Redskins' Donovan McNabb and Kyle Shanahan work together amid struggles

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:50 AM

When the Washington Redskins' offensive players settle into a meeting room to go over the game plan for an upcoming opponent, Coach Mike Shanahan - who has a reputation as an offensive mastermind - is most often absent. The man running those offensive strategy sessions, the one responsible for installing the game plan and conveying how to execute it, is Kyle Shanahan, the 30-year-old son of the head coach and the Redskins' first-year offensive coordinator.

"It's his meeting," Mike Shanahan said.

Kyle Shanahan is not, players and coaches say, just a pawn for the head coach, a pliable figure to be molded in his father's image and carry out his father's bidding. He is in his seventh year as a coach in the NFL, his third as a coordinator. Though Mike Shanahan made the now-infamous move to sit quarterback Donovan McNabb in the waning moments of an Oct. 31 loss at Detroit, it is Kyle who has as much influence on McNabb as anyone in the Redskins' organization, regardless of whether he shares a surname with his boss.

"I expected to come here and be the offensive coordinator," Kyle Shanahan said. "Don't think I would have if I wasn't going to be that. And he's letting me be the offensive coordinator."

Since McNabb was pulled from the Detroit game - down by six points with 1 minute 50 seconds left - there has been increasing focus on McNabb's relationship with Mike Shanahan, the man who traded for him in April. But McNabb's more intense, day-to-day interactions come with Kyle, the youngest offensive coordinator in the NFL and one of only three - along with Minnesota's Darrell Bevell and Seattle's Jeremy Bates - who are younger than the quarterback who runs the offense.

The pairing of McNabb and Kyle Shanahan has not yet resulted in success. Entering Monday night's crucial game against the Philadelphia Eagles, McNabb's former team, the Redskins rank 19th in the NFL in net yards per game. Only four teams have scored fewer than the Redskins' 13 touchdowns from scrimmage.

"We haven't been clicking as well as we want to and as well as we need to," McNabb said.

Even before McNabb's benching, both Shanahans and the quarterback described the offense's development - or lack thereof - as a "process." Now, though, there will be increased scrutiny in how that process is progressing. As McNabb said last week, "We've hashed out a lot of things." But both coordinator and quarterback are balancing two contradictory forces: The need to be patient as McNabb gets more comfortable with a system that's new to him, and the need to excel immediately.

"I want to win," Kyle Shanahan said. "I think that's what we're paid to do. I think I'm realistically patient. But I'm a pretty competitive guy, and I should be. I want things now."

The son comes aboard

When Mike Shanahan took over the Redskins in January, one of his swiftest moves was hiring the offensive coordinator away from the Houston Texans. When he was the head coach in Denver, Shanahan thought it was important that his son - a former walk-on wide receiver at the University of Texas - prove himself elsewhere before he came to work for his father. Kyle Shanahan's Texans led the NFL in passing yards and ranked fourth in total offense in 2009, and Mike Shanahan deemed him ready to move on.

That does not mean he hired him without some trepidation.

"You think you have an idea," Mike Shanahan said. "But until you work with your son, you really don't know for sure."

Kyle Shanahan, players and coaches said, quickly showed a mastery of his subject. When he wants something done differently, he not only tells players, but he splices video - even using other teams to make his point - to show precisely what he wants.

"He's so prepared," said quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, who worked with Kyle Shanahan in Houston and essentially was his hand-picked choice to coach the Redskins quarterbacks. "And I think, working for his dad, it actually makes it easier to have some tough conversations. He can go to him confidently and talk honestly."

The dynamic of having the league's youngest coordinator changed further in April, when the Redskins acquired McNabb from the Eagles. Instead of mentoring Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, who is 29, Kyle Shanahan was entrusted with coaching a 33-year-old player who had already been in the NFL for six seasons by the time Shanahan got his first gig in the league, as an offensive quality control coach with Tampa Bay in 2004.

Both McNabb and Kyle Shanahan have said that their ages are irrelevant. "I've been younger than most of the guys I've coached," Shanahan said earlier in the season. Still, Mike Shanahan had to monitor the relationship - as he says he does with all coaches and players - to make sure there were the elements of a successful bond.

"I think, number one, there [has to be] a respect level," Mike Shanahan said. "People [have to] understand that, number one, someone knows what they are talking about."

Mike Shanahan also had to find that out about his son. Kyle had served as a Broncos ball boy, had learned the game first as a wide receiver at Duke and then after transferring to Texas, where he played in 12 games as a senior. He came highly recommended by Houston Coach Gary Kubiak, who once played quarterback for Mike Shanahan in Denver and later served as offensive coordinator there. But until Mike Shanahan got his son on his staff, he didn't truly know how he would evaluate him.

"You kind of get a feel in the meeting, when somebody's implementing the running game or the passing game, if they know totally what's going on," Mike Shanahan said. "When you feel somebody take control of a meeting, relative to the running game or the passing game, it doesn't take long to figure out if somebody's capable of doing it."

Do they mesh?

Though the Redskins are halfway through a season that began just more than two months ago, the relationship between Kyle Shanahan and McNabb began some five months earlier, when McNabb first showed up for offseason workouts at the Redskins' Ashburn training facility. They not only had to mesh skill sets, but personalities that occasionally differ.

"I think most of my friends would call me a pretty laid-back guy," Kyle Shanahan said. "I think it's pretty hard to be laid-back when you're trying to direct a team and trying to get an offense to play professional football at an NFL level."

In the days after McNabb was benched in Detroit, ESPN reported that the Shanahans weren't pleased with the pace at which McNabb practices, a charge both Shanahans deny, with Kyle even calling McNabb's practice habits "perfect." But even in the tempest he has faced over the past two weeks, McNabb - who has a reputation for watching reels of film and studying diligently - acknowledges that he is easy-going, and that he won't change that.

Still, the question is out there: Do the styles of Kyle Shanahan and his quarterback mesh?

"Kyle's a high-energy kind of guy, and Donovan's kind of laid-back," said Steve Beuerlein, an analyst for CBS and a former NFL quarterback who served as a coaching intern for the Redskins during training camp. "He's got this happy-go-lucky mentality. But the impression that I got while I was there was that Kyle was never once even implying to me that he was not happy with the effort that Donovan was putting in. I think he was, at certain points, a little bit frustrated with the process of getting him 100 percent comfortable."

That process has frustrated all parties involved. Though Kyle Shanahan runs the offense, Mike Shanahan keeps tabs on everything - using video monitors to make sure he can see each assistant coach's meeting. And if Mike Shanahan is unhappy with the way things are going, he will not hesitate to step in.

"Mike is as demanding a coach as I've ever seen," said Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who played under Shanahan when the latter served as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco from 1992 to '94. "I call him Mr. Go-over-it-again. He will grind you into a pulp on preparation. If that's your gig, you'll really do fine. And if it's not - if you want to be a ballplayer and just kind of go through things at your own pace - you could get crossways with him. I can only imagine that some tensions that have bubbled up in that situation come from that."

Both Kyle Shanahan and McNabb have defended their relationship over the past two weeks. McNabb called it "a good friendship." But there is no denying that on levels both personal and professional, they are learning each other's styles.

"I think it's a natural process for anybody," Kyle Shanahan said. "No matter what you want to do as a coach, you got to do what the quarterback can do, what the quarterback wants to do. That's what we've been like since the day I've met him, and that's what I'm like with everyone I've coached."

McNabb, though, is not like everyone else Shanahan has coached. He has been in the league 12 years, since Kyle Shanahan was a freshman in college. The key in the second half of the season, McNabb said, is communication.

"We've talked," McNabb said. "We talk every week. I think now we kind of have an understanding of each other and some different things that I like, some different things that he likes."

What they would both like: different results.

"Things happen over time," McNabb said. "Nothing kind of happens quickly. So at this point for me, it's 'Patience is everything.' "

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