Control issues key to Shanahan's success with Redskins

Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls as head coach of the Denver Broncos. is Daniel Snyder's choice to coach the Washington Redskins.
By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mike Shanahan exudes firm authority, from his steely hair to the crisp lines of his gray suit to his grim pinstripe of a mouth. It was evident in his introduction as head coach of the Washington Redskins that he has been empowered to reorganize a flawed command structure, and that the final say over the team will be his. But it's one thing to change a structure, and another to change a culture.

If you're into presentation, the Redskins' announcement of the hiring of Shanahan was impeccable. It was carefully choreographed, an essay in professional stagecraft. General Manager Bruce Allen presided over ceremonies and stayed strictly on message, like the schooled executive he is. He lauded Shanahan's "Hall of Fame credentials" until you felt like a conventioneer. "We got our man!" he said.

In the front row sat owner Daniel Snyder, in an obvious attempt to be discrete, if there is such a thing as obvious discretion. That Allen was the guy who introduced Shanahan and not Snyder was an unmistakable gesture, a kind of pantomime. It suggested that Snyder is at least cognizant of the perception that he has been interfering.

But it doesn't matter where Snyder sits, or how little he says in public. What matters is what he does through private channels. What matters is that those channels exist at all. Changing the Redskins' culture won't be a matter of externals, but of internals. It will have to happen below the surface, on unseen levels, in a thousand small, invisible and subterranean ways. But a good start would be for Shanahan to demand that Snyder delete Clinton Portis's number from his speed dial.

The bottom line on the hiring of Shanahan is that no matter what his title, no matter how much autonomy he supposedly has, control will be a major issue. On the very day that Shanahan was introduced, there was evidence of insubordination and internal strife all over the airwaves, strife that had its root in Snyder's over-involvement and Portis's spoiled over-entitlement as a friend of the owner. The Redskins' famously indolent star running back was so bold as to rip quarterback Jason Campbell on the radio for a supposed lack of leadership. In response, several teammates expressed resentment of what they perceive as Portis's special treatment, the fact that he, and others, have seemed to be beyond the reach of any coaching authority.

This is one of the first matters Shanahan will have to grapple with, and he responded assertively when asked about the quarrel. Players won't be airing such matters publicly in the future, he said. They will be shut down. "That will happen, I guarantee you," he said. "That message will get across in time."

But can Shanahan really guarantee that? How soon before malcontent players are dialing a certain mansion on the Potomac and whispering into their iPhones when they're unhappy with how the domineering new taskmaster is using them in the offense? The fact is, Shanahan is powerless to cure that situation. The only person who can cure it is the guy at the top, the owner. He's the one who has to say to Portis, or anyone else, "Don't come to me with this. Work it out with your head coach."

So we'll see.

The Redskins have changed their structure seven times now, and it hasn't changed the culture. Not even Joe Gibbs could change it -- it was Gibbs who first remarked, jokingly, that Portis appeared to have the same status as an assistant GM.

The first impression of Shanahan is that he governs strictly, and matter-of-factly. He arrives with an operational book as thick as an encyclopedia, which contains protocols for everything, starting with what time to turn on the lights in the building. He comes across as laconic but blunt, and terminally tough-minded. Asked if the Redskins were better than their record, he answered: "You are what you are. If you're 4-12, you're 4-12."

It's tempting to call this a whole new day for the Redskins. But it would be easier to buy in wholesale if they weren't still doing some things the same way they did them Wednesday. Bruce Allen has said, encouragingly, that the Redskins have to "change the way they do business."

If there is any reason for skepticism, it's that the manner of Shanahan's hiring smacks very much of their old way of doing business -- namely back-channeling. There are serious questions to be asked about the timing of it, especially the notion that Shanahan was hired after a search that lasted just 48 hours. Shanahan acknowledged during his introduction that he and Snyder, who are friends, have been talking for far longer than they previously acknowledged -- before Allen was hired a month ago.

After listening to Shanahan's statements in the news conference, you had to wonder who hired whom. From the sound of it, it was Shanahan who wanted to bring in Allen, and not the other way around. "I was so excited to get Bruce," Shanahan said. "I said, 'Hey, I can't believe this guy is on the street.' " If nothing else, it seems that Shanahan has had influence over Redskins Park for longer than just a day.

Then there is the matter of Jerry Gray's job interview while Jim Zorn was still in place. Either the interview was a mockery of the Rooney Rule or the Redskins were backstabbing Zorn. Now comes word that Gray could be retained and promoted to defensive coordinator. In either case, the Redskins have been less than forthright. There is a weirdness to all of this, a sense of accounts not quite hanging together, of lingering dysfunction.

Snyder made another hands-off gesture three weeks ago when he stopped summoning Zorn to mandatory lunches every Friday. Supposedly, Snyder backed off at the suggestion of Allen, who felt "the right line of communications was between himself and the head coach," according to Snyder. A small step but a very healthy one, if true.

Perhaps Shanahan is the coach who can finally change the way Snyder does things. The last time Snyder hired a professional grinder who demanded total control, Marty Schottenheimer, it lasted exactly a year. And it ended in tears. We'll find out who's really in charge of the Redskins shortly. We'll know from the phone bills.

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