In a way, he has already won the war that he and his father, Mike, fought with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and team president Bruce Allen. His San Francisco 49ers come to FedEx Field on Sunday as one of the NFL’s best teams, at 5-0 and in first place in the NFC West. Snyder and Allen’s team sits near the league’s bottom, lurching in lost circles, searching for a replacement for Mike Shanahan’s replacement.
Many around the NFL expect Kyle Shanahan will try to bury the Redskins, splattering his vengeance across FedEx’s scoreboards. His words seemed to reflect this standing as they spilled from the speaker during a conference call with Washington media members. Much of what he said was deferential, complimentary to many in a city he said he enjoyed. But then he launched a shot. It was delivered subtly yet still roared into the building with a vicious, searing precision.
“I think it’s pretty easy not to make [Sunday’s game] personal,” he said. “The guys who get personal with it don’t play in the game.”
More than five years have passed since the Mike and Kyle Shanahan years in Ashburn, a 24-40 debacle wrapped around the Robert Griffin III fiasco and cocooned by the 140-185-1 calamity of Snyder’s ownership — enough time for Kyle Shanahan to become a Super Bowl offensive coordinator in Atlanta and a head coach in San Francisco. Enough time, too, for the NFL to see that whatever Kyle was doing deep in those team meeting rooms with his friends — all in their 20s and 30s — was genius.
And as Snyder and Allen try to start the Redskins again, opening a search for the ninth coach of Snyder’s regime, their pursuit will be clouded by the fact that they had not only Kyle Shanahan in their building but Sean McVay, the Super Bowl coach of the Los Angeles Rams, and new Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur as well. While many teams are hunting for the so-called “next Sean McVay,” Snyder and Allen are going to be haunted that the real McVay was working right down the hall.
Because of this, many executives on other teams think Snyder and Allen will have to look hard at their offensive coordinator, 34-year-old Kevin O’Connell, whom former coach Jay Gruden had to promote two straight years to keep other teams from snatching away.
“[O’Connell is] in a good position considering the circumstances there,” said one executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank opinion about another team’s coaching situation.
“I think that’s a huge factor,” another executive said. “Can you afford to risk letting another guy like that get away?”
With the departure of Gruden, O’Connell is the Redskins’ play caller. It is an audition of sorts, although Snyder and Allen have not said publicly whether O’Connell will be considered for the head coach’s job. O’Connell has always deflected questions about someday coaching a team, saying last summer, “You’ve got to be ready for when the time’s right.”
This is something the 39-year-old Shanahan doesn’t have to worry about anymore. But his experience with the Redskins and the fact he has won and seems happier since could affect the thinking of any young assistant who might be courted by Washington. When asked on the conference call what advice he would give a young coach being pursued by the Redskins, Shanahan picked his words carefully.
“Just look into it, see what the situation is and who you want to work for,” he said. “I mean, anytime you get opportunities, you’ve got to look into it. But I’m not there, and I don’t know how it is right now.”
Then he gave another subtle yet sharp swipe at Snyder and Allen.
“I’m probably not the person [the aspiring coach] would want to call on that advice,” he said.
In recent years, a narrative has emerged about the young coaches on Mike Shanahan’s Redskins staff. The story has come out primarily because of the success Kyle Shanahan, McVay and LaFleur have had and runs counter to the popular notion back then that most of the team’s offensive ideas came from the fierce, omnipotent Mike Shanahan, who had been feared by many in his previous job as the Denver Broncos’ head coach.
Rather than being wide-eyed kids, tasting some of their earliest NFL experience, Shanahan, McVay, LaFleur and others were actually innovators, running a kind of football laboratory in the shadows of a war that was waged in the building’s biggest offices.
“I don’t think those guys knew that what was going on in there was amazing,” said one person who was in Redskins’ offices then, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide a frank assessment. The person made it clear “those guys” were Snyder and Allen. “There was some exciting stuff going on in there, but they didn’t understand what it was.”
The short version of Kyle Shanahan, McVay and LaFleur’s story is that they came in with Mike Shanahan in 2010 and set about modernizing the run-first, pass-second version of the West Coast offense that Mike Shanahan used in Denver. After Snyder forced them to take Griffin with the second pick of the 2012 draft, they had to create a new system to accommodate Griffin’s speed and inability to fit in the Shanahan offense. All the while, they were experimenting with new plays, ideas and concepts that they would take with them to their new jobs when everyone but McVay was fired after the 2013 season. The result of those hours lives in the combined 13-4 record of the 49ers, Packers and Rams this fall.
“We all became real good friends,” Kyle Shanahan said this week. “We were all very similar in that we were young and we were eager to learn. We were always studying more stuff. And just being able to go through those four years together, there were a lot of ups and downs. You start out with an offense you want to run, then you learn that you’ve got to adjust to a bunch of different personnel to be able to do that stuff and try things together. … I think we all knew that we respected each other a ton.”
Perhaps the best part, Shanahan said, was the competition. As the young coaches tried to alter Washington’s offense, they fought to come up with the biggest and best new ideas, each hoping to prove his thoughts were worth more than the others’.
“We thought each other would have great futures after there, and we enjoyed our time together,” Shanahan said.
Asked whether he thought all three of them would wind up as head coaches so soon, Shanahan paused.
“A lot of it has to do with luck,” he said. “You’ve got to be on the right teams [as a coordinator]. You’ve got to make sure you have a good year when that happens so you get your opportunities. There’s got to be an owner that wants to hire you.”
As Shanahan said this, he was at the 49ers’ offices, almost as far away from the Redskins’ facility as one can be in the contiguous United States — his time there with McVay and LaFleur a fading bad memory. But the owner they left behind is looking for another coach, another start for a team that has been unable to get going for more than two decades now.
Two people familiar with Snyder’s thinking described him as being stuck, unsure of what he should do to bring the winning he has always said he craves. So maybe it was fitting that Kyle Shanahan’s voice floated around the Redskins’ facility again this week, if only for a few minutes during a conference call.
The ghosts of what he, McVay and LaFleur once had there hover heavy over the uncertainty.
Mark Maske contributed to this report.