Mastermind returns for a shot with Redskins

BY Alex Marvez • January 6, 2010

He was known as The Mastermind in Denver.

We’ll see how smart Mike Shanahan truly is now that he’s the new head coach in Washington.

Critics will label him a fool for agreeing to work for a meddling owner like Dan Snyder. For the Redskins, I think this hiring is a stroke of genius –- provided Shanahan learned from the mistakes he made during a 14-season run in Denver.

I covered the Broncos in 1997 and 1998 when Shanahan truly lived up to his nickname. The Mastermind tag was initially coined by Sports Illustrated and reinforced by Rocky Mountain News sports columnist Mike Littwin, who wouldn’t reference Shanahan either seriously or sarcastically by any other name in print.

Call him what you want, but Shanahan sincerely deserved the moniker. He was brilliant from an offensive and personnel standpoint. During two Super Bowl-winning seasons, I watched near-perfection on a weekly basis. The Broncos lost only six of 39 games. John Elway and Gary Zimmerman were putting the finishing touches on Hall of Fame careers. Terrell Davis enjoyed a 2,000-yard rushing season. The defense was chock with talent like Neil Smith, Bill Romanowski and Steve Atwater. The Broncos even had a kicker (Jason Elam) who tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal.

As Joe Walsh would sing, Rocky Mountain Way couldn’t get much higher. It didn’t.

The Broncos gradually slid down the NFL ladder after Elway’s 1999 offseason retirement. Shanahan bashers point to the fact he won only one playoff game in the 10 years that followed. But there are plenty of other reasons for the demise besides Elway’s departure. The biggest: Shanahan struggled trying to balance coaching and front-office decisions. He whiffed on far too many major personnel moves in free agency and the draft. Those mistakes — Maurice Clarett, Dale Carter, George Foster and Travis Henry included — were exacerbated by a revolving door of defensive coordinators who often took the fall when Denver fell short of the playoffs.

Shanahan was such a good offensive coach that Denver finished with a losing record only twice in his 14 seasons. But the Broncos spent too much of the past decade mired around .500. Team owner Pat Bowlen — who once called Shanahan his "coach for life" — pulled the plug after a late-season collapse in 2008 and a personal rift that had developed between the two.

Until the 2008 offseason, Bowlen had an open checkbook on player signings. Shanahan had no problem spending the cash. This alone makes Shanahan and Snyder a match made in heaven, especially with the latter’s love of expensive free agents and the salary cap set to disappear for next season.

During his introductory news conference Wednesday, Shanahan spoke of a decade-long friendship with an owner whose franchise has fewer playoff victories (two) than different head coaches (six) since he bought the Redskins in 1999. Knowing full well what he was getting into with Snyder — and a reported five-year, $35 million contract — sealed the deal for Shanahan.

"I’ve never met a guy more positive and passionate about the Redskins," Shanahan said. "(Snyder’s) desire to do things the right way gives me every opportunity to be successful."

The makeover will begin soon. Jason Campbell might not be the long-term answer at quarterback, but it sounds like Shanahan will keep him for another season while Washington’s front office seeks an heir apparent in April’s draft. The Redskins also must address an aging offensive line whose skills may not fit the zone-blocking scheme Shanahan is expected to install.

If those problems are fixed — and the Redskins will pay to correct them in free agency — Washington isn’t as far from being a playoff contender as this season’s 4-12 record indicates. The defense ranked 10th overall and some quality skill-position players, most notably tight end Chris Cooley and ex-Broncos running back Clinton Portis, are set to return off injured reserve.

The 57-year-old Shanahan spent this past year out of football but was admittedly preparing for a return (’s John Czarnecki reported about Snyder’s interest in Shanahan long before previous head coach Jim Zorn was fired). Shanahan said he watched "four or five" games every weekend and closely followed NFL news. With public perception something that has always concerned the vain Shanahan, he even studied how players and coaches conducted media interviews for future do's and don'ts.

Most importantly, he reflected upon what went wrong with the Broncos. Shanahan still has final say on all Redskins football decisions as he did in Denver but emphasized they would be made jointly with new general manager Bruce Allen rather than in a vacuum. A Super Bowl-winning executive with Tampa Bay, Allen will serve as the sounding board that Shanahan claims he lacked in Denver.

"Bruce will not agree with me on a lot of things," Shanahan said. "That's what I was looking for. Do I have the final say? Maybe you could say that, but together I will never use that because we will work as a team.

"I think you always evaluate yourself as a coach. Going back, you know you've made some mistakes. As you get older, you hope to get better."

And wiser. That is the sign of a true mastermind.

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