The Legacy of Mike Shanahan

One of the “hot” topics last week amid a lack of substantial NFL news was a long piece by ESPN’s new site The Undefeated analyzing Robert Griffin III’s failures in Washington, DC.  Included in the article are multiple quotes by Mike Shanahan stating that he felt the decision to trade up to get Griffin was a mistake, and made it clear that he did not have a good relationship with Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

Upon reading that article, the first thought that crossed my mind was something along the lines of “Damn you Snyder for wrecking Shanny’s chance at the Hall of Fame”.  Since then, I’ve given that sudden emotion a bit of more tempered thought, and I’ll dump those thoughts here in an rough article that I welcome any improvements upon.  The goal here is to figure out just how well NFL history should treat Shanahan.

One of the root innovators in NFL history?

I start by leaving my wheelhouse a bit, as Xs and Os are not my strongest suit, so any refinement is appreciated.  But while Shanahan is almost consistently considered to be a practitioner of the West Coast offense, this is a classification that’s never made sense to me.  Yes, Shanahan spent three years as offensive coordinator under George Seifert, the direct successor to the creator of the West Coast offense himself, Bill Walsh.  But he also spent seven years, including his inaugural NFL years, with Dan Reeves, who along with Mike Ditka as Tom Landry acolytes may be the last successful practitioners of smashmouth offense in NFL history.  Seeing places such as PFR refer to his tenure with the 1988 Raiders as “West Coast” is particularly perplexing when he had yet to be directly exposed to it.

Thankfully, Ted Bartlett of IAOFM was ahead of me in these thoughts three years ago, as he tries to place Shanahan’s offense in its proper place:

Shanahan’s offense is original enough to be in its own category.  The running game and short/intermediate passing game are decidedly horizontal in nature, with a goal of making defenders chase the action from side-to-side, and then killing them with misdirection.

The passing game isn’t particularly timing-based, though, and on base downs, it mostly relies upon half-field high-to-medium-to-low reads off of bootleg action.


The Shanahan running game was truly innovative, and it was really a key precursor to the zone-read stuff that took hold in colleges, and has now made it into the NFL.  If you do the Shanahan running game out of the shotgun, and add in some option principles, you’re doing what Rich Rodriguez does.  Shanny isn’t a West Coast guy, not really.

What I would add to this is that, at its heart, Shanahan’s offense always struck me as a run-first scheme that would set up the pass, as opposed to the West Coast or vertical offenses that would do vice verse.  Thankfully, he was never as uncreative with regards to prioritizing the run as Reeves was.  But in a league where passing first has increasingly dominated since the critical addition of illegal contact in 1978, Shanahan managed to find a way to succeed against that current.

If Bartlett is correct, and my less-trained observations confirm it, then Shanahan has the potential to be alongside names like Walsh, Sid Gillman, Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins as a small yet privileged group that founded a revolutionary style of offense.  We often use “ZBS” as shorthand for the zone blocking scheme that’s at the core of what Shanahan put together, but perhaps the better shorthand should be “ZBO” for “zone block offense”.

The main hurdle in front of Shanahan to enter that group is that he has very few acolytes that have passed the ZBO across the league.  I can only think of two direct ones that are both quite obvious: Gary Kubiak in Denver, and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.  The only other example I could submit is that the Seahawks are subscribers to a ZBO philosophy, but neither Darrell Bevell nor Tom Cable ever served under Shanahan, though both were a year off from crossing paths with Alex Gibbs in Seattle. (And here, I should acknowledge that I may be shortchanging Gibbs’s role–I’m not aware of any role he served beyond the offensive line coach, as key as that is.)

Perhaps it will take time for Shanahan’s impact to set in.  The names of Erhardt and Perkins are unknown to many football fans today, with few knowing that what a pair of Patriots offensive assistants put together in the late 1970s would flourish a quarter century later thanks to Bill Belichick.  If Kubiak, Shanahan’s most decorated acolyte, has many more years of success (which we all here want!), and spawns assistants into head coaching positions elsewhere, who knows?

Just how bad was Shanny The GM?

It’s been commonplace for a while to state that whatever coaching brilliance Shanahan has was constantly undermined by his inability to manage the personnel of a roster.  There are plenty of examples to cite, especially on defense: bad draft selections (Willie Middlebrooks, Terry Pierce, Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder), and bad veteran acquisitions (Dale Carter, Daryl Gardener, Jimmy Kennedy).  But those misses also distract from a lot of hits on the offensive side.  The list starts with Terrell Davis and continues with Dan Neil, Mike Anderson, Ben Hamilton, Clinton Portis, Brandon Marshall, and Chris Kuper, just to name a few.  And even on defense Shanahan would have the occasional shrewd move in acquiring a Neil Smith, Champ Bailey or Elvis Dumervil.

And was it even true that Shanny The GM undermined Shanny The Coach?

Even if we accept that Shanahan was not great at acquiring personnel (at the very least, it’s clear that he had much room for improvement), there’s a good argument to make that his coaching acumen was able to outmaneuver whatever mistakes he made in the front office.  There are two quite strong pieces of simple evidence for his tenure in Denver.  First, the Broncos are tied with the Colts for the fourth best regular season record from 1995 to 2008.  Only the Patriots are decidedly ahead, with the Packers two games ahead and the Steelers one and a half ahead.  Second, in that period of time, only Shanahan and Belichick have won multiple Super Bowls.  If there was a lesson the last four years taught Broncos fans, it’s that winning a Super Bowl is a really difficult thing to do, let alone multiple ones, no matter how good a team is.

Furthermore, how much should any failings before or after Shanahan’s most dominant tenure count against him?  Al Davis’s management of the Raiders was nothing short of comical in his later years, but no one is seriously going to argue that that period should diminish his greatness in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Belichick had a less than stellar tenure in Cleveland that everyone forgets about or sets aside today.  Which brings us back to the article that started this all:

How responsible should Shanahan be for what happened in DC?

It’s not difficult to see that Shanahan’s willingness to go on the record is an effort to rehabilitate arguably the worst part of his history.  There will obviously be two stories that will be told for perhaps eternity.  For example, the Washington Post had fun collecting a series of quotes in which Shanahan was approving of the Griffin trade. (To which my response would be, “What else is the guy supposed to say at that time?”)  Shanahan, to be sure, is not above stretching the truth for personal gain.

But let’s keep in mind that unlike Shanahan, Dan Snyder has not come close to sniffing sustained success in the NFL, and also has a history of bad football operations.  And the official GM at the time, Bruce Allen, is the son of longtime Redskins head coach George Allen, so his ties with the Redskins institution are going to be strong.  There will be some mystery that will likely be lost to history, but it’s not unreasonable to cautiously accept Shanahan’s telling, especially if he is not challenged by Snyder or by Griffin (the latter of which explictly said he wouldn’t).


I’m not usually one for putting together a conclusion, especially on an article that as loosely written as this one is.  So I’ll open it up to the comments now, and listen to whatever my mind is missing at this moment.