Politics

Mike and the Mad Dog

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Six years ago yesterday, the Washington Redskins lured their three-time Super Bowl-winning coach, Joe Gibbs, out of retirement in an attempt to restore the team’s vanished glory. To commemorate the news, the local paper of record published--above the fold on page one--a large and dramatic photo of Gibbs. Shot from below, clouds billowing overhead, eyes cast toward the horizon, a halo of light over his bespectacled head, the image--black and white, as I recall--was pure hagiography, the portrait of a Dear Leader of a totalitarian republic, or God. 

To argue that the two most important jobs in Washington are the president and the head coach of the Redskins is to exaggerate only slightly. As an outsider arriving a year before the second coming of Gibbs, I was dumbfounded by the obsessive and parochial coverage of the local National Football League team. Game stories on page one of The Washington Post? Six more full pages of coverage inside the sports section? Sure, a testosterone-laced town of self-important blowhards--politics is just a less-refined version of sports, after all--is bound to exaggerate the importance of “its” team. But the defense and deification of all things Redskins, from its three-name owners George Preston Marshall (segregationist), Edward Bennett Williams (power lawyer), and Jack Kent Cooke (career sports owner) to its offensive nickname and logo to the incoherent game commentary of Redskins legends Sonny (Jurgensen) and Sam (Huff), has always left me feeling that when it comes to football, Washington is frozen in amber--sorry, burgundy and gold--circa 1971. 

Then, the president was Richard Nixon and the coach was George Allen, and the two had a relationship that defined the city’s obsession with transient young men dressed in helmets decorated with a portrait of a dark-skinned and pony-tailed Native American, or, sometimes, a spear. Allen's daughter has written that Nixon would call the Allen house before and after games to talk about the team. Halfway into the 1971 season, Allen invited Nixon to attend a practice. The president’s helicopter landed on the field. Nixon chatted up the players--he knew their personal histories and statistics; he would have been an insufferable fantasy-football player--and Allen let him design a play. It was a reverse, and when the normally conservative Allen called one during a playoff game that season, it was dubbed “Nixon’s Play.” It lost 13 yards. 

All of which is to say that football has mattered in weird ways in Washington and continues to do so under the current ownership of two-name-only Dan Snyder, who after a decade of overspending and underperforming has yet to achieve any of the respect afforded his predecessors. When, as they did this past season, fans come to the stadium you own carrying posters of you and your top lieutenant labeled “Dumb and Dumber,” your favorables are pretty low. 

But sports, like presidencies, are about hope, and Washington on Wednesday celebrated the arrival of a new savior charged with nothing less than returning the capital and its team to their rightful place atop the NFL. This time, the Post played it below the fold, but only because the hiring of Mike Shanahan had been brewing for days. (And because another sports story, the suspension of quirky-turned-insane basketball star Gilbert Arenas, demanded top-of-the-page treatment.) While the page-one image of Shanahan is more graying CEO than omnipotent being, the six-column picture on the sports front is indeed shot from below, a Redskins helmet in the foreground and a grinning Shanahan in mid-sentence and a burgundy-and-gold tie in the rear. 

That’s about right. Shanahan is worthy now of only tempered aggrandizement. Like Gibbs, he’s won Super Bowls, but in another town, so they don't really count. Snyder covered his historical base by hiring Allen’s son, Bruce, to replace the “dumber” in those posters, Vinny Cerrato. And Shanahan isn’t a charismatic personality. Dull comes to mind, actually. In presidential terms, he’s more Jimmy Carter than Bill Clinton, details-obsessed and communications poor. He can break down football video with more depth than Andrew Sarris deconstructing The 400 Blows. But his news conferences will be deeply disappointing to the Washington press corps, packed with platitudinous coach-speak. My advice: Every time Shanahan says “do the little things right” or “good things will happen,” or some combination thereof, drink. 

I got to know Shanahan when he was head coach of the Denver Broncos, a job he held from 1995 until he was fired after the 2008 season. Shanahan and the Broncos’ owner, Pat Bowlen, consented to let me join the team as a placekicker during training camp to write a book about life in the NFL. Allowing a reporter inside the barbed wire of an NFL franchise was out of character for Shanahan, a type-A football grind and legendary control freak. That he did so says something about the confidence he has in his systems and his people--he believed he had nothing to hide--and his admirable lack of concern for what’s written about him. With that sun-ripened skin, Shanahan looks leather-tough, and outwardly he is. He has an ego the size of FedEx Field and, while soft-spoken, doesn’t suffer behavior from subordinates that diverts from his stated philosophy and goals. 

The $35 million question in Washington--Shanny is reportedly getting $7 mil a year for five years--is whether the coach will consider his owner a subordinate. The Redskins’ woes under Dan Snyder--just three winning records in 11 years--culminated this past season in open hostilities; to quell dissent, the team actually banned signs and banners from its home stadium. Real or not, the entrenched impression of Snyder is of a meddlesome owner who mistakenly thinks he understands football and has a weakness for lavishing huge contracts on players in their prime earning but not playing years.  

Shanahan faced no such interference in Denver. Pat Bowlen gave him full control over football matters such as scouting, drafting, and free agency but also related areas such as a team travel, facilities, and public relations. Shanahan decided where fans would stand during training camp. He decided in what order people would disembark from the team plane. He decided where to hold post-practice news conferences. Shanahan kept Bowlen informed, and Bowlen weighed in on big-ticket player signings, but the buck stopped with Mike. 

So the potential exists in Washington, as it does in any organization with multiple big egos, for ill-considered decisions and personality conflict and unhappiness. It happened in Denver, where assistant coaches and front-office staffers lived in fear of doing something the wrong way, i.e. not Mike’s way. That trickled down to the players, who respected Shanahan’s football intelligence and his commitment to first-class facilities and other perks but resented the climate of paranoia he fostered. 

At the introductory news conference Wednesday at Redskins Park in suburban Virginia, in a transparent gesture aimed squarely at the media, Snyder didn’t sit on stage or speak. He let Bruce Allen, the coach’s son, introduce Shanahan. The Redskins’ three Super Bowl trophies, fixtures at such announcements in the past, were (transparently) locked in their display case in the hall. The questions that followed were directed at Shanahan but intended for Snyder, and most followed the same theme: Who’s in charge here? Shanahan dodged with modesty, saying he never really had ultimate authority in Denver and wouldn’t here. “Do I have the final say?” he said. “Maybe you could say that. But we will work together as a team.” 

Shanahan and Snyder could reinforce each other’s worst tendencies: believing that they alone have all the answers, and that money can solve any problem. Shanahan could marginalize his general manager, as he did over the years in Denver. He hasn’t won the big one in a dozen years, has been averse to the quantitative thinking that is reshaping player evaluation, only recently began using a computer, and, at 57, isn’t exactly in tune with the emotional needs of a younger generation of athletes.  

But he also brings many strengths. Consummate professionalism. Impossibly detailed operational systems. A tireless work ethic. An expectation of dedication and preparation. An instinctive sense of when to ease up on players and when to turn the screws. Shanahan remains a bright football mind who, in his unemployment year, watched film five hours a day and yakked with coaches about schemes and formations. And no doubt prepared a master plan for rebuilding the capital of America’s team. 

In these justifiably cynical times, in Washington of all places, it’s hard to believe that people still want to turn sports figures into idols. But if Mike Shanahan succeeds, he will not only ensure his election to football’s Hall of Fame and rewrite his owner’s tainted bio, he’ll be photographed above the fold dressed in robes of flowing white silk with the FedEx multitudes prostrate below. Around here, presidents come and go. Winning Redskins coaches live forever.  

Stefan Fatsis is the author of A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL and Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. He talks about sports on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the Slate podcast “Hang Up and Listen.” Follow him on Twitter here.

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