Sports Nut

Mike Shanahan: Is the Redskins’ coach fantastic or overrated?

Is Mike Shanahan a good coach?

Mike Shanahan
Head Coach Mike Shanahan of the Washington Redskins.

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.

Until he was pink-slipped this week, Jack Del Rio coached the Future Los Angeles/St. Louis Jaguars for nine seasons. He was tied for third (with Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis) on the NFL’s list of longest-tenured-coaches, behind Andy Reid, who I’m guessing won’t see a 14th season in Philly, and Bill Belichick, who’s in his 12th in New England and will probably stay until his head explodes after another stupid question from a reporter.

Not long ago, Mike Shanahan was second on the active list (behind the since-fired Jeff Fisher of Tennessee). Then, in 2008, after 14 years of what everyone in Denver believed was a lifetime appointment, the two-time Super Bowl winner was canned by the owner to whom he appeared joined at the hip, Pat Bowlen. Denver was shocked, the NFL was shocked, I was shocked.

After taking a year off, during which he learned to use email (he told me so), Shanahan agreed to take $35 million of Dan Snyder’s money to try to rebuild the Washington Redskins. It hasn’t gone especially well. The Redskins lost six straight games this season, the longest streak of the coach’s life—not of his 18-season NFL head-coaching career, of his life. They are tied for last in the NFC East with a 4-7 record. Since arriving in D.C. (well, actually Virginia for practices and Maryland for games), the coach whom Deion Sanders, on the back cover of Shanahan’s post-championship autobiography/how-to-succeed-like-me book, called “a magician,” is 10-17. Sonny and Sam are not thrilled.

There are lots of ways to parse an NFL coach’s career. Winning percentage is only the most obvious. Playoff record. Super Bowl rings. Branches on the coaching tree. Reputation among players and executives. Contribution to the evolution of the sport. Perception among fans. All are relevant to a coach’s biography. None is necessarily definitive. Shanahan’s second act in Washington hasn’t done much, yet anyway, to abet his unspoken quest to someday don a yellow jacket. But it got me thinking about what we expect from our pro football sideline generals, and how we evaluate them in the near and long terms.

After halting that losing streak with a 23-17 win in Seattle, the Redskins are enjoying a weeklong shift in the media narrative: Eh, maybe they’re not as bad as we thought. But for the previous two months, the quotidian issue for the sports babblers in D.C. has been why the Redskins suck. Is it their mediocre quarterbacks? Is it the rash of injuries? Is the offensive coordinator—Shanahan’s son, Kyle—an incompetent play-caller? Is his dad a bad coach who was always overrated? Or a terrible evaluator of talent? Or is he both?

The problem with trying to answer any of those questions is that, when it comes to coaches like Shanahan, the truth is as slippery as a wet football. I spent a summer on Shanahan’s fields and in his office working on a book about life in the NFL. I feel like I got to know the guy better than most writers and as well as most players. Which is to say very well (Shanahan’s personality and his philosophy are as straightforward as a handoff into the line) and not at all (there has to be more there, right?). He is unarguably a model of discipline and hard work, a control freak who marks time to the second and demands everyone in his organization “do the little things the right way” (possibly his most-repeated coachphrase). The plays might not work every time his players run them, but Shanahan’s football acumen, much of it acquired as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator in the early 1990s, was not perceived as a shortcoming. All coaches know the game. Players respected Shanahan’s command of it.

That’s not to say Shanahan isn’t without flaws, big ones, which (as with most coaches) tend to be magnified when things are going badly. So failing to secure a top-flight quarterback, or stubbornly believing that he can win without one, has led reasonably to the conclusion that Shanahan is a lousy judge of quarterback talent who only won in Denver when he had a great one (John Elway) or a very good one (Jake Plummer). The lack of playmakers among the Redskins’ receivers and running backs—and the lack of a top-flight quarterback—has led to the conclusion that Shanahan overvalues the importance of his extremely rigid system of play execution compared to the talent hired to execute it. (More temporally, injuries on the offensive line, and elsewhere, haven’t helped.)

Our friend Nate Jackson, who played six seasons for Shanny in Denver, thinks the real issue with The Mastermind might be that Shanahan isn’t as effective a leader when a team is losing. In my experience with the team, I saw that, by nature and design, he creates a culture of paranoia around him.* In bad times, he calls out players in meetings, showing film of their screw-ups. That might be necessary, but it isn’t much of a motivational tool for most grown-up athletes. So while players will continue playing hard because they’re afraid of losing their jobs, Shanahan’s meeting-room bromides and coldly professional personality don’t inspire. “That last piece, passion, cohesiveness, caring about the outcome of the game, that’s harder to find in the NFL,” Nate says. Shanahan believes so deeply in his own organization and football wisdom that he can be deaf to the causes of a team’s failures, and to morale.

Based on two recent inside peeks at their coaching lives, it’s understandable why NFL players would want to play for the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and the Jets’ Rex Ryan. But let’s not forget that before Tom Brady became his starter, Belichick was 41-55 as a head coach. And Ryan is looking a lot less fun and cuddly this year as the leader of a 6-5 team. 

Shanahan is more Belichick than Ryan, though not as cerebral or intellectually well-rounded. At 59, he’s an NFL conundrum. His successes feel dated. His current team was a mess when he arrived and, for whatever complicated reasons, doesn’t look much better now. But he’s such an efficient and businesslike manager that, to an owner, firing him can seem unreasonable. In the NFL, that’s a rare quality to have.

Update, Dec. 1, 2011: This paragraph has been updated to better differentiate between the author’s take on Mike Shanahan and Nate Jackson’s opinion of the coach. (Return to paragraph.)