Training Camp Questions: Is Mike Shanahan an Elite Head Coach?

Jul 15, 2010 - Stateline, Nevada, U.S. - MIKE SHANAHAN at the 'American Century Championship' held at the Edgewood golf course on Lake Tahoe. © Red Carpet Pictures

One of the biggest — perhaps THE biggest — problems with the Jim Zorn/Greg Blache era is that the Redskins headed into Sunday games at a disadvantage before the coin toss.  I don’t mean to suggest that the team had a motivation or leadership issue, as you’ll find little evidence to suggest the team wasn’t ready to go onto the field and make a play.  I do mean to suggest that during the practice week, the Redskins spent too much time changing inane things to prepare for their opponent, and far too little time worring about finding weaknesses to attack.  This was a common dilemma on both sides of the ball.  The opponent would come in — knowing very well what they would see from the Redskins — and have just a couple of offensive plays and maybe a special teams call designed at exploiting common mistakes made by the Redskins.  On the contrary, the Redskins would go through the first quarter of the game trying to feel out an opponent that already had a feel for them.

That’s not a very good explanation for why the Redskins lost 12 games.  Ultimately, when the biggest plays in the game are to be made in the second and fourth quarters, neither the defensive players nor the offensive unit was ever able to answer the bell.  One of the reasons that Washington lost to New Orleans this year was that their coverage schemes could not reconcile the amount of time their rushers were giving Drew Brees by design.  The design of the rush was fairly respectable: he’s short: so get the hands up in the passing lanes, but by giving the Saints that extra two seconds in the pocket, that created downfield opportunities to exploit weak coverage players.  The coaching staff was okay trading those big plays to give Brees a headache.  And maybe that wasn’t the best plan.  But the Redskins lost because Kareem Moore inexcusably fumbled an interception return, because Shaun Suisham missed a 21 yard FG from the right hash, and because Mike Sellers didn’t secure the ball going into a critical sideline hit in overtime.  No amount of good coaching can overcome three seperate game-clinching mistakes, which was the story of the 2009 season.  I take great issue with some of the laziness of the Redskins defensive coaches (particularly when [not] scheming against the Giants), or Zorn creating such complicated protection schemes that players who didn’t practice that week could not be expected to execute them, but a lot of the same players who made undisciplined mistakes that cost the Redskins close games in 2009 will be the core of the team that Mike Shanahan will coach in 2010.

You already knew this, but the Redskins were a terrible first quarter team last year.  The defense ranked 25th in the league in first quarter DVOA, according to FOA 2010; they ranked 11th overall on the season.  The offense scored fewer than 15% of it’s total points in the first quarter.  And while the Redskins weren’t a team at a consistently terrible disadvantage after one quarter on the scoreboard, why don’t you try to find a way to blow a team out when you spend the first fifteen minutes of the game losing battle after battle to an inferior team?

When the Redskins hired Mike Shanahan, they expected the status quo to change.  He’s expected to bring the leadership necessary to really punch bad football teams in the mouth.  Same with Donovan McNabb.  McNabb has been one of the best players in the league against teams that Philadelphia should kill, so when the Redskins play bottom-feeders like the Lions, Rams, and Bucs this year, you can honestly expect this team to be better than a very unimpressive 2-1 that featured a point differential of ZERO against three of the worst teams in football.  They may be 2-1 again against that trio (at worst), but you can rest assured that the two (or three) wins won’t be remotely close ball games.

Of course, neither McNabb or Shanahan is being brought in to play better against bottom feeders.  What we need to know is whether or not the Redskins are getting an elite head coach, or just a guy who will be less lost than Jim Zorn.  Ignoring his role in personnel decisions, is Mike Shanahan still a top game day coach?  Or are the Redskins getting a guy who just wants to prove a point while he has one foot out the retirement door?

In the context of NFC East coaches, Jim Zorn was a distant fourth as a head coach, and Greg Blache was a distant fourth in the division as a defensive coordinator (and this was a division that scapegoated and fired Giants DC Bill Sheridan and Cowboys DC Brian Stewart in back to back seasons.  Both were head and shoulders above Blache).  With a retirement and a “forced retirement”, the Redskins brought in two guys who were far more respected by peers to run things, Shanahan and Haslett.  Today, I will focus on Shanahan alone.

Shanahan’s offensive scheme took the basic west coast offense run by Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren, and created a ton of unique aspects unduplicated in the NFL until former Elway-backup (and then Bronco offensive coordinator) Gary Kubiak got the job as head coach of the Texans.  Shanahan was the first one to incorporate the zone running schemes into the west coast offense, which ended up being a revolutionary concept.  Teams used zone running schemes before Shanahan — they were first used as an easy way to attack 3-4 defenses in the running game, because really good nose tackles could blow up man schemes by eating multiple blockers.  Walsh popularized the use of misdirection in NFL rushing attacks: for more or less all of the 70s, teams got away from misdirection as an offensive weapon, but Shanahan was the first to use the concept of misdirection as a mandate for his running backs.  He focused on finding guys with the vision to kill any defense that would dare to use speed to run to the ball: he could use smaller offensive lineman to neutralize bigger defensive lineman by making them run and putting them on the ground, and then he could force linebackers into a very, very lonely feeling of isolation and needing to find that runner before he found them.

Shanahan’s scheme was a winner.  He turned Olandis Gary and Jake Plummer into useful players.  He turned Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, and Jay Cutler into stars.  The scheme took an organizational soldier named Mike Anderson, and turned him into an 1,000 yard rusher, a lead blocker, 3rd down back, and a special teams demon.  It couldn’t do much with Brian Griese or Reuben Droughns, but that’s hardly a reforendum on Shanahan’s genius — much more so on his stubbornness.

It’s important to remember that while Mike Shanahan accomplished a lot while coaching John Elway, he never got to coach the hall of fame version of Elway.  He had to win with great teams and a competitive, but ultimately declining veteran quarterback (talking about the Broncos, not the Redskins).  Shanahan took over a declining, but still slightly above average pass offense (again, talking about the Broncos), but what they were badly lacking was a rushing offense (not the Redskins).  A terrible rushing attack found a sixth rounder named Terrell Davis in Shanahan’s first year, and became one of the strongest rushing attacks in the league overnight.  Shanahan’s passing game made the expected improvements with huge holes in the running game and a healthy quarterback, but Davis was the star, not Elway.  Davis would go on to be named to three consecutive all pro teams between 1996 and 1998.  An offensive dip in 1996 preceeded two of the most explosive super bowl offenses of all time: Elway, who had been declining, appeared to be rejuvened.  But the superstar was merely a cog in Davis’ unstoppable machine.  The 1998 Broncos finished first in passing DVOA and first in rushing DVOA, the only team in the history of the metric to accomplish that (a feat more or less duplicated by the 2007 Patriots).

Criticism of Shanahan occurs in the wake of Elways retirement, but the decline of the offense had very little to do with Elway’s departure: Davis was cooked by his 27th birthday.  Clinton Portis catches a lot of flak from Skins fans for not finishing his runs anymore and just generally going through the motions, but as true as that may be, give me Clinton Portis’ next four seasons over any carry TD had after his 2,000 yard 1998 season.  The quarterback was also an issue: on the scale of Redskins quarterbacks of the last decade, Griese is Danny Wuerffel — even Patrick Ramsey would have been a better player.  Shanahan oversaw below-average OFF DVOA teams in 1999, 2001, and 2006, with a noticible dip to “above average” in 2003-04 between two outstanding bookend offensive years (2002, 2005) under two different quarterbacks.  Under Jay Cutler, the Broncos went from one of the worst rushing teams in the league in 2007 to the very best in 2008, facilitating a pro-bowl type gain in his numbers that he instantly gave back in Chicago.  In the post Elway era, Shanahan coached elite offenses in 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2008.

But the variable that drives a Shanahan offense is not the quarterback, and really never has been.  The M.O. on the Broncos in the last 15 years was that they could turn anyone into a 1,000 yard rusher.  And they could.  The problem is that all 1,000 yard seasons aren’t created equal, and Olandis Gary’s 1,000 yard 1999 season actually obscured the fact that the Broncos could neither run, nor pass the football.  Not one Bronco made it to 750 yards in 2001, and the offense stunk.  Quentin Griffin was a terrible second running back, one of the worst Shanahan ever played, and dragged down the offense in both 2003 and 2004.  Droughns was no star in this offense, even though he got to 1,000 yards in 2004.  Also in the running for worst Shanahan back ever: Tatum Bell and Travis Henry.

Though players in this offense always managed to find 1,000 yards, there were more bad Shanahan backs than good ones.  Never was there a year where there wasn’t someone in the backfield who could be good in the scheme, but Shanahan has given 200+ carries to backs who aren’t NFL caliber.  Still, there haven’t been long offensive droughts, as he never produced an offense outside of the top 20 in DVOA.  The 2006 Broncos were the worst offensive team Shanahan ever coached.  The next year, they were an above average team with an average running game.  By 2008, they were elite.

Every Shanahan quarterback post-Elway made the pro bowl exactly once, a streak that Donovan McNabb figures to extend.  No one, however, made it more than once.  It plays into the idea of quarterback interchangibility: we hear all about how running backs are fungible in his scheme, but the quarterback shelf life for Shanahan is about 3 to 4 seasons.  Due to age and injury history, McNabb is likely to be on the shorter side of that spread, meaning that the 2012 season will probably feature someone else playing significant time at QB.  What doesn’t appear to be interchangible is the running game pacing absolutely everything Shanahan does.  The 2007 Broncos were the only Shanahan-coached offense to achieve a 25.0% or better passing DVOA without the benefit of a rushing DVOA above 7.5%.  That’s a 14 year sample that suggests that Shanahan’s offenses will be below the Zorn level if the rushing game stays at current levels.

In this instance, Shanahan’s committment to the running game is both the motor that will power the 2010 Redskins offense, and the one thing that could potentially be its downfall.  One thing this will not be is a 2008 Jay Cutler offense: spread ‘em out and throw it down the field.  There will be plenty of deception in the running game, giving the easily over-powered interior OL an opportuinty to block indecisive defensive tackles.  The Redskins will take advantage of the excellent vision that both Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson have.  Ultimately, the downfall could be the lack of explosiveness that both have to make defenses pay in the cutback game.  If the offense gets off to a sluggish start, you better believe that someone else will be given a chance at running back before McNabb is in any danger at quarterback.

Jim Zorn’s constant committment to the running game was more about a distrust of his receivers than any trust in his blockers to open up running lanes.  I think this was bore out in the long run by Sherm Lewis’ tendency to keep the ball off the ground in short yardage situations.  The Redskins couldn’t move anyone on the ground last year, but stayed with it longer than I would have because even though they were wasting plays, they were eliminating potential mistakes.  A fresh mentality on offense should revitalize the fan base, but how does Shanahan compare to other offensive coaches in the division?

Andy Reid

Reid took over a dreadful offense with no meaningful rushing attack, and oversaw even more futility in his first season with Bobby Hoying and Donovan McNabb at the controls.  He made the playoffs in his second season, with McNabb having the most rushing yards on the team by a significant amount.  Even with a team that was making the playoffs annually, Reid’s offenses were only improving incrementally.  In 2000 and 2001, the Eagles were not a good offensive team, and McNabb was a developing quarterback.  The 2002 offense was better, but still not great, as McNabb missed six games with a broken ankle, A.J. Feeley played kind of poorly in his place, without the offense missing a beat.  Then the team found Brian Westbrook in the 3rd round of the 2002 draft, and became an offensive force.

The difference between Reid and Shanahan is that McNabb didn’t seem to realize any immediate benefit from having a legitimate rushing threat in his offense.  His 2003 season looked a lot like his 2002, 2001, and 2000 seasons, even as Westbrook legitimized the Eagles offense for the first time.  Clearly, though, throwing T.O. into the mix changed things, as even in Westbrook’s worst year as an Eagle (excluding 2009), the Eagles had a top ten passing offense that rated about twice as high as the prior year.

Reid’s offense sees the same benefits from having an elite rushing game over the years as Shanahan’s, but what’s clear about Reid/McNabb for so long is how largely indepedent the quality of their passing offense has been from both it’s rushing and total offenses.  Like the Shanahan/Davis/Elway offenses, McNabb never seemed to be the primary driver of the group after 2002 (and that was a very mediocre group, mind you).  Westbrook drove everything.  But McNabb was capable of some great years very independent of the dominance of Westbrook, and his entire offense.  You simply never saw those great years with any of Shanahan’s quarterbacks, which leads to an interesting dynamic should the Redskins struggle with the rushing attack this year.

History suggests a poor rushing attack means a mediocre Redskins offense, regardless of what McNabb does, but what McNabb does might be impressive never-the-less.  He does not appear to be bound to the quality of his running game, though his teams always were.

Tom Coughlin

Coughlin already differs a bit from Reid and Shanahan because Coughlin never called his own plays.  Still, he’s another guy who took punchless (in Jacksonville’s case, expansion) offenses and made strong offenses very early on in his coaching tenure.

Jacksonville’s passing offense was simply always ahead of it’s rushing offense.  Outside of the 1997 season where they led in total offense, Jacksonville usually produced a very mediocre rushing attack, and a passing game that was always better by a comparable margin.  The exception to the rule was Coughlin’s last Jacksonville team, a really good rushing team that was still pretty mediocre overall.  These were always better than average offenses, but that’s more attributable to Tony Boselli and Mark Brunell than Coughlin.

Jim Fassel’s last few Giants offenses suffered from some really horrible Tiki Barber fumbling issues, some classing Ron Dayne seasons, 68 Dorsey Levens carries in 2003, and the realization that Kerry Collins couldn’t carry such a flawed team.  Coughlin improved the Giants by 50 offensive points and 50 defensive points in his first year.  Couglin fixed Tiki Barber’s fumbling, leading to a career year, but couldn’t do anything with Dayne but release him (he surfaced in Denver with Shanahan the next year, but wasn’t really helpful or harmful).  Then the biggest gains were made the second year in the passing game, which bolstered the Giants running game even further.

This was the level the Giants sustained into the 2007 season, riding out an unpredictably bad Eli Manning season into the unpredictably good 2007 playoff run, ending with a super bowl title.  The last two seasons, Coughlins offenses have been the best they’ve ever been, at least since the 1997 Jaguars, but at this point, they are pretty much Eli Manning’s offenses.  Coughlin (and OC Kevin Gilbride) deserves a ton of credit for Manning’s development into a top ten quarterback, earning his keep by fixing the players he inherited (Barber).  Tiki Barber was the Mark Brunell of Coughlin’s Giants, leading the offense towards respectability when there wasn’t much to work with.

Wade Phillips

Phillips was the head coach of the Broncos before Shanahan, but it’s unfair to grade him by the quality of his offenses since he was never an offensive coach.  Instead, we can compare his player development record to the jobs that the other NFC East coaches did with guys like Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Jay Cutler, Mark Brunell, Tiki Barber, Brian Westbrook, and Donovan McNabb.

Phillips could be credited for taking a pro bowl TE in Shannon Sharpe, and helping to turn him into an elite player, which certainly in turn extended Elway’s career.  If we credit Phillips for this, we might discredit his job with Tommy Maddox as the heir apparent to Elway.

Phillips coached the Bills for three years, where he was noted for two things on the offensive side: phasing out Thurman Thomas and giving carries to Antwaan Smith, and giving Rob Johnson every opportunity to beat out Doug Flutie.  In both cases, credit goes to Phillips for trying to push forward with youth, but ultimately, Johnson v. Flutie ruined him in Buffalo.  I’m not sure playing Johnson was the wrong decision, but I do think the Bills were foolish to acquire him for what they did.  Also: Eric Moulds had three excellent seasons for Phillips, while Andre Reed’s career pushed to a close.  Phillips was never able to get the old-timers off the roster, but clearly, he did what he could to get the younger guys playing time.

In Dallas, Phillips inherited Tony Romo as his starting quarterback, and with the offense turned over to Jason Garrett, had little (if any) contribution in developing him.  He failed to get anything out of Anthony Fasano, who was traded to Miami and thrived.  The team spent a second round pick on Martellus Bennett, who showed the same promise as Fasano, but also has failed to reach that promise.  Acquired Miles Austin from Bill Parcells, and was instrumental in getting Terrell Owens off the roster so Austin wouldn’t be wasted.  Just like in Buffalo, has seen an aging offensive line go largely ignored by everyone, which will eventually lead to his firing.  He’s exceeded (low) expectations here.

Conclusions

I think the job that Coughlin has done with those offenses is incredibly underrated, and that he deserves to top this list even if he defers playcalling duties to Gilbride (and Manning).  Meanwhile, as game coaches, Reid and Shanahan are more similar than they are different.  Shanahan his clearly the innovator among this group, while Reid always took more of a focus on cultivating young talent and stacking his roster with developmental players.  Reid could modify his formula to fit his personnel, while Shanahan keeps modifying personnel to fit the same formula.  Reid has a decisive advantage in the front office decisions, but on game day, these two are a wash.

You know, Wade Phillips has always done a good job developing young guys at all stops, but he probably comes in last on this list because the job of the head coach in part necessitates that he have enough pull within the organization to pull the right strings with ownership to make the right decisions.  Phillips has been saddled with aging linemen everywhere he has been, and hasn’t pushed for upgrades, instead dodging being fired until these issues are too great to ignore.  He’s doing this again in Dallas — and give him credit, as Dallas is better off long term for hiring him — but Shanahan is an improvement at head coach over Phillips.

So ranking the NFC East head coaches:

  1. Tom Coughlin
  2. a) Andy Reid
  3. b) Mike Shanahan
  4. Wade Phillips
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