ASHBURN — It feels like a lifetime ago now. Kyle Shanahan was the Redskins offensive coordinator for four years. He called the plays and ran the meetings. He crafted an offense that made Robert Griffin III a star and tutored current offensive coordinator Sean McVay.
But the Shanahan era imploded, the frustrations of a 3-13 season ending in chaos and leaks and recriminations and, mercifully, a firing for him and his father, Mike. Kyle Shanahan spent an equally fractious year in Cleveland before landing in a perfect spot with the Atlanta Falcons under new coach Dan Quinn, who’d taken over a fading team after two years as the defensive coordinator in Seattle. He knew exactly whom he wanted to run his offense. The Redskins will face Shanahan and the Falcons this Sunday in Atlanta.
“I tried to explain to [Shanahan] that we were going to run a style defensively that I was familiar with and give him the freedom and creativity to do his thing on offense,” said Quinn, hired this past winter from the Seattle Seahawks. “I think that’s probably why he and I have been such a good fit together.”
Shanahan’s offenses in Washington showed flashes. He crafted a unit that included zone-read plays that made Griffin a terror that brilliant first season. The personnel wasn’t always good enough. And Shanahan has admitted his message could at times be brusque. A fresh start benefited him. But he left a mark, too.
“I came in and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was pretty clueless,” Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “I felt like I was fortunate enough to have great coaches in Coach [Mike] Shanahan, Kyle, [quarterbacks coach] Matt LaFleur, who were able to help develop me, develop me quickly and get me ready for what is a very challenging league. I will always be grateful for the way they were able to develop me and the way they believed in me. It’s been good to see them have success elsewhere.”
Now, Shanahan runs an offense that is fifth in yards per game (403.3), seventh in yards per play (5.91), fifth in passing yards (289.8), second in third-down conversions (51.4 percent) and second in time-of-possession (34:17). He creatively uses star wide receiver Julio Jones, moving him all over the field to get a good matchup and force the defense to adjust. Washington still has plenty of players who know Shanahan’s tendencies, who practiced against his defenses day after day for four years.
“The only advantage we have is if Kyle decides to play,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s doing a great job in Atlanta. He’s got a great cast over there that he is coaching. Matt Ryan is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Julio [Jones] is unbelievable. [Devonta] Freeman is running the ball extremely hard. He’s got a great plan for those guys.”
Shanahan became acquainted with Quinn through Raheem Morris, then the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before becoming the Redskins secondary coach and now an assistant head coach/defensive passing game coordinator for Atlanta.
With the Redskins, Shanahan and LaFleur devoted the same amount of attention to Cousins that they did to Griffin. They’d watch film together, drill him on the field and make sure he was as prepared as possible, even as a rookie when Cousins had to start a critical late-season game for an injured Griffin against Cleveland and led them to a win.
“Sometimes I wonder at other places if rookies, especially rookie quarterbacks who are third or fourth string guys, can get forgotten about a little bit,” Cousins said. “I felt like when I came in as a rookie I was given a lot of attention and time and energy and was really developed quickly as a result of the focus they put on me and on Robert [Griffin III].”
He’s one of many ex-Redskins who will be on the opposite sideline on Sunday. There’s Shanahan and LaFleur and Morris on the coaching staff along with running backs coach Bobby Turner. Chris Chester was Washington’s starting right guard as recently as the first few organized team activities (OTAs) sessions. Leonard Hankerson was the Redskins’ third-round draft pick in 2011.
“We’ve got a lot of guys down there that I used to play with, that we used to go to battle with, guys that I’ve come to know and love like friends,” Washington left tackle Trent Williams said. “It’s going to be weird to see them on the opposing sidelines, but at the end of the day, luckily, none of them is lining up across from me. I still have to come out and handle my job. We’ll talk to those guys after the game when all the dust settles and hopefully we can have a win and it’ll make everything a lot better.”
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