Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan expected to make running game a priority

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

When Bruce Allen, the Washington Redskins' new general manager, introduced Mike Shanahan as the team's head coach on Wednesday, Allen went out of his way to describe Shanahan as a well-rounded coach, as much a leader as he is a great football mind.

"He's a true head coach," Allen said. "Not just one side of the ball."

Before taking the Redskins' job, Shanahan had served as a head coach in the NFL for parts of 16 seasons -- two with the Los Angeles Raiders, 14 with the Denver Broncos -- and he emphasized the need for an all-encompassing view.

"You know offense, you know defense, you know special teams," Shanahan said, "because you're in charge of the whole team."

For all Shanahan's success as a head coach, though -- the two Super Bowl titles and four division championships -- he is known, more than anything else, as an offensive innovator. Twice during his 14-year tenure in Denver, the Broncos led the league in total offense. Seven of those seasons his offenses ranked in the top three. And though the defining player from his career there is undoubtedly Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, Shanahan's offense -- the offense he will ostensibly bring to Washington, where the Redskins have ranked in the top three in total offense just once in the past 15 years -- is based on the premise that running the ball, and sticking with the run, is paramount to opening up anything else.

"He's going to run the football," said former coach Herman Edwards, who regularly competed against Shanahan during his stints with the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets. "He's always had that ability. His style of football is that you pass to score, but you run to win. He lives by that philosophy."

Shanahan will have to apply that philosophy to the Redskins' personnel, deciding which pieces to keep and which to dispose of. But regardless of those decisions -- whether he keeps quarterback Jason Campbell, whether he decides to rebuild an aging and injury-riddled offensive line -- a look at Shanahan's tenure in Denver could provide clues as to what he will do here. Those who have coached against him or played for him agree: He will start by addressing the running game.

"We had John Elway and some great receivers," said Bubby Brister, who backed up Elway for three seasons under Shanahan. "But we had some of the best offensive linemen in the league, and it was all about running and playing good defense. The emphasis was all about: If we're going to win, you got to wear people out."

The record shows as much.

'Keep it simple, stupid'

Nine times in Shanahan's 14 seasons, the Broncos ranked in the top five in the NFL in rushing yards per game. In the early days, it was easy to see why. When Shanahan took over as the team's head coach in 1995, the Broncos selected running back Terrell Davis out of Georgia. Shanahan put him behind a line that included several players who would make multiple Pro Bowl appearances -- center Tom Nalen, guard Mark Schlereth, tackle Gary Zimmerman -- and went to work.

"He just kind of said, 'Keep it simple, stupid,' " said Schlereth, now an analyst with ESPN. "We were simple and we were consistent. I think one of the things that Mike was able to do was take essentially six or seven running plays and make it look like 36 or 37 running plays. He used different formations, different adjustments, motion.

"Ultimately, it's 11 guys understanding exactly what they're doing. If you change your formation or you change your shift or you change your personnel grouping, only one or two guys are lining up and giving a different look, but nine guys are doing the exact same things."

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