Redskins' Kyle Shanahan has grown out of his father's shadow

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; D01

Since he stood just a few footballs high, the name that stretched across the back of Kyle Shanahan's jersey has carried considerable weight. His father, Mike Shanahan, was the popular coach of the Denver Broncos, which focused as much attention on Kyle as anything he accomplished with his athletic ability.

"I've had it my whole life," he says. "If I was the starting quarterback on my Pop Warner team, I was told it was because of my dad."

It's difficult to outgrow expectations sometimes. Years removed from the youth fields around Denver, Kyle learned even more about pressure to perform when he followed his father into the NFL's coaching ranks.

"I think any time a coach's kid gets in the profession, he's always going to be scrutinized a little tougher. It goes with the job," Mike Shanahan said. "Is he a worker? Does he know what he's talking about? Did he get the job just because he has a so-called name with the head coach?"

Kyle, 30, answered many of those questions last season, when he directed the NFL's top-ranked passing attack last season in Houston. But he knows that this fall in Washington, in his first season coaching under his father, he'll have a whole new set of skeptics to convert.

"I've always had a chip on my shoulder with that," Kyle says of his famous last name. "I would never act like it's been a hindrance. It's gotten me in a lot of doors."

With Mike Shanahan working long hours -- first as an assistant coach in Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco and then as a head coach with the Broncos -- quality father-son time often came at the office.

When a teenage Kyle was a fledging player, he lifted weights at the Broncos' facility after school, he drew up plays, he ran routes with Broncos receivers.

"In the offseason, he'd come sit in our meetings," said Gary Kubiak, the Broncos' longtime coordinator, now head coach of the Houston Texans. "We'd be in cut-up meetings with Mike, and Kyle would sit in. Then when us coaches were through, Kyle'd go back in and talk more football with his dad."

Kyle's dream was to be a player, though, not a coach. He had only one scholarship offer -- from Duke -- and he took it. He played one season there before transferring to Texas and walking on.

"You could see right away that he was a student of the game," said Chris Simms, a former Longhorns quarterback and one of Kyle's best friends. "He was always asking coaches questions, always picking his father's brain. He understood the game better than other guys, the big picture of the game."

Though Kyle's singular goal was playing football and earning playing time on a team stacked with more talented players, it was clear he had a different approach. Simms recalls teammates playing Madden NFL on Xbox for hours.

Kyle "would try to coach the game, like for-real coaching," Simms said. "We'd just try to be good at the game. But Kyle would be like, 'Oh, against this offense, you've got to go with this certain defense.' We would laugh. 'This is a video game, not real life.' That's probably why he got his butt whooped a lot."

Kyle eventually earned a scholarship and though he appeared in a reserve role in all 12 games his senior year, he was at a crossroads by season's end. He was invited to the NFL's Scouting Combine but ultimately opted against working out for coaches and scouts.

"I was trying to decide which route I should go," he says. "I was honest with myself. I knew best-case scenario, I could've maybe made the last spot on the roster in the perfect situation. But I knew year-in, year-out, they'd be trying to replace me. I knew I wasn't going to have a long career playing. So I had to decide: Do I start coaching right now, or chase after this childhood dream? I decided to go the coaching route. I thought I'd be good at that."

Earning his place

The first decision of Kyle Shanahan's coaching career was apparently an easy one: He was not going to serve on his father's staff in Denver.

"I said, 'Hey, we will not ever coach together until you prove yourself in the National Football League,' " Mike Shanahan says. " 'I will not do that to you. I will not hire you unless you prove yourself with another team.'

"I think there's too much pressure on a coach's son when he's hired before he's had a chance to prove himself."

Kyle began as a graduate assistant at UCLA under Karl Dorrell, a former Broncos' assistant coach. After a year there, Mike Shanahan placed a phone call to Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay's head coach at the time.

"Mike told me that he'd like for his son to get started in the NFL on my staff," Gruden said. "I knew he had the criteria to be an outstanding coach. I've always been prejudiced to coach's sons. A lot of coaches in the league have families and their children grow up wanting to be like dad. It's not a bad thing. Kyle's had the rare opportunity to witness a lot of the things that go with the profession. Mike Shanahan has won and he's lost, and Kyle's witnessed all of that."

Trading his helmet and pads for a whistle and clipboard, Kyle began realizing just how much football knowledge he had soaked in hanging in the back of his father's meeting rooms.

"Going in sports, competing with guys at Texas, I always tease my dad that he didn't give me the genes that all these other guys have," he said. "I was always having to work harder and play above my ability. In coaching, it was just so much easier. I finally felt that I was the one who had the advantage."

Kyle served as the Bucs' offensive quality control coach on a staff that featured some of the game's top young assistants: Raheem Morris, Mike Tomlin, Jeremy Bates among them. Kyle was a familiar face in all corners of the facility, not limiting himself to the offensive coaches.

"You're talking about a guy who'd sit in the back of the room on the floor with a notepad in the back of defensive back meetings," says Morris, the Bucs' current head coach. "He'd sneak in and absolutely steal everything you had. He'd do those things for a reason, and it's paying off now."

The two-year stint in Tampa was not without complications. At the NFL Scouting Combine in 2005, Morris and Shanahan had a late-night encounter with police. Kyle, 25 at the time, was arrested for public intoxication -- he said at the time he was defending Morris -- but ultimately was released and faced no charges.

"My loyalty to my friend cost me a night in jail," he said at the time. "It was a night well-spent."

The minor furor had no discernable impact on Kyle's career. By the end of the 2005 season, Kubiak had been hired as the Texans' head coach, and he offered Kyle a chance to graduate from the quality control post to serve as a position coach.

"I always knew that it would be hard to keep him in that role for long," Gruden says. "He was ready for more responsibility."

A rapid ascent

In 2006, Kubiak initially offered Kyle the Texans' quarterbacks coaching post, but Kyle talked his way into coaching the receivers, a lesser job on the coaching totem pole but one with which Kyle felt more comfortable. A year later, he was given the quarterbacks job and after just one season, Kubiak promoted him to offensive coordinator. Kyle was just 28 at the time, at least three years younger than every other coordinator in the league.

In the early days of his coaching career, Kyle's biggest challenge, he thought, was stepping into position meetings and leading players who were older than him in many cases.

"Initially, I was like, this will be interesting, working with a guy my age," says Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. "But at the same time, we were able to relate to each other. We got along great one-on-one. He studies hard, he works hard, he knows the game. His knowledge is well beyond his age."

Kubiak says he had no choice but to promote Kyle each of his first three seasons in Houston. Kyle would quickly master new responsibilities and show that he was ready for more.

"I don't know that I've ever been around a coach who's grown up so fast and has become so polished in what he's doing," Kubiak says, "not only teaching quarterbacks but running offensive schemes."

Kubiak broke in his young coordinator the same way Mike Shanahan had done with him years earlier, slowly giving him more control of the offense and the play-calling.

In the final game of Kyle's first season as coordinator, Kubiak experimented and gave his young apprentice play-calling responsibilities.

The Texans fell into a 10-0 hole, but Kyle remained aggressive, and Houston eventually won, 31-24.

Kyle was given full-time play-calling responsibilities for all of 2009 and responded by posting the league's fourth-best offense and the top-ranked passing attack.

"He's just like his dad," Kubiak said. "He's exactly like his dad, as far as his thought process, just how sharp he is at attacking coverages and those sorts of things."

Father and son team up

When Mike Shanahan was introduced as Redskins coach, immediately naming Kyle as his first hire, instant speculation centered on the elder coach installing an offense similar to the one he ran in Denver. Before long, though, it become clear that Kyle wasn't a simple courtesy hire.

Though father and son will work together closely on game plans, Kyle will call the offensive plays, and the Redskins' offense could be more of a hybrid of what Mike Shanahan ran in Denver and what Kyle used in Houston. Making it run smoothly will require give and take between two coaches who don't lack in confidence.

"We'll butt heads sometimes. We don't mind arguing," Kyle says. "We both have strong personalities. What I've enjoyed so far is that I can argue with him and learn something. If I disagree on something, I show him the tape, explain to him my reasons. He might say that I'm wrong, 'No, this is how we're going to do it.' And I'll counter and show him there's a better way. Usually, if I really do have a better way, I can show him and he'll say, 'Yeah, you're right.' Other times, he might prove my point wrong and teach me something I don't know. And I'm better for it."

More likely, the bigger questions will come from the outside of Redskins Park. Within the coaching profession, Kyle has already established his own name.

"I'm aware that it's gotten me opportunities that other guys have to work their whole lives to get," Kyle says of his last name. "But I've still always tried to go out of my way to prove myself."

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