July 29, 2010

Training Camp Ruminations - The Shanahan Dynamic

You can't swing a fluffy unicorn these days without hitting a training camp preview, so rather than subject you to yet another round of position breakdowns and statistics, over the next few days I will be taking a look some issues and questions I see smoldering just beneath the surface.

Hey, you never know from whence the Next Big Story might come.

The Shanahan Dynamic

Next to the addition of a perennial Pro Bowl QB Donovan McNabb, the change at the top—the hiring of GM Bruce Allen and Head Coach Mike Shanahan—is the single biggest story in the Redskins universe.

Plenty has been written about the impact the future first-ballot Hall of Fame Head Coach will have on the team, and rightly so. There are some angles we hear very little about, however. The kinds of things it is easy to brush off here in the warm fuzzy glow of the honeymoon between coach, team and fans, but should surprise no one in retrospect if and when they come up over the coming months when the Shanahan Era record no longer sports a shiny "0" in the loss column.

Looking for monsters behind every tree?  Perhaps. 

A nod to the reality that even steely-eyed future Hall of Famers are, at the end of the day, human beings? 


● Mike Shanahan made his NFL bones developing quarterbacks. The man won thirteen games with Jake Plummer one year, and eleven another year with Brian Griese (fer chrissakes).  He hasn’t had a quarterback with the pedigree of Donovan McNabb, however, since Hall of Famer John Elway retired in the afterglow of his second consecutive Super Bowl victory in 1998.

Once the fur starts flying for real, will Shanahan find it difficult to resist the temptation to work with McNabb himself? And if so, exactly how would that play out with new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? It isn't like the younger Shanahan is just another legacy hire; Kyle is fresh off turning out the league's top passing offense (fourth overall) in 2009, with QB Matt Shaub at the controls, for the forgettable Houston Texans.

Any man who has ever known his father understands in his gut the dynamic there. Clearly the interests of the team are forefront in their thinking. If they weren't, neither of them would have achieved the success they have.  But to deny or ignore the complicated father/son relationship dynamic, particularly in the blazing public glare of NFL football, would be naive and foolish. Here is hoping that the two men have had long, frank and honest talks about how to deal with this potential flashpoint when things inevitably heat up ...

● How will McNabb react to being coached by either Shanahan? He was The Man in Philadelphia for eleven long and highly successful years under Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid. How will McNabb now adjust to being coached by someone—anyone—else?

It's one thing to smile and say all the right things during the offseason, which McNabb has done and done admirably to date. If things don't go swimmingly for him, though, say over the first half of the season, and he finds himself singled out for a poor play or the need to raise his game, is he at a point in his life and career where he can smile and gut it up, or have his ego and psyche have been stroked long enough to make that difficult?

If the critiques were to come from Mike, you have to figure it would be the former. If they were to come from Kyle, though ...

Hey, don't laugh. Kyle is 31, McNabb is 33. Kyle's been a coordinator all of two years and has a famous Daddy. McNabb’s been to six Pro Bowls, five NFC championship games, been NFC Player of the Year, is on Syracuse's All-Century Team and was within one technicolor yawn of a Super Bowl title.

Okay so that last bit was snarky. But you get the drift.

● Then there is the notion that Kyle might even now be the Redskins Head Coach-in-waiting via some wink-and-nod arrangement between the Shanahans and Daniel Snyder. What might become newsworthy about that is if the dynamic should start to play out in any remotely negative way on the practice field, sidelines, locker or meeting rooms. Players tend to know the score, or at least think they do. It is not a stretch to envision factions forming if and when the Redskins suffer a few tough weeks.

If nothing else, both Mike and Kyle will have to find a way to co-exist not only as father and son, but as head coach and coordinator. The chain of command, expectations and responsibilities will have to be kept clear and consistently transparent to all concerned. That includes the players, the media (who will be waiting eagerly for any signs of controversy) and of course the fans, who will drive the conversation even if the media doesn't. 

The New Sherriff in Town. Through the start of training camp, Mike Shanahan has scored near perfect grades in establishing himself as The Man in Washington. Clinton Portis has seemingly found his mute button and decided to be a serious football player again. Even the ridiculous and potentially damaging Albert Haynesworth drama has shown Shanahan in a positive, commanding light. If there are chinks in the Shanahan armor, we have yet to see them.

But it's early. His team hasn't lost a tough game yet. No player has popped off in the media or "leaked" complaints to a press only too happy to run with them.  But it's coming.  Count on it.

Word is that in Denver, "My Way" Shanahan overplayed the control card as time went by, and that that was partly responsible for him being available to ride to the Redskins rescue in the first place.  As a Redskins fan, I respectuflly offer Mike Shanahan two words of cautionary advice:

Alexander Haig.


Enough of that. On to more immediate, meaty matters.

Coaches have three main responsibilities:

1) Overall team preparation – direction, discipline, conditioning, motivation, focus, sound schemes.
2) Gameplanning – weekly preparation; creating sound plans of attack against the specific teams, schemes and players they will face each week.
3) In-game - call sound plays, good clock management, adjustments to opposition/situation.

We will not have a chance to start truly evaluating the Shanahan regime's effectiveness until the regular season. Preseason is generally just more unicorn fluff when it comes to attacking specific parts of the opposition.  Instead, it is an opportunity for coaches to put their players in certain situations in “live action” to see how they react.

Preseason does not include showing your hand to the rest of the league. The Shanahan offense will put on film only what they want Dallas and the rest of the league to see before September 12.

But worry not ... with “live” Redskins action to parse in just 16 days, when the new Shanahan Redskins storm FedExField to swap paint with the Buffalo Bills, there will be plenty of subplots and lines to try and read between.

How does McNabb "look?"
Are he and his receivers even close to synced up?
How crisply does the unit get its substitutions on and off the field?
Are individual players (read; the revamped offensive line) holding their own physcially?
Is the sideline clock management sound?
Are there "flashes" by individual players and the occasional fortuitous play call?
Feel free to add your own ...

Football. Redskins football.