When his team hit 3-6 in early November and Mike Shanahan started talking about the long-term future, I finally started buying the theory that his reputation had ballooned far beyond his abilities and that he owed his two head-coaching Super Bowl rings to the great fortune of having John Elway as his quarterback.
Then came seven straight wins and the first playoff berth for Washington in five years. The turnaround didn’t erase all doubts about Shanahan, but it invalidated the instinct to read single moments as a flat line on a coaching echocardiogram.
Phil Jackson’s second coming in L.A. should have embedded the point. If a coach can retire, write a book in which he calls the team’s star “uncoachable’’ and then come back to win two more titles with the object of his disdain, anything is possible.
Shanahan’s comment shared a theme with Jackson’s literary swipe at Kobe Bryant. They both revealed truths that everyone knew to be true and everyone expected to remain tastefully undercover. They violated protocol, now practiced more rigorously in American professional sports than at Buckingham Palace, Rex Ryan and Ozzie Guillen notwithstanding.
Shanahan dispensed this bit of forbidden truth on Nov. 4, after a loss to the Panthers in what he had called a “must-win game,’’ per The Washington Post:
“When you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come. Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at. Obviously, we’re not out of it statistically. But now we find out what type of character we’ve got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.”
Somehow, doubling down on “obviously’’ didn’t blunt the sharp edges. This sounded enough like a concession speech to merit a Washington tizzy two days before the presidential election. Three of Shanahan’s players, one on the record and two off, told The Washington Post’s Mike Wise that the coach’s comment disappointed them.
It would be easy to say now that Shanahan practiced motivational wizardry, put a scare into underperformers and deked out a bunch of naïve interpreters. I can’t say that, because the remark, while hardly a quitter’s manifesto, went down like a nasty cocktail of arrogance and sloppiness, with a twist of defensiveness.
At that point, Shanahan had a 14-27 record in Washington. The clout he brought to the job had withered. A lot of it shrank in sync with Donovan McNabb, whose disconnect with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan simultaneously illustrated the hazards of working with the boss's kid and the Eagles’ fine nose for a player’s decay.
The Broncos’ decision to fire the elder Shanahan in 2008 no longer seemed daftly out of character for one of the most stable franchises in pro sports. The three straight years in Denver without a playoff berth came into sharper focus. So did the shortcomings of every quarterback Shanahan tutored after Elway and all of the personnel decisions he shouldn’t have been allowed to make. By the end in Denver, the defense’s talent deficiency indicted him.
Shanahan was a brilliant chef who routinely got lost in the produce aisle.
So what was he cooking up on Nov. 4, when he made the evaluation remark? He didn’t appear to be following a recipe. He seemed to be chucking in whatever ingredients he could find into a stew flavored with exasperation that, at the right temperature, melts into truth serum.
The following day, Shanahan insisted that the comment had been misinterpreted. He wasn’t looking past the present. He just wanted to light a fire, test his team’s mettle, tap into his inner Ryan brother.
That may be true. The “uncoachable’’ comment in Jackson’s book probably cemented his authority with Bryant, challenging the player to prove the coach wrong by acting as if he’s always right. That may not have been Jackson’s goal -- it probably wasn’t. He had a book to publish and perhaps some scores to settle. That word, “uncoachable,’’ will appear in both of their obituaries. That was likely before they reunited. When they prospered together, it was guaranteed. They had cleared what looked like insurmountable obstacles to become champions again.
Likewise, Shanahan might not have had a grand strategy. He may have just gotten away with a careless moment, which the media could eventually recast as a turning point.
The seven straight wins and the development of the offense under his son have put Shanahan’s team atop the NFL’s most erratic division. He’ll have to win a playoff game, and probably go back to the Super Bowl, to exonerate himself completely on the Elway-dependency charges. But for now, the case against him hasn’t stuck.