When Mike Shanahan took over as Redskins head coach, he scoured the college and NFL ranks, the United Football League and his lengthy Rolodex to assemble his staff. The end result was an eclectic group of assistant coaches with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise, ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 60s. While the defensive staff has several accomplished veterans, Shanahan's staff is also packed with young coaches, many considered to be bright, energetic up-and-comers in NFL circles. Team officials hope the 2011 season marks a turning point for the franchise, and each of the young assistants will try to leave his mark.
Chris Cooley is 29 and entering his eighth season in the NFL. As the years pile up, it becomes harder to impress a veteran player. Despite being four years Cooley's junior, Sean McVay made an immediate impression.
“He’s one of the smartest people I've ever been around,” Cooley said. “He amazes me with not only his knowledge about football but just how quick he is, how sharp he is.”
It comes from growing up around the game. McVay’s grandfather is John McVay, the longtime NFL executive who helped Bill Walsh build the San Francisco 49ers into a dynasty.
“My grandpa was always so willing to share,” he said. “I was always interested and eager, asking about little nuances of what was going on. It was never pushed on me, but I always had an interest.”
McVay spent a lot of time around his grandfather's teams, which featured Hall of Famers peppered across the roster and an offensive coordinator named Mike Shanahan.
“I was so young, but I do remember seeing Coach Shanahan and talking about the high-potent offense — Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice,” McVay said. “I do remember that. And I remember Kyle [Shanahan] running around, too.”
McVay earned a football scholarship to Miami (Ohio), where he was a wide receiver. His coaching career began as soon as his playing career ended. McVay's family had always been close with Jon Gruden, the former Tampa Bay coach, and McVay was brought on board with the Bucs in an entry-level capacity.
“He came into Tampa Bay and learned our offense, learned our audible system, got in early every day and stayed late,” Gruden said. “He's a complete junkie. And he can coach players. He relates to them and they like him.”
McVay would go on to coach under Jim Haslett with the UFL’s Florida Tuskers in 2009 before interviewing in Washington. Both Haslett, the Redskins’ defensive coordinator, and General Manager Bruce Allen, the Bucs’ former general manager, thought highly of him.
McVay finished last season as interim tight ends coach and begins this one with the permanent title. Around Redskins Park, many think he'll be taking on increased responsibilities in the NFL before long.
“You feel lucky to have him as a tight ends coach for a couple of years,” Cooley said, “because he's not going to be a position coach very long.”
If Mike Shanahan knew his first hire was going to be his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan knew exactly where he would start, too.
Coming from the Houston Texans, he’d developed a good relationship with another young coach on the Texans' staff. Kyle Shanahan said Matt LaFleur was his “right-hand man” in Houston, and he's been just as valuable in Washington.
“I got so comfortable with Matt. It got to the point where he always knew exactly what I wanted,” he said. “I didn’t have to tell him stuff. He knew how I thought, knew what I wanted the quarterback to do, knew everything.”
Coaching quarterbacks is a natural fit for LaFleur. Though his father, Denny LaFleur, was a defensive coach at Central Michigan for nearly two decades, the younger LaFleur was a quarterback in high school, before playing at Western Michigan and then transferring to Saginaw Valley State. He played briefly in the National Indoor Football League before hanging up his helmet.
“I'm a pretty realistic person,” LaFleur said. “I knew my chances of playing beyond college were extremely slim. You just don't see too many 5-foot-10 quarterbacks out there. I wasn’t blessed with those tall genes.”
Brian Kelly, the Notre Dame coach who was heading the Central Michigan program at the time, gave LaFleur his big break in 2004 and within a couple of years LaFleur accepted an entry-level job with the Houston Texans and met Shanahan.
“You come in and you see a guy the same age as you, and I just remember thinking, ‘Man, he can't know that much more than I do,’” LaFleur said. “I was quickly blown away. He was just wise beyond his years. I knew I had a lot to learn to even come close to being on his level.
“That's why I'm always striving. I've learned so much from him, and I know I'm a lot better coach from being around him.”
Richard Hightower says playing on special teams comes down to desire, which is probably why it’s always felt like the perfect fit for him.
Growing up near Houston, Hightower attended Texas on an academic scholarship. He walked on the Longhorns football team and played special teams there for four years. The program generously listed him at 5 feet 8, spotting him a couple extra inches.
“I've always loved special teams, always loved it,” he said. “It was something that's all about effort — the hungry guys, the ones who work, that's who does well.”
Texas Coach Mack Brown extended scholarship offers to a pair of walk-on receivers: Hightower and his teammate, Kyle Shanahan. Hightower kept working toward a business degree, and when he graduated, he wrote a letter to Charley Casserly, then the general manager of the Texans, asking for an internship. The Texans welcomed him aboard on their business side, but Hightower kept chatting up coaches, running videotape at practice and volunteering for anything. No task was too small.
When Gary Kubiak came aboard as head coach in 2006, the Texans’ new head coach quickly added to his staff Kyle Shanahan, who was reunited with Hightower, his friend and former college teammate.
“He was basically a secretary, but he wanted to get in coaching,” Shanahan said of Hightower. “I obviously knew him well and knew he was a tough guy who just worked his tail off. He seemed like the exact kind of guy who could help our staff.”
Hightower served as a quality control coach for two seasons before he was promoted to special teams assistant, the same position he accepted in Washington last year.
“I always prided myself in special teams — anything I could do to contribute to the team,” he said. “I'm the same way here. Whatever Danny Smith wants me to do, whatever Coach Shanahan wants me to do, I try to do it to the best of my ability.”
There’s only one new face at Redskins Park this summer who carries the title of assistant coach, and he’s hard to miss. At practice, Chris Morgan, a former offensive lineman himself, is loud, and he’s all over the place.
”He’s ripping and running,” guard Artis Hicks said. “He’s a big guy, but he’s got a motor. He’s a high-tempo guy who’s always positive. There are times where you do something good on the play, and he’ll run up to the huddle, give you a pound and then run back to his spot.”
Morgan grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan in Killeen, Tex., and has spent his entire life around football.
“It's all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he says. “In Texas, it’s such a big part of how you're raised. It’s just a part of the culture.”
Because he was bigger than the other kids, Morgan began playing in the 9-year-old league when he was 8. Coaches always put him on the line and he became a student of the trenches, eventually earning a scholarship to the University of Colorado. Morgan was a 6-foot-3, 305-pound guard there from 1995-99.
He used his history degree and spent some time teaching in Texas high schools, but that was so he could coach football. Tom Cable, Morgan’s former position coach at Colorado, gave the aspiring coach his break at the University of Idaho and later brought him on-board with the Oakland Raiders, where Morgan was an assistant line coach in 2009-10.
When Cable was let go following the season, Morgan was happy to learn Mike Shanahan was expanding his staff in Washington to include an assistant line coach.
“There's a really good group of guys here,” Morgan said, “a bunch of guys who want to work hard. It's important to them, they take it serious. We all do.”