Mike Shanahan spent the 2009 season studying the NFL in ways he never had before. It was, after all, the first time he was out of coaching since 1974. He wanted to take advantage of the opportunity so he'd be sharper than ever when he took his next gig.
He watched as many games as he could and sought the knowledge of the coaches he respects most. His path that summer led to the New England Patriots and his friend, coach Bill Belichick.
Combined, they have eight Super Bowl rings. Belichick's 186 wins are the most of any active coach. Shanahan's 164 are second.
Shanahan will try to close that gap Sunday while Belichick looks to widen it when the Washington Redskins host the surging Patriots.
"I think we've watched each other through the years," Shanahan said. "We know what type of people that we try to get on our football team, what's your makeup going to be. I know that he's watched me. It's been fun to talk about over a couple beers or dinner, something like that."
Shanahan's challenge this week is steep. His undermanned 4-8 team has not scored more than 28 points in a game this season. That belies his reputation as one of the sport's top offensive minds.
Belichick's Patriots, meanwhile, have scored at least 31 points in each of their past four games.
Not that he would take a Shanahan-coached team lightly. Heck, the way he spoke earlier this week, you'd think the Redskins were throttling toward the playoffs.
"I always felt like his teams were amongst the hardest to prepare for and to handle their game plans," Belichick said. "He does a great job of that, as I can see with the Redskins now. This is a hard team to get ready for — the schemes they have on offense and defense and in the kicking game. They're very good in all three phases."
Three players in Sunday's game have experience playing for both men. Redskins receivers Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth were members of the 2007 New England team that won 18 games before losing the Super Bowl. Patriots defensive end Andre Carter played for Shanahan in Washington last season.
In comparing the two coaches, all three gushed respect for their accomplishments and their methods.
"I think the biggest thing that I take from being there and here is that the head coach understands that the most important thing is the health of the team," Stallworth said. "Whatever they have to do to get guys ready to play at a high level on Sunday they're going to do it.
"I've been some places where the coaches run you into the ground late in the year, but Mike has done a good job of taking care of us all year, even training camp, and the same thing with Bill."
The physicality of Belichick's practice is something Shanahan noted when he visited three Patriots training camp practices in 2009, he said.
Their attention to detail also resonated with players. Shanahan can recite the down-and-distance and result of certain plays that happened seasons ago. Belichick during his teleconference with Washington media this week dropped references to Redskins fifth receiver David Anderson and backup outside linebacker Rob Jackson — not exactly household names.
"They're definitely goal-oriented as far as what needs to be done," Carter said. "In each game, they know the players. They're just fundamentally sound."
Both coaches also have a personable side underneath a stern facade. At least that's what players say. Those in the media wouldn't know that well.
"Not to give away too much, but it's all for a reason," Stallworth said. "With me being with Belichick in '07 and understanding how he was and what I thought of him before I got there, it's totally different. The players love Bill and the players here, we really like Mike a lot. Those guys won enough ballgames that they know what they're doing."
Belichick and Shanahan, though, arrive at Sunday's game on different paths. The Patriots have won four straight and are positioned to win their eighth AFC East division title in the past nine years. The Redskins are 4-8 facing a fourth straight last-place finish and second under Shanahan.
Still, if the Redskins could steal a victory, Shanahan would consider it a significant accomplishment partly because of his counterpart.
"Any time you play someone who has won consistently, you feel very good when you're able to beat them," Shanahan said. "You know how hard they work and how hard they prepare and what they've done through the years, so yeah, it is a special-type game."
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