Shanahan will remake Redskins in his own image

During his year off from the NFL, former UF offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan visited Florida to study Urban Meyer's spread offense.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 4:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 4:04 p.m.

DENVER — In the days after he was fired as the coach and executive vice president of the Denver Broncos last winter, Mike Shanahan took an office not far from the team's complex. He staffed it with his longtime personal assistant and set up the room as if he was still a coach, installing television screens and a tape machine.

He devised a way to have piles of coaching-quality game films delivered to the office and dedicated five to six hours of each day to evaluating players, breaking down offenses and searching for new ways to respond to the latest defensive trends.

“He wants a place where he could shower, get dressed and go to work,” said his longtime friend Les Shapiro, a radio host in Denver. “It's easy to bang around the house and wear sweats. He wants to work.”

To those who know him, the office is the essence of Shanahan, the Redskins' new head coach and executive vice president of football operations: a man so obsessed with detail that he draws plays on napkins even when dining out. Most coaches take vacations when they leave the NFL. Shanahan instead acted as if he never left, traveling to Florida to study Urban Meyer's spread offense and to New England to watch how Patriots Coach Bill Belichick ran his operation.

Such obsession led to two Broncos Super Bowl victories. It made him such a beloved figure in Denver that he recently opened a steak house and is still affectionately known around town as “the Mastermind.” But his thirst for power and a confidence in his own coaching brilliance led him make bad player decisions, ultimately fracturing relationships inside the Denver front office. He won only one playoff game in the 10 years after the last Super Bowl, helped get the team fined twice for salary cap violations, then was fired after an 8-8 season in 2008.

An intensity burns in Shanahan, 57, that is unique even in a league of megalomaniac coaches. He is not a tall man, standing 5-foot-9, yet his compulsion about the smallest components and his demands that everything be perfect, create an air of rigid formality.

“There's no casual with Coach Shanahan,” said Paul Kirk, the Broncos' former media director who now runs the Denver-based public relations firm ProLink Sports. “You come prepared and you don't make excuses.”

As Broncos coach, the powers given him by team owner Pat Bowlen were so wide-ranging and controlled so much that he installed video cameras in every Broncos meeting room so he could watch position meetings on a multi-window screen in his office just to make sure each coach taught the proper principles.

“He wasn't snooping on you but he wanted to make sure everybody was using the same language,” said Tim Brewster, a former Denver assistant coach who is now the head coach at the University of Minnesota. “Mike would say: ‘Tim at the meeting today you said this. Is that how we talked about doing it?” '

The amazing thing about it, those who know Shanahan say, is that he was zealous enough to actually watch the meetings day after day.

“I think he ran the Broncos and I think he will run the Redskins,” said Michael Lombardi, an analyst for the NFL Network who was a consultant for Shanahan in 2007.

Shanahan was born Aug. 24, 1952, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., but grew up in the blue collar towns of Schiller Park and Franklin Park that hug the western edge of Chicago's boundaries. His father, Ed, was an electrician and his mother, Dorothy, suffered from a serious arthritic condition that led to her death in 2000.

Even then he knew he wanted to be something more than Franklin Park had to offer. He worked one summer with his father and knew it was not the life he wanted for himself, said Jack Leese, his coach at East Leyden High School. For the young Shanahan, sports was his way out.

He was a small quarterback, weighing just 137 pounds, but he was quick and tough. Leese created a wishbone offense to run around Shanahan when the player became the school's starting quarterback his senior year. In the first game the offense was used, Shanahan ran for 268 yards and four touchdowns.

His success at East Leyden landed him a college scholarship at Eastern Illinois. But his career ended in the spring game of his junior year when he was hit on a play that ruptured one of his kidneys. His roommate and later offensive coordinator in Denver, Mike Heimerdinger, found him asleep on his bed, Leese said, and knowing that Shanahan never napped, called the paramedics who rushed him to the hospital.

“They gave him last rites,” Leese said.

Instead Shanahan recovered, became an assistant coach at Eastern Illinois, and eventually found his way to Oklahoma as an assistant coach 1975. He then moved on to Northern Arizona, back to Eastern Illinois, where he was offensive coordinator, and then ran the offenses at the universities of Minnesota and Florida (1980-83).

“Every opportunity carries with it a seed of equal or greater benefit,” Leese said. “He took that injury and became a coach.”

By the time he was 32, Shanahan was coaching in the NFL, working with the Broncos for one year as wide receivers coach. He became the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988, but was fired halfway through his second season after going 8-12 and battling with owner Al Davis over control of roster decisions. He wound up back in Denver as quarterback coach that same year but was fired by Broncos Coach Dan Reeves two years later because Reeves felt Shanahan had come between him and quarterback, John Elway. After three years as San Francisco's offensive coordinator — the last of which led to the 49ers' Super Bowl title and taught him the principles of the West Coast offense he would bring back with him to Denver in 1995.

Two years later, with Elway, Shanahan's Broncos won the first of two consecutive Super Bowls and Shanahan's reputation had ascended from bright, young coach into a genius.

“Football, in the eyes of Mike Shanahan, is a different game than for most,” Brewster said. “He has a unique ability to slow the game down in his mind and process information at an amazing rate.”

Shanahan is at his best identifying weaknesses in other teams and knowing when to exploit them. In Denver he loaded stacks of other teams' game films into his tape machine and stared at the screen for hours, searching for any imperfection that could be used to his advantage. Whenever he saw one, he seized upon it.

Assistants who have watched tape with him describe the experience as humbling. Even men with years of football experience, who fancy themselves experts on the game, have been stunned at how little they seem to know when Shanahan started pointing things out.

“He's a football savant. I don't know any other way to say it,” Brewster said.

“He would watch six or seven games and he would see one thing and would base a third of our game plan on it,” said Pat McPherson, who coached tight ends under Shanahan.

“He is going to find a weakness and his whole mindset will be to attack that weakness relentlessly,” Brewster said. “It's a chess match and Mike wants to see how you will adjust to what you see. He's great at keeping something he learned in the first quarter all the way until the fourth quarter when he can use it. And it will be lethal.”

But while Shanahan's coaching prowess is widely proclaimed, he is not nearly as admired as a personnel executive. Much of the thinking is that Shanahan's lust for control and a constant belief that he was only a player or two away from the Super Bowl led him into questionable moves.

For instance, his entire 2003 draft did not succeed and its only player of any impact — right tackle George Foster — was a first-round bust who was gone after 2006. His drafting of troubled Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett in 2005 was a waste of a third round pick. And a long line of high-profile free agent signings, including Daryl Gardener, Travis Henry, Denard Walker, Simeon Rice and Dale Carter, were mostly disasters.

“The reason Mike is not coaching the Broncos anymore is the personnel decisions,” Schlereth said.

Shanahan often evaluated players by watching tapes of their highlights, a system employed by some in the league who believe that if you see a player at his best then he can be coached up to that ability.

“It has worked for him. I think he has confidence in it,” Lombardi said.

But many league executives say the approach can become intoxicating to a coach who is confident in his ability to coach the player to that level and has the ultimate authority to choose that player.

“He didn't listen to his scouts,” said one NFL general manager, who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to publicly criticize another team executive.

Another executive, who also did not want his name used because he might have to deal with Shanahan again, said that Shanahan let his coaching emotions get in the way, “overrating” the players he had brought in both on offense and defense. “He makes some interesting decisions,” the executive said. “But he can overcome them with his coaching.”

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