses and searching for new ways to respond to the latest defensive trends.
"He wants a place where he could shower, get dressed and go to work," said his longtime friend Les Shapiro, a radio host in Denver. "It's easy to bang around the house and wear sweats. He wants to work."
To those who know him, the office is the essence of Shanahan, the Washington Redskins' new head coach and executive vice president: a man so obsessed with detail that he draws plays on napkins even when dining out. Most coaches take vacations when they leave the NFL. Shanahan instead acted as if he never left, traveling to Florida to study Urban Meyer's spread offense and to New England to watch how Patriots Coach Bill Belichick ran his operation.
Such obsession led to two Broncos Super Bowl victories. It made him such a beloved figure in Denver that he recently opened a steakhouse and is still affectionately known around town as "the Mastermind." But his thirst for power and a confidence in his own coaching brilliance led him make bad player decisions, ultimately fracturing relationships inside the Denver front office. He won only one playoff game in the 10 years after the last Super Bowl, helped get the team fined twice for salary cap violations, then was fired after an 8-8 season in 2008.
An intensity burns in Shanahan, 57, that is unique even in a league of megalomaniac coaches. Not a tall man at 5 feet 9, he is compulsive about the smallest components and demanding of perfection in everything, creating an air of rigid formality.
"There's no casual with Coach Shanahan," said Paul Kirk, the Broncos' former media director who now runs the Denver-based public relations firm ProLink Sports. "You come prepared and you don't make excuses."
As Broncos' coach, the powers given him by team owner Pat Bowlen were so wide-ranging and controlled so much that he installed video cameras in every team meeting room so he could watch position meetings on a multi-window screen in his office just to make sure each coach taught the proper principles.
"He wasn't snooping on you but he wanted to make sure everybody was using the same language," said Tim Brewster, a former Denver assistant coach who is now the head coach at the University of Minnesota. "Mike would say: 'Tim, at the meeting today you said this. Is that how we talked about doing it?' "
The amazing thing about it, those who know Shanahan say, is that he was zealous enough to actually watch the meetings day after day.
"I think he ran the Broncos and I think he will run the Redskins," said Michael Lombardi, an analyst for the NFL Network who was a consultant for Shanahan in 2007.
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Shanahan was born Aug. 24, 1952, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., but grew up in the blue-collar towns of Schiller Park and Franklin Park that hug the western edge of Chicago's boundaries. His father, Ed, was an electrician and his mother, Dorothy, suffered from a serious arthritic condition that led to her death in 2000.
Even then he knew he wanted to be something more than Franklin Park had to offer. He worked one summer with his father and knew it was not the life he wanted for himself, said Jack Leese, his coach at East Leyden High School. For the young Shanahan, sports was his way out.
He was a small quarterback, weighing just 137 pounds, but he was quick and tough. Leese created a wishbone offense to run around Shanahan when the player became the school's starting quarterback his senior year. In the first game the offense was used, Shanahan ran for 268 yards and four touchdowns.
His success at East Leyden landed him a college scholarship at Eastern Illinois. But his career ended in the spring game of his junior year when he was hit on a play that ruptured one of his kidneys. His roommate and later offensive coordinator in Denver, Mike Heimerdinger, found him asleep on his bed, Leese said, and knowing that Shanahan never napped, called paramedics who rushed him to the hospital.
"They gave him last rites," Leese said.
Instead Shanahan recovered, became an assistant coach at Eastern Illinois, and eventually found his way to Oklahoma as an assistant coach in 1975. He then moved on to Northern Arizona, back to Eastern Illinois, where he was offensive coordinator, and then ran the offenses at the universities of Minnesota and Florida.
"Every opportunity carries with it a seed of equal or greater benefit," Leese said. "He took that injury and became a coach."
By 32, Shanahan was coaching in the NFL, working with the Broncos for one year as wide receivers coach. He became the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988, but was fired halfway through his second season after going 8-12 and battling with owner Al Davis over control of roster decisions. He wound up back in Denver as quarterbacks coach that same year but was fired by Broncos Coach Dan Reeves two years later because Reeves felt Shanahan had come between him and quarterback John Elway. He then spent three years as San Francisco's offensive coordinator -- the last of which led to the 49ers' Super Bowl title and taught him the principles of the West Coast offense he would bring back with him to Denver in 1995.
Two years later, with Elway, Shanahan's Broncos won the first of consecutive Super Bowls and Shanahan's reputation had ascended from bright, young coach into a genius.
"Football, in the eyes of Mike Shanahan, is a different game than for most," Brewster said. "He has a unique ability to slow the game down in his mind and process information at an amazing rate."
Shanahan is at his best identifying weaknesses in other teams and knowing when to exploit them. In Denver he loaded stacks of other teams' game films into his tape machine and stared at the screen for hours, searching for any imperfection that could be used to his advantage. Whenever he saw one, he seized upon it.
Assistants who have watched tape with him describe the experience as humbling. Even men with years of football experience, who fancy themselves experts on the game, have been stunned at how little they seem to know when Shanahan started pointing things out.
"He's a football savant. I don't know any other way to say it," Brewster said.
"He would watch six or seven games and he would see one thing and would base a third of our game plan on it," said Pat McPherson, who coached under Shanahan in Denver.
To guard Mark Schlereth, now an ESPN analyst, one of Shanahan's finest coaching jobs came in the days before Super Bowl XXXII, when the coach disappeared in his office to find a way to control the Green Bay Packers defense. All the way through the 1997 playoffs the Packers had great success moving star safety LeRoy Butler to weak-side linebacker, squelching other teams' running games. Nobody seemed to adjust. Shanahan spent hours examining the way Green Bay used Butler, ultimately reassigning his offensive linemen's blocking responsibilities to counter Butler.
"That was something that was extremely successful for us," Schlereth said.
Denver running back Terrell Davis rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns as the Broncos won the first of their two Super Bowls.
"He is going to find a weakness and his whole mind-set will be to attack that weakness relentlessly," Brewster said. "It's a chess match and Mike wants to see how you will adjust to what you see. He's great at keeping something he learned in the first quarter all the way until the fourth quarter when he can use it. And it will be lethal."
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Like many devotees of former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, Shanahan believes in scripting the first 15 plays of each game as well as the initial eight of the second half. But not all of the plays put on the script were intended to lead to a score. In fact, Schlereth said many were added to see how a defense would react to something the Broncos did, for example, putting four wide receivers on the field. Once the defense showed how it was going to handle such a situation, Shanahan would add plays accordingly.
During Denver's Super Bowl days, the Broncos only had about six or seven running plays. Each had variations but the core of the team's offense, no matter who was the running back, was its ability to run those plays as well as they could.
They ran them so well that often when Shanahan introduced a new wrinkle to the plays -- and usually he had a new twist every week -- they were just decoys designed to momentarily bewilder the defense, freeing the quarterback to throw a play-action pass.
But while Shanahan's coaching prowess is widely proclaimed, he is not nearly as admired as a personnel executive. Much of the thinking is that Shanahan's lust for control and a constant belief that he was only a player or two away from the Super Bowl led him into questionable moves.
For instance, his entire 2003 draft did not succeed and its only player of any impact -- right tackle George Foster -- was a first-round bust who was gone after 2006. His drafting of troubled Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in 2005 was a waste of a third-round pick. And a long line of high-profile free agent signings, including Daryl Gardener, Travis Henry, Denard Walker, Simeon Rice and Dale Carter, were mostly disasters.
"The reason Mike is not coaching the Broncos anymore is the personnel decisions," Schlereth said.
Shanahan often evaluated players by watching tapes of their highlights, a system employed by some in the league who believe that if you see a player at his best then he can be coached up to that ability.
"It has worked for him. I think he has confidence in it," said Lombardi, the NFL Network analyst.
But many league executives say the approach can become intoxicating to a coach who is confident in his ability to coach the player to that level and has the ultimate authority to choose that player.
"He didn't listen to his scouts," said one NFL general manager, who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to publicly criticize another team executive.
Another executive, who also did not want his name used because he might have to deal with Shanahan again, said that Shanahan let his coaching emotions get in the way, "overrating" the players he had brought in both on offense and defense.
"He makes some interesting decisions," the executive said. "But he can overcome them with his coaching."
Others who know him say that while he built strong offenses, he felt compelled to make quick fixes on the defense, that he ignored character and lured too many troublesome players to Denver.
The general manager in name for much of Shanahan's time in Denver was Ted Sundquist, a former military intelligence officer, who negotiated contracts and fielded calls from the other general managers around the league. Nonetheless none of those executives believed Sundquist had the ultimate power over any transaction. Everything, no matter, how insignificant, needed Shanahan's approval.
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Over time under Shanahan, the Broncos never improved. They remained competitive, normally somewhere on the edge of the playoffs, but there were many mediocre years as he struggled to find a suitable replacement for Elway following the Hall of Fame quarterback's retirement in 1999.
This led to tension at Broncos headquarters. Some around the NFL suggest that Sundquist tried to take credit for successes that were Shanahan's and quietly discredited the coach to the media. Others say that Shanahan's need for control grew too large and that Sundquist finally grew so frustrated with Shanahan's omnipotence he stopped caring about how he edited his words to the media.
Eventually in 2008, not long before the NFL draft in April, Shanahan fired Sundquist, who declined to speak for this story, after it seemed the fissures in the front office had become too great.
About eight months later, on the next-to-last day of 2008, Bowlen fired Shanahan. The move was shocking even though the Broncos were 8-8 and had been 24-24 in the previous three seasons, maybe if for no other reason than so much of the team seemed to belong to Shanahan.
"I think he was taken aback a bit," Shapiro said. "When the owner comes out a few weeks before and says you are the coach for life and then fires you, what are you supposed to think?"
Bowlen never fully explained his reasons for firing Shanahan other than to say at a news conference the next day, "I have to operate on my instincts" and "we have to go in a different direction."
A request to speak to Bowlen for this story was turned down by a Broncos spokesman and the owner has maintained silence on the subject.
One theory that has gained some traction around the league says that Bowlen simply grew tired of Shanahan, that the coach's controlling ways had become too overbearing even for the man who rewarded him with so much power, and that there was too much tension around the front office.
"I think Pat Bowlen wanted his team back," said one league executive, who asked not to be identified because he will have to maintain a relationship with Shanahan.
The surprise for Shanahan, friends and associates around the NFL say, is that the coach believed he was on the verge of greatness with the Broncos again, that the long search for the next Elway had finally been resolved with quarterback Jay Cutler.
Several times he told people, "I have my Super Bowl offense. All we have to do is fix up the defense."
Instead of the Super Bowl, however, Shanahan was gone.
Some wonder if he will have the same trouble in Washington, with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and General Manager Bruce Allen, who also shares the title of executive vice president with Shanahan. But people close to Shanahan say Shanahan was assured by former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs that Snyder would stay in the background and let Shanahan run the organization.
Allen is seen around the league as more of a salary cap specialist. Shanahan recommended Allen to Snyder, according to people with knowledge of the situation, believing him to be someone who would mostly stay out of his way.
Meaning that Shanahan should get in Washington what he seemed to crave once he left the Broncos: the power to remake another team in his image.