NFL sur­vivor

Kyle Shana­han re­calls D.C. set­backs as he takes the helm of the 49ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KENT BABB

He is young and rich, the oc­cu­pant of this spa­cious of­fice with the “Head Coach” plac­ard out front, a man in con­trol of one of the most pres­ti­gious fran­chises in sports: the San Fran­cisco 49ers. And yet, he still thinks about it. “Wash­ing­ton changed me,” Kyle Shana­han says in the cor­ner of that big of­fice. Then: “I’ve just never been at­tacked like that be­fore.”

It’s been seven years since Shana­han, now 37, left a suc­cess­ful job with the Hous­ton Tex­ans to join the staff of his fa­ther, Mike Shana­han, as the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins’ of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor; five since quar­ter­back Robert Grif­fin III, the star of Kyle Shana­han’s re­lent­less at­tack, pushed Wash­ing­ton into the play­offs and threat­ened to change the NFL; nearly four since “The Shana­hans” — a la­bel Kyle hated then and can barely stand now — lost a turf war with Grif­fin and owner Daniel Sny­der be­fore be­ing fired in late 2013.

And what of the things that came next: one sea­son in Cleve­land, Kyle de­sign­ing a scheme for Johnny Manziel be­fore march­ing into his boss’s of­fice to quit; next join­ing At­lanta and go­ing to war with vet­eran wide receiver Roddy White one sea­son be­fore push­ing quar­ter­back Matt Ryan to the MVP the next. Then in Fe­bru­ary, as the Fal­cons’ 28-3 lead in the Su­per Bowl dis­solved, Shana­han or­dered a pass play late in the fourth quar­ter that led to a sack; At­lanta wound up los­ing to New Eng­land, of course, and even now Shana­han re­grets his de­ci­sion so much he won’t say the play-call out loud. He does this some­times, when things bother him; when he can’t let go.

“I can live with the Su­per Bowl,” says Shana­han, who doesn’t do any­thing qui­etly, does he? Then: “It would’ve both­ered me more if that had hap­pened in Wash­ing­ton.”

All this time later, with the set­backs and ac­com­plish­ments in be­tween, Shana­han still isn’t over the most im­por­tant four years of his life. The worst and best four years, he be­lieves — best be­cause if not for that time he likely wouldn’t be sit­ting here and al­most cer­tainly wouldn’t be psy­cho­log­i­cally tough enough to lead a fran­chise.

“I’m bet­ter be­cause of it, af­ter go­ing through what I went through,” he says. “. . . In Wash­ing­ton, the first time an ar­ti­cle came out that you didn’t want Dono­van [McNabb, the vet­eran quar­ter­back for whom Wash­ing­ton traded in 2010, at Sny­der’s in­sis­tence], it’s just — every­one’s go­ing at you.

“All you want to do is get a mi­cro­phone and de­fend yourself, and you re­al­ize you can’t do that. So you just sit there and in­ter­nal­ize it, and it up­sets you be­cause you want to tell the truth.”

And, though not of­ten into a mi­cro­phone, telling bru­tal truths is of­ten what he did. Kyle Shana­han was oc­ca­sion­ally mouthy to su­pe­ri­ors, putting things in blunt terms he’d later re­gret, and oc­ca­sion­ally had to be calmed dur­ing meet­ings by his fa­ther. The young co­or­di­na­tor was tal­ented and cre­ative, but in his early 30s he was be­com­ing known around the NFL as much for his im­pa­tience and short fuse. He strug­gled with of­fice pol­i­tics and with bit­ing his tongue, a skill he’d im­prove upon later.

“I was very proud of what we did there,” Shana­han says now, “es­pe­cially un­der some cir­cum­stances that weren’t the eas­i­est.” Such as? He smiles. “Stuff that I think every­one can fig­ure out on their own.”

Still, some un­wanted im­pres­sions at­tached them­selves to him. Much later, when for­mer NFL player and broad­caster John Lynch was be­ing con­sid­ered ear­lier this year to be San Fran­cisco’s gen­eral man­ager, Lynch says, friends called to warn him about Shana­han.

“There are per­cep­tions about him,” Lynch, the smil­ing coun­ter­weight to Shana­han’s in­ten­sity, says now. “He’s got his own thoughts on things, and they’re unique and they may not fit with the rest of the league. And I think at times peo­ple see that as aloof.”

Shana­han’s per­son­al­ity, meth­ods and pa­tience will be on full dis­play this sea­son, not just be­cause he is a first-time head coach but be­cause he is the 49ers’ fourth coach in four sea­sons. Jim Tom­sula and Chip Kelly were there for one year each and a com­bined 25 losses, and Jim Har­baugh’s .695 win­ning per­cent­age and Su­per Bowl ap­pear­ance are a dis­tant mem­ory with a cur­rent ros­ter that looks nowhere near play­off-ready.

San Fran­cisco has no ap­par­ent fran­chise quar­ter­back, and while Shana­han and Lynch re­ceived high marks on their first draft class, both ex­pect it’ll take time — the coach and GM each signed six-year con­tracts — and plenty of pa­tience to turn around the fran­chise.

By the end of 2012, Shana­han’s best and worst parts were be­com­ing il­lu­mi­nated in the glow of Grif­fin’s su­per­star rookie year. The young co­or­di­na­tor was the sub­ject of ra­dio seg­ments and news­pa­per pro­files, at­ten­tion that raised his ca­chet but oc­ca­sion­ally made him un­com­fort­able. When tele­vi­sion broad­cast­ers asked for him to at­tend the pregame pro­duc­tion meet­ing, Shana­han of­ten re­fused — but would later phone the game an­a­lyst and spend hours dis­cussing matchups and game plans. Shana­han, at 32, was the in­tem­per­ate boy won­der at the wheel of a his­toric sea­son, that year per­haps be­com­ing the NFL’s most fa­mous co­or­di­na­tor and an in­trigu­ing fig­ure on the head-coach­ing track.

Then Grif­fin in­jured his knee in Wash­ing­ton’s play­off game fol­low­ing the 2012 sea­son, and af­ter­ward rifts formed and sides were taken. The Shana­hans, as it were, would be blamed in some cir­cles for Grif­fin’s in­jury. Kyle Shana­han in­di­cates now that the staff tried to pro­tect Grif­fin but that the quar­ter­back re­fused to fol­low their ad­vice.

The next sea­son, with Grif­fin on friendly terms with Sny­der, the sec­ond-year player clashed with his coaches. Kyle Shana­han wor­ried for his fa­ther and the way his ca­reer was end­ing; he knew, the younger Shana­han says, that “once that was done, he was done.”

News of back­bit­ing and an or­ga­ni­za­tion torn apart seemed to leak each Sunday morn­ing to national news out­lets. By late De­cem­ber, with Wash­ing­ton work­ing on a 3-13 sea­son, Grif­fin de­ac­ti­vated and Red­skins Park di­vided, it had be­come clear Mike Shana­han — and much of his staff — would be fired.

“You tried so hard to find a way that you could help the quar­ter­back,” Kyle Shana­han says, “that you could help him make a play, that you could help him not get hit, that you could help teach him how to slide, that you could help do ev­ery­thing.”

The quar­ter­back, he keeps say­ing. Which quar­ter­back?

Shana­han smiles again. “I don’t know. All of them.”

He is do­ing it again, like the Su­per Bowl play-call. He won’t say Grif­fin’s name.

When this is pointed out to him, he re­lents. Shana­han is try­ing, he in­sists, to move on from the ex­pe­ri­ence in Wash­ing­ton.

“We ac­com­plished some great things with Robert,” he says. “I don’t mind say­ing his name.” Shana­han con­tin­ues. “We felt like we did as good as we could to give him a chance to be suc­cess­ful. And the hard thing about that, that I don’t fully blame Robert for, is that the way we felt gave him a chance to be suc­cess­ful, the or­ga­ni­za­tion didn’t back. And they al­lowed Robert to choose what he wanted to do. Do you blame a 23-year-old for that, or do you blame the peo­ple that al­lowed him?”

Be­cause of his time in Wash­ing­ton, Shana­han says, he learned to rec­og­nize a toxic sit­u­a­tion — and to with­draw from it. Af­ter one sea­son in Cleve­land, he ap­proached Coach Mike Pet­tine — who, at the time, was the Browns’ fourth head coach in five years — and quit.

Shana­han learned, he says, that his hon­esty is val­ued by more play­ers than it of­fends, and that, though this re­mains dif­fi­cult for him, he oc­ca­sion­ally must com­pro­mise.

“He’s go­ing to tell you what he thinks,” Lynch says. “I’ll take that some­times, and then I’ll take a deep breath and say: ‘Okay, well what would you think if we . . . ?’ He’s will­ing to lis­ten.”

It taught Shana­han, he says, con­fi­dence to fol­low his in­stincts and, hard as this might be to be­lieve, be pa­tient. That’s some­thing both he and San Fran­cisco will likely need dur­ing the up­com­ing sea­son and what is ex­pected to be a long re­build­ing pe­riod.

“I’m bet­ter be­cause of what I went through in Wash­ing­ton,” Shana­han says, look­ing around this big of­fice.

“It made it to where I can han­dle it.”

“I’m bet­ter be­cause of what I went through in Wash­ing­ton.”

49ers Coach Kyle Shana­han

MICHAEL CON­ROY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

JOHN MC­DON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

For­mer Red­skins of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kyle Shana­han said of for­mer Wash­ing­ton quar­ter­back Robert Grif­fin III, “We felt like we did as good as we could to give him a chance to be suc­cess­ful.”

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