- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

There is one, and only one, man who can list NFL Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year awards on his resume, and he has a corner office at Redskins Park. It was dim inside that space in the afternoon two days before Christmas Eve. Jim Haslett, the Washington Redskins‘ defensive coordinator, closed the blinds and continued to dissect game film of Christian Ponder, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback Haslett’s group would knock out of the game 48 hours later.

On the other side of the building, in the spacious office with a balcony that overlooks the practice fields, coach Mike Shanahan went through his end-of-the-week routine. Radio and television interviews stood between him and the sliver of personal time coaches are afforded weekly during the season.

Each coach understands what the other faces every day and in every game because both have been in the other’s position. It’s a major reason why Haslett and Shanahan have been able to mesh their differing personalities and styles to forge progress amid growing pains on the Redskins‘ defense.

“You don’t marry your wife because you have the same personality. You usually get somebody different,” Haslett said. “Obviously, Mike and I are different from that standpoint, but I don’t see it as a positive. I don’t see it as a negative, either. I think the pairing has been spectacular.”

The proof on the field is the strongest reason for optimism following a 5-11 finish that landed the Redskins in last place in the NFC East for the fourth straight season. Washington’s defense in 2011 allowed 5.5 yards per play, which ranked 17th in the 32-team NFL. By comparison, its 5.93-yard average in 2010 ranked 30th.

The improvement — which occurred opposite an offense that often provided insufficient help — resulted from an influx of talent last offseason and familiarity with the 3-4 scheme Shanahan hired Haslett two years ago to install.

Meanwhile, the relationship Shanahan and Haslett spawned in 2009 during meetings at Shanahan’s Denver estate continues to grow. It involves a mutual understanding produced by Shanahan’s seven seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator and Haslett’s six seasons as New Orleans’ coach.

“What you try to do is get the most out of everybody as the head football coach,” Shanahan said. “You’re dealing with a lot of people and a lot of personalities and a lot of different ways to do things. You want to make sure you’ve got somebody that’s really conscientious and really understands the responsibilities of a defensive coordinator, and he gets the job done.”

Coaching with an edge

Haslett, 56, earned his reputation as a wild dude during eight NFL seasons as a linebacker. The college football Hall of Famer doled out punishment on the field and pulled pranks on teammates and reveled in the nightlife off it.

Some of that energy still exists inside him, but it manifests differently in his coaching role.

“When we’re game-planning and installing, Haz gets us as a group, he’s all fired up, cursing and trying to get us fired up,” linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “He brings his personality to the room, which we like. He has his own personality. He’s not just a guy that’s just under the head coach and whatever he says.”

How Shanahan, 59, would co-exist with Haslett’s edge was one of the more intriguing elements about their union when they joined the Redskins. Two years later, their differences remain clear, even for the public at times. For example, after second-year linebacker Perry Riley started for the first time Nov. 13 against Miami, Haslett mentioned to reporters that Riley graded out with 15 minuses on 64 plays. By contrast, Shanahan is extremely reluctant to publicly critique a player.

Mike is all business,” Haslett said. “He doesn’t give out too much. I’m an ex-player. I kind of talk. I’m upbeat. I’m running around. That’s not to say he’s not. I think as an assistant coach, your personality has got to be a little different than a head coach.

“You’ve got to get the troops fired up and ready to go every day. You’ve got to be enthusiastic. You’ve got to have fun on the field, and I think it shows with the players. The head coach has to handle all the offense, the defense, special teams, media, people in the building.”

Haslett knows that because he’s been there before. Shanahan, from his perch at the top of a hierarchy he spent years climbing, understands.

“As a head coach, you’re dealing with different personalities at every position, so I don’t even think about that,” he said. “Everybody is their own person.”

‘Best of both worlds’

Shanahan and Haslett have complemented each other as football coaches in the way they envisioned when they joined forces, players say.

“It’s two different type of gurus,” Orakpo said. “One is offensive-minded and one is defensive-minded, and you kind of get the best of both worlds, especially in the way we make up blitzes.

“Any time a new week comes along and we want to put in a new blitz, he’s always asking Mike how they would block it and what they would see. Sometimes we take that to the field. We have one designated period where, OK, this is the way we’ll block it and this is the way we’ll attack it, just kind of feeding off each other.”

Those interactions begin in meetings early each week. During game plan preparations, Shanahan and Haslett discuss the Redskins‘ and the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses regarding personnel and scheme. The final product this season included many positives. Washington allowed a total of 24 points and scored a defensive touchdown in two victories over the division-champion Giants.

There were hard times, too, though. After the Redskins surrendered 33 points and 407 yards to the Carolina Panthers and dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton in October, Shanahan lamented that the defense was unprepared.

“If I ever say we didn’t do a good job of preparing, I mean we didn’t do a good job of preparing,” Shanahan said. “We didn’t give them enough reps in practice. Usually it doesn’t happen very often, but I want the players to know that, hey, it’s not just your fault. It’s our fault.”

And so both coaches have moved into the offseason with a realistic outlook on the defense’s progress and what remains to be accomplished.

“We know what our ultimate goal is, and if you don’t have a defense you have no chance,” Shanahan said. “You’d better make sure you do have your front seven, your front eight. That’s where it starts. I think we’re there with our defensive front.”

Haslett believes that, too. And regardless of the differences between Shanahan and him, they share a purpose as they begin their third offseason together.

“You have a head coach that wants to win another championship,” Haslett said. “He’s given us a lot of good pieces on defense to move forward, and he still knows that we need a few, just like offense. Everybody needs it until we do it. As long as we’re all on the same page and we all want to win games, there’s no reason not to stay here and try to win a championship. That was one of the reasons I came in the first place.”

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