Mike Shanahan brings his well-refined offensive system to the Washington Redskins

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 2:35 PM

Take the name off the back of the jersey, because it doesn't matter, and it still might be easy - even for an amateur - to pick out a play from Mike Shanahan's offense during his 14 years with the Denver Broncos . A running back - be it Terrell Davis or Mike Anderson or Clinton Portis or Tatum Bell or Olandis Gary or Reuben Droughns, all of whom had 1,000-yard seasons in Shanahan's system - takes a handoff and heads wide toward the sideline. An offensive line, moving as one, strides with him, engaging not the men in front of them, but the men occupying the areas to which they're headed. The flow of the play goes, say, to the right, and with one foot planted firmly and swiftly in the ground, the back turns it back to the left.

"You may get two or three yards," Shanahan said last month after practice at the Redskins' Ashburn training complex. "That's fine with me, because the next play may go for 50. Our goal is to make the defense run, and if they run enough, over the course of a game, you're going to get a big play against them."

Shanahan is loathe to think of himself as anything but a head coach, the role he has filled for more than 15 NFL seasons. At his introductory news conference with the Redskins eight months ago, he made clear he believes he must master defense and special teams equally well to do his job.

But Shanahan's tutelage in the game - from serving as a quarterback at Eastern Illinois to a backfield coach at Northern Arizona to a collegiate offensive coordinator at his alma mater, as well as Minnesota and Florida, to 10 years as an NFL assistant - is all on the offensive side of the ball. He has studied offenses for more than half his life, and when he was hired to replace Jim Zorn with the flailing Redskins, it wasn't because he had trademarked aspects of the zone blitz.

"This team need to change on offense," said Portis, once with Shanahan in Denver, now with him again in Washington. "And with Coach Shanahan, you know the plan, you know the way it is on offense. You know the results."

Those are obvious. While Shanahan was in Denver, the Broncos ranked among the top three in the league in total defense once. They ranked in the top three in total offense seven times - or an average of every other year. In each of those seasons, Shanahan was there, not only pulling the levers and pushing the buttons on game days, but installing and executing a system that is versatile and adaptable - all within the framework of unwavering principles.

"This is what I know: Mike's offense is one that will attack whatever the weakness that defense has," said Davis, a three-time first-team all-pro with the Broncos. "It's not just one-dimensional. If this is a game that we have to come in with a heavy running game - with three tight ends, say - we can do it. If we have to go no-huddle, we can do it . . . A lot of things are asked of you. It's very demanding, and every week, normally, the whole playbook changes. It keeps you on your toes, keeps you sharp."

The Redskins - who open the season Sunday night against Dallas - have yet to play a meaningful game in Shanahan's scheme, which will combine everything the coach did in Denver with elements of the system his son, Kyle, oversaw as offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans last season. In 2009, the Texans led the NFL in passing offense.

"Philosophy-wise, it's very similar," Kyle Shanahan said of the two approaches.

Don't think, though, that means Donovan McNabb, Washington's new quarterback, will sling the ball all over the field, as he did at times during his 11 years in Philadelphia. During that span, only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning threw more passes than McNabb. Last year, Matt Schaub, the Texans' quarterback, completed more passes on more attempts for more yards than anyone in the league.

"We'll mix it up," Mike Shanahan said. But they will mix it up based on that primary idea of wearing out the defense. Wearing out the defense, in Shanahan's mind, means running the football. During Shanahan's Denver tenure, no team ran the ball for more yards (30,993), nor for a higher average per carry (4.5), than the Broncos. There is little reason to believe that overriding philosophy will change with the Redskins.

"It's a commitment as strong as any coach in football to running the football," said former NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who came into the league with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988, Shanahan's first - and only full - season as head coach there, then finished his career as a backup for two seasons with Shanahan's Broncos. "It's unwavering, relentless."

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