- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2014


A friend suggested, perhaps jokingly and perhaps not, that someone ought to start a rumor about the Redskins considering Shaka Smart to be their next coach.

Smart is the highly successful men’s basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has thrust the Rams into the national spotlight with his combination of a frenetic defensive style and high energy and enthusiasm. His players go hard, all the time. They’re as fired up as he is and it shows.

He may not know an interception from a touchdown, a fumble from a sack or a wildcat formation from a blitz. But the mere suggestion of Smart to the Redskins, yes in jest, raises a question: What is more important as the Redskins seek a replacement for Mike Shanahan, a tactician or a motivator?

Both are important, no question. You have to be able to scheme. You have to figure anyone who spends a professional lifetime in the game, who rises to the level of consideration for a job like this, knows football. Shanahan, Texas’ Gary Kubiak, Detroit’s Jim Schwartz and any of the others dismissed during or after the 2013 regular season know football.

Assuming the talent level is there - the genius of Bill Belichick and John Fox is enhanced by having Tom Brady and Peyton Manning at quarterback - knowing the game doesn’t rank as high on the list of desired qualities as being able to motivate. Being able to make your best players and your worst players perform at whatever their highest level is, every game, is the only way to success.

The Redskins need to do what VCU did in 2009: find their Shaka Smart. They need to find a guy who knows the game and can get his players to play the game. It doesn’t matter if it is a young coach with no track record of being in charge (like Smart when VCU chose him) or a veteran coach like Bill Cowher with a long track record.

It doesn’t matter if he’s rewritten the playbook. If you aren’t convinced he can motivate, move on.

Motivation shouldn’t be that big of an issue on the professional level, no question about that. Professional athletes have the opportunity to earn mind-boggling money, to earn contracts that can set them up for life before they turn 30. That should be motivation enough.

But pro athletes of today can be an odd sort. The money teams invest in them elevate them to a status they didn’t have in years gone by. Think a player would have won a power struggle with Vince Lombardi back in the day? Now, a disgruntled star is going to win that battle almost every time. Managing personalities and egos, often very large in young millionaires, has become part of the job description. My way or the highway doesn’t sell like it did before.

Smart has it a little easier than his professional colleagues. He is the king of the VCU program, no questions asked. If he desires, he can do the my way or the highway thing. A good professional example may be one working around here - the Capitals’ Adam Oates.

Oates knows hockey. He had a Hall of Fame career as a player with several teams, including the Caps. He’s a very bright guy. If he’s a fire and brimstone sort, he sure doesn’t show it in public. That doesn’t mean he can’t motivate.

His biggest accomplishment in his season-plus running the show isn’t the Caps’ strong power play or penalty kill. Where Oates has earned his stripes thus far is in pulling the right levers to turn Alex Ovechkin back into the most exciting player in hockey.

After a couple of downs seasons compared to what he did early in his career, Ovechkin earned his third MVP award last season. As the calendar turns, Ovechkin is the only player in the league with 30 goals this season. No one else has more than 24.

Maybe Oates had nothing to do with that. Maybe he’s just the beneficiary of something else driving Ovechkin. Unlikely. Oates has re-energized the Caps’ superstar.

The Redskins’ eventual choice may not have the same sort of reclaimation project on his hands, but there’s some work to do. Robert Griffin III’s recovering right knee had a lot to do with his down second season. So, too, did an obviously damaged relationship with his coach. RG3 isn’t on Ovechkin’s level in his sport. He remains a huge key to any future success the Redskins may enjoy.

The new boss needs to be able to design plays for him. Lots of guys can do that. Find the one who can design the plays and get RG3 jacked up to run them.

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