Mike Shanahan closes the door to his Ashburn office, sits behind his desk and starts to expound on a subject he knows well: quarterbacks vs. themselves, successful people vs. their constant fear of failure.
“You understand, regardless of what you’ve done in the past, that there’s always competition. To stay at the top of your game, you gotta prepare, you’ve gotta do the little things to give yourself that edge,” he says.
“Joe Montana was 37 years old when I worked with him. But he had that edge.”
You wonder if the Redskins coach ever gets frustrated with the hand he’s dealt himself here. Really, from Montana vs. Steve Young in the 1992 training camp of the Super Bowl-contending San Francisco 49ers to John Beck vs. Rex Grossman in tear-it-down-and-build-it-back-up Washington. Even Jake Plummer vs. Jay Cutler was higher-caliber competition for Shanahan in Denver.
“People don’t really understand. . . ”
Understand what? That most observers don’t believe he has a bona fide starting quarterback on his roster? That the questions don’t revolve around whether one can win a Super Bowl but, in fact, are much simpler: Is Grossman really an answer at the position? Heck, can Beck even play?
“What was Steve Young’s record when I got ahold of him?” he asks, defiantly.
“What was he at Tampa Bay? How many wins?”
I don’t know, 10-6?
“Try 2-14,” he says. “In Montana’s last year, when he went down for the 49ers . . . [Steve] went 5-5. So a lot of people said, ‘Hey, Steve Young could never do what Joe did.’ That’s constant. John Elway had it for 14 years. People wanted him to retire.”
What this has to do with Rex vs. Becks you don’t know, but Shanahan keeps going:
“With John, even though he was established, he had the monkey on his back. People don’t realize how he fought for 14 years — a daily battle with the TV guys, the talk shows and the newspapers, ‘Yeah, you can get us there but can you win the big one?’ Fourteen years and three Super Bowls, that monkey can get big.
“Same thing with Steve Young. For two years he had all the different stats but he lost in the NFC championship twice to the Cowboys. He finally beat them the third year, threw six touchdown passes . . . and scored 49 points against San Diego to win the Super Bowl. That took the monkey off his back. It was incredible to be a part of that.”
It’s an amazing leap — from Beck, who hasn’t taken an NFL snap in four years, and Grossman, a backup to Donovan McNabb for most of last year, to three of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
But as Shanahan pauses while reminiscing, you suddenly get it. You see the thread that runs through his analogous reaches. It provides a window on Shanahan as well, on the one burning question above all others:
Does he still have it? Ten days before he turns 59, 24 years after his first NFL training camp, is Shanahan at the top of his game? Does he have Montana’s edge? Can he fix what Daniel Snyder damaged, especially after failing to do much with the mess he inherited in 2010?
“I could sit here and say anything, but talk is cheap,” he says. “We were 6-10 last year, that’s the bottom line. The key is what direction are we taking this football team. We made some tremendous strides, offensively, defensively and special teams. My job is to build this team into a Super Bowl [team.]”
But how long?
“I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. One thing I told Dan Snyder was: ‘If you don’t plan on me being here for five years to do this the right way, then you shouldn’t hire Mike Shanahan. But I’m going to do it the right way. And if you believe in my background and you believe in what I’ve done, then you should hire me. But if you’re going to ask me to take shortcuts, I’m not going to take shortcuts. I’m going to do it the right way.’ And he said he would.”
As much as making the Redskins a contender is about whether Shanahan can still be a franchise architect, it’s also about Snyder’s patience. Can he wait, say, till 2012 to be a playoff team or 2013, Shanahan’s fourth year, to host a home playoff game and genuinely contend?
And it’s also about Shanahan’s ego, which clearly got in the way of the process a year ago.
Look, it’s a tough balancing act — furthering your own NFL legacy while simultaneously fixing a broken organization.
Joe Gibbs tried it with mixed results when he returned in 2004. But there was a difference: Gibbs was already enshrined in Canton when he came back. No matter what happened in his second stint with the Redskins, his Hall of Fame bust stands in perpetuity.
Shanahan still has to get there, and to do so he probably needs his demolition project to eventually reach the postseason. But can you do that with Beck, who Shanahan stakes his reputation on?
“I’ve staked my reputation on a lot of players throughout my career,” he says. “And when these people [become] players, people forget about that very quick. What do they say? ‘Oh, I knew he was going to be good.’ ”
You think Beck can be that guy?
“I know he can be that guy,” he says, slightly incredulous that you asked. “I don’t think he can be that guy. I know he can be that guy.”
It’s two days before the Redskins would beat the Steelers in their preseason opener, and Shanahan’s brow isn’t as furrowed as it was last year, his lips not as pursed. Shanahan’s death stare is not as hard and cold.
If he has regrets about last season, he keeps them inside. The distraction of Albert Haynesworth and the debacle of Donovan McNabb are gone, Big Al to New England and McNabb to Minnesota. In return, Shanahan got some late-round draft picks and, more important, serenity.
Mr. 24/7 actually went spearfishing with his son, Kyle, and other family members in their usual Cabo San Lucas vacation spot during the offseason, where, he says, he “actually got to see a spear bounce right off a barracuda. It was really something.”
“When you’re feeling good about your guys, it’s a lot more easy to feel relaxed. I haven’t been relaxed at all the last year and a half, because it’s 24 hours a day putting a team together. There’s film study. There’s a lot going into the evaluation, putting a staff together. It’s a grind. But I really do love it.
“And when we do have this thing turned around, people will see it, and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s the way you do it.’ ”