The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kyle Shanahan hits his stride guiding the Atlanta Falcons offense

Kyle Shanahan has lost the ballboy look. He's more seasoned in appearance these days, with perpetual stubble and hair so sheared off it's as short on top as it is on his chin. Grown up and stripped down, and in command of the second-ranked scoring offense in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, he looks like a guy you don't want to go against. He looks like a guy you'd like to have back. Of all the fool moves the Washington Redskins have pulled over the years, treating Shanahan like an undeserving case of nepotism may be as embarrassing as any.

It was untenable, of course, for Shanahan to stay in Washington as offensive coordinator after his old man Mike was fired. But what didn’t have to happen was the trashing of his reputation during the dysfunction-plagued seasons from 2010-2013. If Shanahan wants revenge for that this Sunday, he isn’t saying. A combination of a geneticist, behaviorist and child psychologist couldn’t crack the safe that is his head and spill what’s inside of it this week. Washington better hope he is distracted by revenge, as opposed to the detached mastery he has brought to destroying defenses during a 4-0 start for the Falcons.

It’s by now obvious that Shanahan was not some daddy’s boy legacy hire. It turns out the only entitled amateurs were in the Ashburn front office. Everywhere he has been, Shanahan has designed strikingly creative scripts, whether his quarterback was Matt Schaub, Brian Hoyer, or an unschooled rookie named Robert Griffin III. With the Falcons he has made such suddenly explosive stars out of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones that the latter labels him “a genius.” His head coach, Dan Quinn, talks about his “real gifts,” and his old mentor Gary Kubiak, who made him the youngest coordinator in the league in 2008 with the Houston Texans, says, “He has a brilliant mind offensively with how to attack defenses. . . . You can see what he’s doing this year with Atlanta’s offense. I can’t say that I’m surprised at all.”

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Sons who go into the father’s trade take a calculated risk. They become a living question: is their DNA escapable? Shanahan set himself up to fight harder for his own identity, and to get less credit for it. He also set himself up for a certain amount of psychodrama. If he has gifts he must have inherited them, and if he has a flaw, it’s because he never had to earn anything. If he calls plays like Mike, he’s a knock off, and if he does it different, he’s rejecting him. It has taken an inordinate amount of work, and inner security, for Shanahan to reach the point where he is viewed as a straight up talent. His only real mistake in Washington was in believing he had already reached that point at the age of 30.

As a sixth-grader, Shanahan cleaned dirty adhesive tape off the floors and did laundry as a ball boy for the San Francisco 49ers. In Denver as a high schooler, he sat in darkened rooms watching Kubiak cut up film. As an understudy with Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, he sat on the floor in defensive meetings and took notes on everything Mike Tomlin and Monte Kiffin said. He listened to Tomlin talking about when to jump a receiver and began thinking up his own ways to counter. “That’s what I like, the chess match,” he once told me.

The fact is, nepotism in the NFL isn’t a bad thing. Football is as much of a family trade as stock car racing, an obsessive, sacrificial and unforgiving profession that consumes people to ashes and is almost incomprehensible to outsiders. Coaches like to hire their sons, and the sons of other coaches, because they trust that they have been steeped in the work and the life. The Ryans, the Kiffins, the Harbaughs and the Shulas have thrived in the coaching profession for good reason.

“When I have time off, I enjoy watching tape,” Kyle told me.

He also said, when I asked him if he was afraid of the pressures of being on the same staff as his father, “So long as you’re working at it, and you know what you’re doing, nothing really scares you.”

In Atlanta, Shanahan has earned respect for his scanner-like intelligence and intuitive offensive grasp. And he has the loyalty of Matt Ryan, who was desperate for success. “The relation between him and Kyle Shanahan is so good because they both keep trying to push it further,” Quinn says.

He is seen as flexible, willing to create a new plan in mid-contest. Take what happened in a 39-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons were forced to punt on three of their first four possessions and fell behind by 28-7. Shanahan made revisions in mid-game, and the Falcons scored on five of their next six drives.

"He has such a knack of how to attack," Quinn says, "and he can go from one play to the next play, set one up, go to the next one. . . . During all of the chaos of a game, he's able to keep the focus where some people can't."

The numbers are proof of what Shanahan can do in a functional, healthy non-toxic situation. The Falcons are second in scoring at 34.3 points a game, fifth in total offense and lead the league in red zone touchdowns at a lethal 80 percent. In just four games they have hit opponents with five plays of 40 yards or more. But on top of that, Shanahan has won admiration for virtuosity at disguising his intentions and sewing confusion in veteran defenses. Quinn, the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, hired him precisely for this reason. Quinn says coordinators find themselves scratching their heads, saying, “Okay what is the system?” People can’t figure him out – a rare thing in a league that prides itself on analysis.

In 2011, Shanahan said, “I keep getting asked about my system. You know, I really don’t know what my system is. It’s whatever the weakness of the defense is.”

He is great at hiding his intended targets, and creating a sense of panic in the opposition, according to Jones. “They kind of like freak out,” he says. Shanahan’s play-calling is so confusing, Jones says, because he can run myriad variations out of one look. “He makes everything look the same, that’s what Kyle does,” Jones says. “We have so many routes off the same stem. And we block the same way off the same stems. So guys don’t really know, are we gonna block em, or run a route on ‘em?”

Watching Shanahan’s offense, you get a sense of love of craft, and that here is the real thing. The further he gets from Washington, the more his rookie-of-the-year work with Griffin looks like a marvel, especially given the backbiting environment. Just maybe the once-in-a-generation talent in that partnership was Shanahan. He is only 35, and it appears that he’s on course to cause Washington truly stinging embarrassment for years to come.

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