After Monday night’s preseason game at FedEx Field, Cleveland Browns assistant coach Kyle Shanahan plans to catch up with several people who work for the Washington Redskins. Despite his ugly split from the organization almost eight months ago, he still has friends in it.
Shanahan, Washington’s offensive coordinator the past four seasons, was fired along with his father, former head coach Mike Shanahan, and most of the coaching staff. Now the Browns’ play-caller, Kyle Shanahan will face his former team for the first time since leaving Washington. For him, it won’t be an emotional reunion.
Shanahan has turned the page on his mostly frustrating experience here — especially last season’s 3-13 debacle in which he was on bad terms with quarterback Robert Griffin III. Happy in Cleveland, Shanahan has been reenergized while judging a tight race between Brian Hoyer and high-profile rookie Johnny Manziel for the Browns’ starting quarterback job. With the Browns kicking off the NFL regular season Sept. 7, Shanahan is too busy to dwell on the past.
“It really won’t be hard to go back because I move on,” Shanahan said in a phone interview last week. “The way I look at it is, I try to do my best, work as hard as I can and do things the right way. I feel like if I live that way, then I can be happy with myself.
“Wherever I’ve coached, I’ve tried my hardest to put the players in the best situation to do their best. If it works out, it’s awesome. If it doesn’t, I go back to the drawing board and try to figure out different ways to do it. This is what I do for a living, and I do it as well as I can, but it’s not who I am.”
Last fall, Shanahan was a teacher at odds with his star pupil. Griffin became convinced that Washington’s head coach and offensive coordinator conspired against him. The 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year believed they intentionally tried to stunt his growth as a pocket passer in an attempt to eventually dump him in favor of backup Kirk Cousins. Griffin’s distrust of the Shanahans torpedoed the 2013 season before it began.
Kyle won’t discuss what went wrong between him and Griffin (“I’m just sticking to what I’m doing right now,” he said), but people within the organization paint the picture of two gifted, headstrong individuals clashing over the best way to do things. It also didn’t help matters that Griffin’s ego received an unhealthy boost during his electric first season, in which — while directing an offense the younger Shanahan specifically designed for him — he had the greatest performance statistically for a rookie passer in league history. And although Shanahan is an Xs and Os whiz — with Washington and the Houston Texans, Shanahan has led top-five offenses — he could have communicated better with Griffin.
Their breakup was inevitable and necessary. In his new union with the Browns, Shanahan is tutoring another dual-threat quarterback who can’t seem to get enough of the spotlight. A year after Griffin won the Heisman Trophy, Manziel received the coveted award presented to college football’s top player. The Browns selected the brash, nightlife-loving passer in the first round of the 2014 draft. Hoyer, who played for three teams his first five seasons in the league, has been listed first on the depth chart since training camp began. But Manziel has steadily closed the gap.
“We wouldn’t have spent a first-round pick on him if we didn’t think he could play,” Shanahan said. “Everyone knows he can make a lot of plays and do a lot of things.”
Yet, Hoyer is scheduled to start against Washington. Manziel is expected to play a lot. Many long-suffering Browns fans — since 1999, the franchise has had two winning seasons — hope Manziel wins the job. With his legs and passing arm, Manziel possesses the potential to provide excitement the franchise hasn’t experienced in decades.
There’s a tidal wave of external support for “Johnny Football,” but the Browns’ coaching staff “doesn’t feel any pressure to start him,” Shanahan said. “We’ll see how it goes. If he deserves to start, I’m sure [Coach Mike Pettine] will make that decision.
“It’ll end up playing out. Nothing will be forced. We have two guys capable of leading this team. Hopefully, one of them will make a decision for us by outplaying the other.”
Long ago, Manziel pulled away from Hoyer on the party circuit. Known for having a good time during his college days at Texas A&M, Manziel raised eyebrows in his first interview after reporting to training camp, saying his after-hours work wouldn’t hamper him in his bid to become the Browns’ starter. From the outside, it appears Manziel has a lot of growing up to do. Behind closed doors, Shanahan sees something different.
“He’s really just one of the guys. He likes football and enjoys being in the building,” Shanahan said. “He works at everything. Every time he doesn’t make a play, he wants to know why it didn’t work.
“He wants to know what he can do . . . from a schematic standpoint, to technique to everything else you can think of, to get better. He knows he doesn’t have all the answers. He knows he has a long way to go. He wants to be coached hard. It makes it fun to coach.”
After a rough season, Shanahan again is having a blast coaching. A willing student always brings out the best in a good teacher.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.