Redskins hire Mike Shanahan as new head coach

Stefan Fatsis
Author and reporter
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 12:00 PM

Stefan Fatsis has had unusual access for a journalist to new Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. In 2006, Fatsis went through two Denver Broncos mini-camps and a three-week training camp under Shanahan, as Fatsis tried out as a kicker for his book "A Few Seconds of Panic."

Fatsis was online Wednesday, Jan. 6 at noon ET to take your questions about Shanahan's coaching philosophy, how he relates to players and what he's likely to do with the Redskins.


Washington DC: Is 16-0 realistic this year, or just a Super Bowl win?


A typical Redskins fan

Stefan Fatsis: 22-0. You forgot about the preseason.

Good to be here everyone.


Petersburg VA: Mr. Fatsis, Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you. It strikes me that Mike Shanahan is a coach that instills discipline and has a very set plan. This appears to be essential for the Redskins. Is this true and what would his overall plan be to make an offense more productive?

Stefan Fatsis: Yes, Mike is all about having and implementing a very specific plan, from how his teams practice to how they travel to where the fans stand during training camp. No detail is too small. My assumption is that he will bring with him to Ashburn a thick organization manual -- much of which was developed by the late Bill Walsh and that Shanahan learned while he was with the 49ers -- that he will begin installing immediately. When I last talked to him -- before the season -- he mentioned the "100-hour weeks" he would need to graft his system into a new organization. The clock starts now.

As for the offense, I'd be guessing. But I am sure Shanahan has spent dozens of hours already analyzing this team and has some very specific ideas for what he wants to change, starting with the quarterback position.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. F: One of the Skins' continuing problems has been players with "special access" to the owner. Did that problem ever arise in Denver? If so, how did Shanahan take care of it?

Stefan Fatsis: Good question. No, it didn't, because it was clear to everyone that Mike had full control over the daily operations of the team -- and that included hiring and firing. Additionally, both players and staff knew that it was a bad idea to go over Mike's head. Mike had an very closer personal relationship with Pat Bowlen, the Broncos' owner. Bowlen once described it to me as a marriage. Bowlen entrusted Mike to run the organization, and Bowlen did not intrude. If there was a big decision to be made, Bowlen wanted to be and was consulted. But he almost always deferred to Mike's desire. Obviously, the circumstances in Washington will be different, and may be the key to Mike's happiness and success here.


RFK parking lot: After dealing Portis, the Broncos continued to have success in the running game with a whole bunch of no-namers. Do you have a sense of Shanahan's attitude towards running backs, and how will that affect his decision on what to do with Portis?

(For that matter, do you have a sense of his feelings on Portis, or on drama queens in general?)

Stefan Fatsis: Yes, the no-name RB has always been associated with Shanahan. But Terrell Davis wasn't exactly a no-namer. But, absolutely, Shanahan has always been comfortable starting lesser-known RBs. I have no idea whether his philosophy has changed in his year off. As for Portis, my understanding is that Shanahan didn't trade him (for Champ Bailey) because he had a problem coaching him. Just that it was a good deal for Denver.


North Carolina: Shanahan is not viewed as a rah rah type of coach. What kind of motivational tactics does he use when dealing with players? This current Redskins team has some big name players (Haynesworth, Portis)who never seem to be motivated to put in their best effort before or during the season.

Stefan Fatsis: Mike is not at all a rah-rah guy, as you'll see in my book. I was actually stunned by his lack of speech-making ability, on the field, in meeting rooms, in the locker room before a game. He operates more by implied fear: The players are made to understand Mike's rules early on -- that this is the way things are to be done -- and they respect him enough to do that. And if they don't, Mike is not unwilling to cut them. Having said that, Mike also does what pro teams do: assess the risk of keeping a difficult or troubled player around versus the reward of his talent. Mike has a history of giving players chances -- Maurice Clarett, Travis Henry, my punting pal Todd Sauerbrun. But if they push too far, they're gone.


A Brave New World: Do you think Shanahan is wedded to the zone blocking scheme? What about the complaint that it sometimes generates chop blocks on opposing players?

Thanks for your time!

Stefan Fatsis: I honestly don't know whether Mike is wedded to zone blocking. It certainly was a signature of his successful offenses in Denver. But he's a pretty practical guy. He'll look at the current personnel, look at possible free agents and college players, and assess what makes the most sense now.

As for the criticisms of zone blocking, I'll make a broader statement about how Shanahan thinks. This is not someone who particularly cares how the media or talking heads evaluate his decisions. He considers dealing with the media part of his job and nothing more. His focus, as it should be, is on assembling a team he thinks can succeed.


Yorktown Heights, NY: Hi Stefan,

A big knock on Shanahan seems to be his lack of knowledge or success when it comes to defense. I've heard Zimmer, and it looks like Blache is going to retire. What do you think his approach to defense is going to be? It's been the skins strongest unit over the last 4 years or so, so probably makes sense for him to preserve as much as possible. Do you think he'll want to change schemes?


Stefan Fatsis: Again, tough for me to answer. I'd be lying if I said I understood the complexities of offensive and defensive schemes, and I wasn't with Shanahan when he was watching film for four or five hours a day during his year off.


Atlanta: Does Campbell have a shot at sticking around? He'll be more competent next year than a rookie, and without an improvement for the 'Skins o-line, a new QB will be running for his life anyway. As we've seen in the past, rookie QBs with terrible o-lines don't develop very well (yeah, David Carr, we're looking at you).

Stefan Fatsis: I'd be shocked if Shanahan didn't have a plan for quarterback already. My understanding is that he wasn't impressed by Campbell coming out of college, but that was a while ago. I do know that Shanahan takes great pride in the O-line, so rebuilding it through free agency and the draft seems like a given.


Denver: Stefan, Is Shanahan an adaptable coach? By that I mean is he too set in his ways or is he open to change. For instance what do you think he might take from his firing in Denver and adjust to not repeat similar mistakes?

Stefan Fatsis: This is a great question. In Denver, he was very rigid. It was Shanahan's way and his subordinates made sure to abide by it. I'll never forget the assistant head coach, Mike Heimerdinger, who was Shanahan's college roommate, bolting from his office while we were talking when he realized he was almost due for a coaches' meeting. "Never want to be late for one of Mike's meetings!" he said.

Now, Shanahan had total control in Denver. That doesn't mean he did all the scouting, but while his (very competent) GM for six years, Ted Sundquist, handled draft prep, negotiated contracts and built rosters, Shanahan had final say. If he wanted a guy, the front office had to find a way to make it work.

So a big question, in my mind, is whether Shanahan has been humbled at all by his firing in Denver and will be a better listener, better communicator and better collaborator this time around. Shanahan grew up as a coach while Pat Bowlen grew up as an owner. Because of that, for better or worse, Pat afforded Mike supreme authority. That won't be the case here, and Mike will have to forge new relationships with Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen. How those evolve I think will play a significant role in the Redskins' future.


Baltimore: Stefan: The billion dollar question here is whether Shanahan was given an absolute guarantee of autonomy by Dan Snyder. If he was and Snyder fails to keep the bargain (as he failed to keep it with Marty Schottenheimer), what would Shanahan's likely reaction be? Thanks.

Stefan Fatsis: Shanahan's no fool. I'm sure he and Snyder talked extensively over steaks and expensive wine about this very issue, which is largely unique to Washington (and Dallas). The issue to me is less whether Mike was promised ultimate authority -- I'm sure he was -- than whether Snyder will be able to take a step back. To me that means still playing an active role in big decisions -- it is his team, after all -- asking questions and stating preferences but being willing to defer.

How would Shanahan react if Snyder didn't live up to the bargain? It would be a new experience for him, that's for sure. This will be a fascinating relationship to watch.


Arlington, VA: Do you think expectations will be much higher than they should for Mike Shanahan? His lifetime winning percentage in the NFL is .598, which translates to an average of 9 or 10 wins each season. That's pretty good and I'm guessing the Redskins would be elated with a 9 or 10 win season within the next 2 or 3 years. Will that be enough, or will Snyder and fans expect something closer to an NFC championship within the first five years?

Stefan Fatsis: Whose expectations? Mike Shanahan is a realist. He has been through it all -- worked for Al Davis, won Super Bowls, suffered through poor seasons (but never 4-12!). He recognizes that winning in the NFL is a matter of talent and preparation but also injuries, funny bounces, luck.

He is not a draft-and-develop sort of coach; Dan Snyder isn't paying $7 mil a year for that. Both men want, I'm sure, to transform the Redskins into what the Broncos were: a well-run, professional, respected organization that committed the resources to be competitive in the NFL every year, that players wanted to play for. Not to get too philosophical, but coaches (and players) recognize better than fans that not every year will be the one. I remember Shanahan saying to me once that he knew the Broncos wouldn't always win and he was secure that his owner understood that, too.


League-Source - Washington DC: Stefan,

Loved both your books! My impression of Shanahan from "...Panic" is that he's a highly skilled coach who is well liked and respected by his players, but somewhat aloof. He has been much better as a coach than as a personnel guy. Was it a mistake for Bowlen to fire him? What do you think he learned in Denver that will make him better in Washington? And, what seven-letter words can you make from these tiles: DEINKRS?

Stefan Fatsis: Thanks for the kind words. I don't view Mike as aloof - uncaring or unemotional, closed off -- as much as unapproachable. He's not a scary guy but his top-down management style did, I think, create a climate of paranoia around him. He doesn't radiate openness in communication, doesn't, as I mentioned, give fiery speeches. His philosophies about football and life are pretty straightforward.

I don't think it was a mistake for Bowlen to fire him. The team and its image were stagnating, Shanahan was probably going to leave at the end of his contract anyway, and Bowlen wanted to position his franchise for the future, that is, set it up so whoever in his family succeeds him as owner wouldn't have to start over again with a new coach.

As for whether Mike has changed, hard to say. He was fired, and I have to think that's humbling even for someone as wealthy and successful as he.


Wood Dale, IL: Given the "Shaun Suisham" situation can we assume you'll be kicking for the Redskins in camp?

Stefan Fatsis: Hold on while I practice some leg swings.


Los Angeles: What about Shanahan as a talent evaluator? That is one of the few knocks on him coming out of Denver. Is the criticism fair?

Stefan Fatsis: I don't think it's unfair. I think every NFL coach, Shanahan included, needs a strong GM/player-personnel director whose opinions he is not only willing to listen to but also accept and implement. That to me is another big issue here. I don't know Bruce Allen, but I've read and heard that his strengths run more to the administrative side of the GM job, not to the personnel side. How they get on will be crucial.


Warrenton, Va.: What do you have to say to all of Coach Shanahan's critics who say he'll be a flop as a coach because he never won anything without John Elway at the helm?

Stefan Fatsis: I don't buy it. As I said earlier, winning in the NFL is a complicated and fickle thing, and it is indeed much easier to do with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Shanahan was 34-31 in the four seasons after Elway, when the team signed too many expensive vets in their prime earning years and encountered major salary cap issues with the league. They saw the light, drafted better, signed younger, cleared away dead money and had more flexibility -- and went 10-6, 10-6 and 13-3 and reached an AFC championship game. They were 7-2 the following season, lost a couple in a row, and Shanahan (I think wrongly) benched Jake Plummer for rookie Jay Cutler and they missed the playoffs. I think that was the beginning of the end for Mike in Denver -- though to be fair, the team lost starters to about five times as many games in 2006 and 2007 as in the two Super Bowl years.


Norfolk, Va: Really enjoyed the book, Stefan. Did you get the sense the Broncos really wanted to "play" for Shanahan?

Stefan Fatsis: Absolutely. But NFL players really want to play for themselves, and not unjustifiably, because they recognize that their careers are short, that contracts are not guaranteed and that front offices have lists of replacements ready to go. The players respected Shanahan's football intelligence and his organization and his willingness to treat them relatively humanely. Players who despise the NFL and its hierarchical, autocratic, disposable culture seemed to hate it slightly less in Denver.


Arlington, Va.: Why would Shanahan even want this job? Seems like the other names that have been floated (Cowher before the Zorn hiring, even Gruden for goodness sake) have run in the other direction. Granted I would be willing to put up with a lot for $35 million, but does he really need the money?

Stefan Fatsis: I think he wanted to be with a team that would spend the money not only on his salary but on players, facilities, travel, etc. All other things being equal, that insures at least the opportunity to be competitive every year. Mike's turning 58 this year. He's not a rebuild sort of guy. The NFL makes it possible for teams to reverse direction fast. In Washington, Mike knew he'd definitely have the resources to make it happen. Whether it will only time will tell.


Annandale, Va.: Any ideas on Shanahan's experiences with Raiders? Was Al Davis just impatient or was Shanahan not ready to be head coach (was he a Jim Zorn?)

Stefan Fatsis: Both, and I think Mike would admit that. But Mike, as many people know, to this day dislikes strongly how he was treated by Davis.


Memphis, Tenn.: Dear Mr. Fatsis,

I read and enjoyed your book on the Broncos, and was wondering about your thoughts on the relationship between Shanahan and Ted Sundquist. It seems to me, from what I can remember about your book, that they had a bit of a difficult relationship, particularly given the special relationship Shanahan had with Pat Bowlen.

Now again in Washington, Shanahan will be working with a very involved owner, and has negotiated a role that, in my opinion, unwisely infringes on the duties of the Redskins' new general manager. Is this the recipe for disaster that it seems to be?

Stefan Fatsis: Again, this is huge. Will Shanahan respect and consider and trust Allen's input? Or will everything merely be at his service. In Denver, Sundquist gave Mike every bit of information he thought he needed to do his job -- including a daily spredsheet of the team's cash and cap expenditures. As Sundquist says in the book, whether Mike looked at it, he had no idea. But it was there to remind him what the team needed to stay fiscally healthy. Their relationshiip frayed because of some trust issues. So that is something to consider.


Afton, Va.: Do we think Shanahan still has the fire? Or are we looking at the half a loaf that Joe Gibbs II gave us?

Stefan Fatsis: Mike's life has been defined by football. It is what he knows and loves. He did turn to something else in his year off. Fire is the last thing I'd be worried about.


Denver: Stefan,

Do you see Shanahan going after any Broncos players/coaches? I'm guessing Peyton Hillis and Bobby Turner.

Stefan Fatsis: Don't know who, but I'd suspect we'll see some ex-Broncos who played for Shanahan coming to the Skins.


Columbia Heights: Stefan, I've enjoyed your books. I'm not a Skins fan but I'm not entirely sold on Shanahan as coach in DC. From your book, he seemed to click with Bowlen because the owner was hands-off and had his trust. How do you think Shanahan will deal with Snyder, who has shown he wants to have a hand in decisionmaking?

Also, why hasn't another team given Jake Plummer a second chance? He performed well in Arizona and Denver, and older QBs (Warner, Favre) have been successful recently.

Stefan Fatsis: Re Jake: He was done with the NFL when Shanahan benched him in 2006. I admire his decision to move on and do other things with his life. From what he's told me, he hasn't looked back.


Stefan Fatsis: Thanks to everyone for the excellent questions. I'm off to Redskins Park to witness the coronation.


Stefan Fatsis: OK, everyone, I'm off to Ashburn to witness the coronation. Thanks for the great questions.


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