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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."

When Shanahan met with his team on July 29, the first day of training camp, he put it in plain language: The Redskins will run the football. They will run it in the first quarter, and if they appear to struggle with it, they will continue to run it anyway.

"Defensive coaches can say, 'We held them to 60-something yards except for those two plays,'" Shanahan said. "Fine with me. What did we get on those two plays? Maybe 40 yards on one of them and 50 on another? It all fits together."

The history

A significant portion of Shanahan's offensive philosophy developed after he had been in coaching for 18 years. When the Raiders fired him in the middle of the 1989 season, Shanahan returned to Denver as a quarterbacks coach, then became the Broncos' offensive coordinator. But his ideas about offense really started to crystallize from 1992 to 1994, when he served as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco. There, Coach George Seifert was running Bill Walsh's famed version of the West Coast offense, with Steve Young-to-Jerry Rice as a Hall of Fame passing combination. With Shanahan calling the plays, the 49ers won the Super Bowl following the 1994 season, and that led to Shanahan's return to Denver - this time as the head coach.

When he arrived back with the Broncos, Shanahan tinkered with a new type of running game. Zone blocking, which like most strategies in football dates back decades, offered more options, Shanahan thought. He worked with his offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, and his running backs coach, Bobby Turner - who joined Shanahan in Washington - to install parts of the system in 1995, his first year. By the following season, Shanahan committed to it fully.

"Everybody runs the same plays," said Kyle Shanahan, who was all of 15 when his father began flogging opponents with his zone scheme. "But I believe the reason that our philosophy, [why] we can do the zone better, is because that is 90 percent of what we do. And the only way you can get on the same page is repping it and repping it and repping it.

"That's why we don't like to carry a bunch of different runs. They're all good runs. It's just: What do you want to get good at? And we want to get good at that and the way you do that, if you can get good at it then you get five guys on the same page, you can go."

The basis of zone blocking is just as it sounds. Offensive linemen, instead of taking on the man in front of them, head to an area and hit the defender who occupies it.

"It's the difference between a guy lined up six inches off your head that you're blocking," said former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, now a commentator for ESPN, "and pulling and having a full running start at eight yards."

The result is the beginning of what Shanahan wants: Fatiguing a defense. If, in a zone scheme, offensive linemen are getting out toward the edge, defenders must follow them there.

"It wears you down," said Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, whose Buffalo Bills at times battled Shanahan's Broncos for supremacy in the AFC in the 1990s. "It's a lot of pounding on the body, that zone blocking."

So against the Cowboys, watch the initial first-quarter handoff to Portis, but dismiss how many yards it gains. Pay attention, instead, to how far the defenders have to run - and how many end up on the ground. Shanahan's teams have long used a technique known as "cut blocking" in which offensive linemen take out players on the back side of a play - the side away from where the ball is headed.

Say, for instance, Portis's initial run goes to the right. The Redskins' offensive linemen on the left side will try to cut off defenders - legally - below the waist, essentially eliminating them from a play and allowing a running back, if he so chooses, to cut back in that direction with one firmly planted foot.

By design, if the zone blocking is carried out correctly on the front side of the play - drawing linebackers with the flow - and the cut block is executed on the back side, a giant running lane can open. The effect can be devastating - and not only on that play.

"As an offensive lineman, if I cut you and get you on the ground, I get to lie on the ground on my fat belly and watch the play," Schlereth said. "You have to pop up and you have to chase. You're going to spend a heck of a lot more energy. So in the fourth quarter, when it's third down and 12 and we have to make a play in the passing game, the odds of you having a lot of pass-rushing energy is not very good."

The line and backs

As the Redskins went through their organized team activities back in May, the offensive linemen began a significant task: Overhauling much of what they knew about their profession. Almost all of the linemen had to learn not only new techniques - but new attitudes as well.

"Linemen are so used to, in their minds, just [taking] their guy all the way to the sidelines and just kill 'em," Kyle Shanahan said. "You just beat the guy in front of you. With this, it takes a while to get them working together, moving together."

In every training camp in every NFL city, there comes a time for the story about how the offensive line is jelling. But as the Redskins adapt to a new way of thinking and, therefore, a new way of acting, the jelling of the offensive line might mean more than usual early this season because zone blocking is extraordinarily coordinated.

"If you watch us on film, our first four or five steps are all mirrored with the running back," right guard Artis Hicks said.

And in order to mirror the steps of the back, as well as to have their own strides mimic each other, there must be cohesion. Zone blocking also frequently involves double teams at the line of scrimmage - say the center and a guard crashing down on a defensive tackle. But that double team will only last so long before, at a precise point, one of the linemen releases from the block and goes after a linebacker. Shanahan's Broncos - which featured Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman at one tackle, five-time Pro Bowler Tom Nalen at center, and two-time Pro Bowler Schlereth at one guard - were masters at it, nimble linemen who knew what each other would do at every moment.

The Redskins' development, as center Casey Rabach said, "is only just getting there." Three starters - rookie left tackle Trent Williams, right tackle Jammal Brown and Hicks - are new to both the team and the system.

"I have a pretty good feel with how [left guard Derrick Dockery] plays," Rabach said. "It's taking me a little while to understand how Artis is going to fit on a down [lineman] and then how much time he needs to release to get to that [linebacker]. It's all timing."

It is also technique. In a power running scheme, an offensive lineman might learn to put his head on one side of a defender, then turn his shoulders toward the sideline, plowing the defensive player to one side. Shanahan's offense asks for something different. Even on one of the offense's staples, the "stretch run" - a play in which the back's first choice might be to get outside the tackle and then turn up field - offensive linemen are to keep their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. The idea: Give the running back a choice to go outside that block - or cut back inside it, a move the litany of successful backs in Denver used endlessly.

"Imagine, if you put your shoulders and run a guy to the right, he has no choice," Hicks said. "The only way he can make a tackle is if the running back runs to the right, too. But now, if you stay square and press [the defender] square, he can't be correct. If he goes outside, the running back is inside. If he goes inside, the running back dips outside. It puts a ton of pressure on the defensive linemen and linebackers. If we're all in tune up front with the running back, a defense cannot be right."

Which is why, as Rabach said, "this offense puts a lot on the running backs."

That seems fine with Portis, the lone key figure on the offense who has played under Shanahan. During his tenure under Joe Gibbs and then Zorn in Washington, Portis frequently chafed - sometimes quietly, sometimes publicly - about the inability of the Redskins' linemen to open large holes. Now, he believes the holes will be there - not necessarily because of the personnel, but because of the scheme.

He should know. In his first two years in the league, Portis gained 3,099 yards in the system - the best consecutive seasons of his career. In those two years with the Broncos, he averaged 5.5 yards per carry, 1.4 yards per attempt more than he has averaged in Washington.

"I love it," Portis said. "I love it."

The whole package

There is no end to Shanahan's commitment to the running game and the zone blocking scheme that serves as its base. A receiver who shows up thinking he might do the sexy part of his job - catching passes - is in danger of losing his job, talent be damned.

"If you're a receiver here and you're not committed to block, you won't play," said Keenan McCardell, twice a Pro Bowler in a 16-year NFL career and now the Redskins' receivers coach. "Simple as that. It's a simple rule."

The quarterbacks, too, must be involved. McNabb inherits the role Hall of Famer John Elway played for Shanahan in Denver. Not only will he look for deep throws down the field, particularly off play-action fakes set up by - you guessed it - the running game, but by running bootlegs and rollouts. He may keep the ball. He may not. Each is equally important.

"If you're running the zone," Kyle Shanahan said, "you have to have them."

The reason: Those bootlegs - on which the quarterback runs, say, left when the flow of the play goes right - are intertwined with the rest of the offense.

"If you talk to any defensive coordinator that's ever played Mike Shanahan, they know the stretch play and the bootleg off of it are the two hardest to defend, because you've got to run so hard to stop that play," Beuerlein said. "Then you've got to run so hard to get back to the bootleg, that by the end of the game, that defense has been running back and forth across the field. That's where a guy's a step slow getting to his gap, and there's a seam - and all of a sudden you bust some big runs."

None of this has happened - yet - for the Redskins under Shanahan. That starts Sunday night. And maybe, in a couple of years, if all works as planned, the names could be removed from the back of those burgundy jerseys, and an amateur assessor could say, "That's one of those Redskins backs who ran for 1,000 yards under Mike Shanahan."

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