By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; 8:07 PM
It's fairly easy to spot Kyle Shanahan at Redskins Park: He's the one who's so gawky and kid-faced he could be mistaken for an adolescent. "What's that ball boy doing on the field?" you wonder. The guy the Washington Redskins are counting on to revive their offense looks like an expert on malt shops, not NFL schemes.
If you were seeking someone to calm your perennial angst about the Redskins, Shanahan would not appear to be that guy, at least not on first impression. At barely 30, younger than Donovan McNabb, he's entrusted with redesigning an offense that hasn't been effective for the better part of a decade. He better be good - and apparently he is.
Some coaches are so steeped in the game that it's not just second nature, it's first nature. Shanahan is one of those. He ate offensive sets with his lunch growing up, and he didn't learn the game so much as he lived it. You know what he does with his vacations? "When I have time off, I enjoy watching tape," he says. Mike Shanahan didn't need an excuse to hire his own son after Kyle's phenom-like performance last year with the Houston Texans: the youngest coordinator in the league, he directed the league's No. 4 offense, scanning fields and tearing up defenses with a play-calling ability that seemed almost computer-like.
When Mike Shanahan sat down to create a playbook for the Redskins, it was Kyle who showed him things about the passing game.
Mike's signature in winning two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos was a superb offense, especially with John Elway at quarterback, but in designing the new Redskins scheme it was the father who took instruction from the son. Mike listened to his son's chattering intensity for a while and then picked up a pencil and started taking notes. "I had never sat down and showed my dad my offense, and some of it he has never done," Kyle says. "He said, 'That makes sense,' and he started getting excited."
It's a little unsettling to realize that Kyle only graduated from college in 2003, but inexperience isn't a factor if you consider that he's been wandering around on NFL sidelines since he was 4. As a sixth-grader he was hanging around the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, working as a ball boy. It was his job to clean all the dirty, sweat-soaked adhesive tape from the floor of the locker room, collect the dirty uniforms, do the heavy pounds of laundry, and put clean, folded garments back in the lockers. In Denver he spent his summer vacations in dorms at training camps. "I'd be in meetings and I can admit that I was falling asleep half the time, not knowing what they were talking about," he says.
He wanted to be a player, but he was so undersized that he teased his father he got poor genes. He was a decent wide receiver thanks to tireless work and some special instruction. He learned to run routes against Broncos defensive backs, and got a scholarship offer from Duke, then transferred to Texas, where he made a team that included Cedric Benson and Roy Williams.
He wanted to go into coaching. "I thought he was too smart for it, but obviously he's not," his father once cracked. It was Mike's edict that he would never hire his son until he mastered his craft with another organization in the NFL. So Kyle went off and understudied in Tampa Bay with Jon Gruden. He soaked up "every play known to man," but the best thing he did was spy on the defensive meetings run by Mike Tomlin and Monte Kiffin. He listened to learn how to beat them. "If you don't learn defense, you're just calling plays," he says.
Tomlin would say, "When this guy is open here we'll jump it," and Kyle would look for ways to punish the defensive gambles. Pretty soon he was devising his own counter moves. "That's when you're playing chess," he says. "That's what I like: the chess match."
Promotion quickly followed promotion, until the Texans' Gary Kubiak named him the youngest coordinator in the league in 2008. By the time his father hired him to join the Redskins, there was no longer any question of nepotism, because the kid's résumé read like this: under Kyle's direction Texans quarterback Matt Schaub put up 3,043 yards in '08, followed by 4,770 in 2009, more than Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tony Romo. There didn't seem to be a defense he couldn't solve.
"I keep getting asked about my system," he says. "You know, I really don't know what my system is. It's whatever the weakness of the defense is."
His style of play calling for the Redskins promises to be opportunistic, even greedy. "One thing I can say, our offense is going to attack. We're going to attack you and attack you aggressively, whether running the ball, throwing the ball, it doesn't matter. We're going to be aggressive, and attack whatever the weakness is."
Of course, there has been optimism about new Redskins offenses before, and it turned out to be unfounded. A curious malaise has persisted from administration to administration, whether plays were called by Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Al Saunders, Jim Zorn, or Sherman Lewis. Predictions about the Redskins are especially perilous given how much they have to implement. They have to install a thick new playbook, adapt to a new quarterback in McNabb, integrate a new offensive line, revitalize the run game, and find dependable receivers, all in a single preseason. So to say that Kyle Shanahan is the silver-bullet answer would be foolish.
Still, Shanahan has a couple of things in his favor: his natural facility for play calling is equaled by dogged, tireless, obsessive work habits. He arrives at the office at 6 a.m., and he doesn't leave until 11 p.m., a schedule he describes as doctor's hours - he's always on call. "You got to be with the players all day, and then to coordinate 22 people on the field, you got to spend a lot of time covering every situation, and then endless tape," he says. "And if you don't, you're just going to be insecure. I mean, you're not going to be prepared. And if you're an insecure coach it's not a very fun job."
This much is clear: he's not an insecure coach. By all rights, he should be, because if things go wrong for the Redskins, he will be one of the first and easiest guys to blame.
But something else Shanahan seems to have observed growing up was how to offset pressure with expertise. He brims with confidence from a lifetime of acquired knowledge.
"So as long as you're working at it, and you know what you're doing, nothing really scares you," he says. Sundays, he claims, are usually his easiest and most relaxed days of the week. "Now you can get into the fun part of it," he says, with a predatory smile.
And as we all know, the Redskins offense could use a little fun.