Peggy Shanahan feared the worst because she knows her husband and son as well as anybody. A pair of intense, detail-obsessed competitors working closely for 16 hours a day or more? Oh yeah, that would end well. She could see the outcome clearly — the awkward silence at family dinners, the tumultuous discussions on vacation. What a joy it would be for Mike to captain the Washington Redskins‘ building project with Kyle as one of his top lieutenants.
“I actually thought they were both crazy when they wanted to do it,” Peggy said. “But it was obviously so different than that. It’s really a treat for both of them.”
On the eve of their second season as Redskins coach and offensive coordinator, Mike and Kyle Shanahan are reaping all of the personal rewards and many of the professional benefits they hoped for 20 months ago when Kyle left his promising coordinator position with the Houston Texans to work for his father.
Yet with questions at quarterback that persist after a bumpy 6-10 debut campaign, Mike and Kyle still have to prove their union will produce in Washington the same success on which they separately built their reputations in other cities.
“When you have any adversity and your last name is the same as the head coach’s, I know exactly what people are going to say,” Kyle said. “I’ve known my whole life. But I’m very confident in myself because of what I’ve done without him, and I’m also confident that you can ask any player that I’ve coached, and I feel very good about that.”
Not a lot of precedent
Wade Phillips has considered his father something of a hero for as long as he can remember. Growing up on Texas’ Gulf Coast, about 90 miles east of Houston, he learned football by hanging around the high school teams coached by his dad, Bum.
Wade played for Bum at Port Neches-Groves High School, and Bum was the defensive coordinator at the University of Houston when Wade was a linebacker there in the mid-1960s. Football always has been their connection. Over the years, Bum’s philosophies, especially those about the 3-4 defense, became Wade‘s.
“You want your assistant coaches to be loyal,” said Wade, now the Texans’ defensive coordinator. “Nobody is going to be more loyal than your son, so you can always count on that.
“They’ll tell you the truth. Some other coaches might hesitate about telling you what they think about things, but if you ask your son, he’s going to tell you exactly what he thinks. You get a valuable opinion there.”
“Kyle has got a lot of football in his background; what I mean by that is we’re on the same page,” Mike, 59, said. “We talk a lot of football; the running game, the passing game. It’s pretty easy to be connected because we spend so much time together talking ball.”
Coaches’ reviews were highly critical at times last season, as the Redskins averaged 5.36 yards per play, 14th-best in the 32-team NFL.
Kyle’s offense during his two years calling plays in Houston ranked sixth (5.88 yards) and fourth (6.0 yards). During Mike’s two Super Bowl seasons in Denver, the Broncos’ offense ranked third each year.
They discussed the offense and exchanged ideas throughout the season, as all head coaches and coordinators do. However, their relationship allowed for greater candor.
“Sometimes I’d maybe be a little more nervous to piss the head coach off,” Kyle, 31, said. “It’s a little easier for me to ask him a tough question than maybe it has been [with other coaches] in the past. That has been nice because I can always ask that question. And definitely being his son, he probably gets morepissed off at me than he does with most people. So it goes both ways.”
But he was caught off guard when McNabb’s agent, Fletcher Smith, publicly blamed him for McNabb’s falling out with the team. Smith accused Kyle of ignoring suggestions McNabb made to improve the offense. When Kyle confronted McNabb and McNabb told him Smith’s allegations weren’t true, Kyle could only press forward.
McNabb, through a personal spokesman, declined to comment for this story.
The situation would have been disastrous if it somehow cost Kyle the respect and confidence of players, but that didn’t happen. In fact, it’s the opposite.
“I think they handled it as good as you can,” quarterback Rex Grossman said. “To bench somebody for their performance, anytime it’s a Donovan McNabb-caliber player, there’s no right way to do it. You’re going to catch heat no matter what because he’s a big name. They were in a lose-lose situation there.”
You can’t just take it from Grossman, though, because he directly benefited from McNabb’s demotion and replaced him as the starter.
“I don’t think anything with the Donovan situation makes Kyle a target,” tight end Chris Cooley said. “What makes you a target is losing football games. If we’re winning games, I think that situation probably still happens, maybe not to the extent it did. But winning overrules everything.”
And toward that end, players are certain the best man for the job is running the Redskins‘ offense.
“This offense is so dynamic,” receiver Santana Moss said. “The things that we can do offensively, individually and collectively, Kyle’s offense gives us an opportunity to be great. All we have to do is go out there and handle our jobs. Last year, we left a lot on the field - I mean every game.”
Cooley’s belief in Kyle is at unprecedented levels.
“This is the first time in my career that an offense has fit so much that I’ve been willing to study it,” he said. “I’ve been willing to know it as thoroughly as I do. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It makes sense.
“A lot of offenses have contradictions. Instead, this offense has answers. It’s neat to see the way we get everyone involved. It’s the first time I care what we’re doing on the line. I care what our quarterback’s reads are. I care about other positions besides mine.”
The benefits of youth
Mike Shanahan didn’t know exactly what to expect that day in March last year. He did all the required due diligence before hiring his new offensive coordinator, but Shanahan had never actually seen this coach run a meeting with the entire offense present.
“I was shocked to see how relaxed he was at his age,” Mike said. “Then I started thinking about it. The first time I got in front of a team was coming out of college. I was about 30 years old. He’s in that time frame, 30, 31, and he’s been doing it for six years. In high school, he was on the sideline in the Super Bowl. He’s been through it.”
When Kyle was growing up, topics centered on his playing career and the path he hoped would lead to the NFL. When Kyle broke into coaching, first with UCLA and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the father-son discussions about coaching were limited because their experiences weren’t shared.
Now, because they work so closely together, the depth of their interaction is more beneficial to how they coach.
Kyle, for example, uses film analysis to anchor his meetings. The young generation of NFL coaches entered the profession with the technology to digitally break down game footage. Many young coaches, such as Kyle, have developed their methods accordingly
“I know that’s something that’s not as big with the older coaches because they didn’t have the film capabilities that we have,” Kyle said. “I was pretty confident he would like how I did it. I had always wanted to show him.”
Because Kyle had his heart set on being an NFL receiver, he used to analyze his dad’s tapes of Jerry Rice, Rod Smith and others.
“When you study it to be a player, and you’re actually a wide receivers coach, you’ve got to know that as good as anybody,” Mike said.
“If you’re slipping, he will be your worst enemy and your biggest pain because he’ll be all over you,” Kyle said. “It makes you a better coach. You’ve got to think everything out and be organized.”
Family time, football time
It doesn’t matter whether your last name is Shanahan or Smith, there’s never a bad time for ice cream.
Friday mornings around 10:30 suit Mike Shanahan perfectly. That’s when he likes to drive the 10 minutes or so across Leesburg, Va., to Kyle’s house and take grandchildren Stella, 4, and Carter, 1, out for a treat.
“He’s a real good grandpa,” Kyle said.
Kyle and Mike said they don’t feel the need to see each other often outside of Redskins Park, but they do when Mike visits the grandkids and Kyle sees his mom. The convenience of those visits is just one of the perks of working together.
The conversation inevitably winds back to the job at hand.
Father and son have moved on to a new quarterback project now, as Mike’s vision for the team starts to take shape.
He wants players who value the work it takes to win. Those who don’t meet his standard, regardless of their resume or the size of their contract, will be gone.
“That’s this business - it’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ” Kyle said. “I feel very good that we can do it, but we’ve still got to go out and do it.”
Winning the title this season seems improbable because of the massive scope of the Redskins‘ building project. It requires more than just two years.
But the Shanahans have the big picture in mind.
They expect to get to the top eventually and get there together.
“It’d be special, and that’s why I’m here,” Kyle said. “I came here for one reason, and that was to help my dad turn something around. It’s not easy, but it’s something we are enjoying. If that’s something that we can do, and I can be a part of it with him, that would mean a lot to me.”