Rest easy, Redskins fans. No matter how much Indiandapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay wants you to lay awake at night fearing the Skins may have to “settle” for Andrew Luck come draft day (can you imagine feeling that way this time last year?), Heisman trophy winner and football’s newest media darling Robert Griffin III will be the No. 2 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.
I must admit my heart rate increased a few beats per minute as speculation rose that the Colts might actually choose Griffin ahead of the Skins. Griffin calmed me down a bit by reportedly declining an invitation for a private workout in Indianapolis, but nothing put my mind completely at ease until today when the news broke, courtesy of Comcast Sportsnet’s Chick Hernandez, that Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will be visiting with Griffin in Waco, Texas every few days for the next several weeks.
Hallelujah! Assuming the report is true (and who in the DMV doesn’t trust Chick?), this is about as close to a guarantee that the Redskins will draft Griffin as you can get, short of the Colts announcing they’ve agreed to a contract with Luck. Shanahan wouldn’t be going to Waco and risk divulging his playbook to a future Colt unless the Redskins were certain Luck will be the first pick.
Thus begins a relationship that I’m sure Shanahan realizes will determine his future in the NFL. I’ve made it no secret that I am completely in the tank for Griffin. To be clear, I’d be thrilled to have Luck, as well, but I’ve already “fallen” for Griffin, who I think is going to be an absolute star, both on and off the field. And many people agree with me.
Fewer agree with me that, other than RG3, Kyle Shanahan is the best thing the Redskins have going for them in the long-term. I remember back in January 2010, when it was first announced (after months of speculation) that Mike Shanahan was the new coach of the Washington Redskins, many were excited because of Shanahan’s two Superbowl rings. Others were upset owner Dan Snyder had hired a man who was run out of Denver after years of disappointments to not only coach the team but also assemble the roster. I was among the excited, but for a different reason — the new head coach’s son, then 31-years-old, was the youngest coordinator in the NFL and, based on the success of the offensive units he directed in Houston, one of the best.
As a “big picture” fan who despised the years of instant-gratification trades and free agency signings that cost draft picks and continuously delayed any hope of future success, I was hoping Snyder would select a hot, young coordinator to replace ousted head coach Jim Zorn, himself a former assistant, but one who didn’t get his first head coaching gig until age 54, and for good reason. So, while the hiring of Mike Shanahan wasn’t exactly what I wanted, the possibility of Kyle joining him in D.C. was a dream scenario, and one that ultimately played out.
Now, the Shanahan’s tenure leading the Redskins has been a disappointment, no doubt. They were left not with a bare cupboard, but one crammed full of bloated meats (Albert Haynesworth et al) and stale bread (Clinton Portis et al). Then, hoping to salvage the hand he was dealt instead of folding and drawing new cards, Mike Shanahan crammed another expired good named Donovan McNabb into the pantry. Along the way, as the losses piled up, fans and sportswriters began suggesting it was merely nepotism which led Mike to hire Kyle, completely aloof to the younger Shanahan’s previous accomplishments as an up-and-coming assistant.
Kyle Shanahan began his NFL coaching career in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, where then-head coach Jon Gruden hired him as an entry-level offensive assistant. In 2006, Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak — Mike Shanahan’s former offensive coordinator in Denver — hired the younger Shanahan as his wide receivers coach. Coming off a back injury in 2005, Houston’s All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson went on to have a career year under Shanahan’s tutelage, recording 100 catches for the first time and a career-high in receiving yards. The next year Kubiak chose Shanahan to coach quarterback Matt Schaub, whom the Texans had just acquired from the Atlanta Falcons for a pair of second-round picks. A year later Shanahan was promoted again, and at 28 became the youngest offensive coordinator in the league. He also remained the quarterbacks coach, helping Schaub improve each year and have a breakout season in 2009, when the quarterback threw for nearly 4,800 yards and 29 touchdowns. After the 2009 season, as one of the youngest and hottest coordinators in the NFL, Kyle joined Mike in D.C., presumably as the heir apparent once Papa Shanahan retired.
Some have pointed to Houston’s continued offensive success and Washington’s struggles as proof that Shanahan had little to do with a Texans offense that in his two years as offensive coordinator ranked 3rd and 4th in the league in yards per game. But Houston has continued running Shanahan’s system under Kubiak, albeit a more run-heavy version now that the team has an established running back in Arian Foster. And under Shanahan, the Redskins offense has moved the ball well but struggled to score in the end zone, where the endline marginalizes scheme and emphasizes talent (elite players shine in the endzone, flawed players are exposed). The problem with Washington’s offense has not been scheme, but talent. As far too few D.C. media members have pointed out, Redskins receivers routintely find themselves wide open in Shanahan’s offense. It’s why the team seems to move the ball so easily at times between the 20s but struggles once inside the endzone, where coverage is tighter and the endline acts as an extra defender. In the endzone, there’s only so much scheme can account for — receivers must be able to beat their man and the quarterback must be able to fit balls into tight windows. Finally, Kyle and Mike will have a quarterback in RG3 that can do so.
Speaking of Mike Shanahan, kudos to Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post for finally dispelling the notion that’s been repeated on D.C. radio airwaves and Redskins message boards that the elder Shanahan has not earned his reputation as a quarterback guru. The naysayers’ argument often goes something like this: “Shanahan has never won without John Elway.” Well, as Jenkins astutely reasoned, the inverse could be said of Elway. In fact, she notes, Elway, considered by many to be the greatest quarterback that ever lived, never won a playoff game without Shanahan running his offense. It’s often forgotten that Shanahan was Denver’s offensive coordinator from 1984 through 1987, Elway’s formative years in the league. Elway led the NFL in passing in 1985 and made his first two Super Bowls in 1986 and 1987. He made it back in 1989, the season Shanahan returned to Denver as an offensive assistant. Elway threw for more than 20 touchdowns six times in his 16 NFL seasons. Five of those seasons came under Shanahan. Do you think there is any way Shanahan is hired as head coach of the Broncos in 1995 if Elway, at that point one of the league’s greatest stars and a god in Denver, doesn’t approve?
Many also credit Shanahan for Steve Young’s emergence in San Francisco. Young took over as the 49ers starter in 1991 after Joe Montana hurt his elbow tendon in the preseason. Young played well, but the Niners missed the playoffs. Shanahan arrived as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 1992. Young had yet to establish himself as the team’s unquestioned starter, but under Shanahan’s guidance he went on to win the MVP award. Young’s improvement was enough that San Francisco traded Montana in 1993, a move that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. In 1994, Young won his second MVP and the Niners won the Superbowl. Shanahan left for Denver in 1995, and Young never regained his MVP form. It was Shanahan’s presence in D.C. that led Young to believe the Redskins would be the ideal landing spot for Peyton Manning following his release from the Colts (thankfully, he was wrong).
None of this is meant to suggest the Shanahans are infallible. Far from it. Their tenure in Washington has been disappointing. But let’s not act like they aren’t qualified to tutor a young quarterback. There’s two NFL Hall of Famers who would argue there’s no one better.
Which brings us back to RG3. Kyle Shanahan knows that his future prospects as a head coach — likely with the Redskins if his father decides to step down at the end of his five-year contract — rests with Griffin’s success. If RG3 succeeds, Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen will have every incentive to keep his offensive coordinator around once Mike Shanahan is gone. If RG3 fails, Snyder is likely to clean house once Shanahan’s contract runs out. But I have little fear of that happening. Redskins fans should be very excited about Griffin and Kyle Shanahan growing together as quarterback and coach, much like Tom Brady has with Bill Belichick, Peyton Manning did with Tom Moore and Aaron Rodgers is with Mike McCarthy.
The franchise has not known continuity since Joe Gibbs retired the first time. But there’s a new era coming for Redskins fans, and it may have gotten its unofficial start this week, when Kyle Shanahan and Robert Griffin III sat down for their first meeting in Waco.