Kyle Shanahan on coaching fast track with Redskins' malleability

  • By Albert Breer
  • Updated: Dec. 18, 2012 at 03:14 p.m.

Chris Cooley was cut by the Washington Redskins on Aug. 28. The veteran tight end then returned to the team Oct. 22.
It's pretty tough for him to comprehend what transpired in the eight weeks in between.

"When I got back, it was a new offense," Cooley recounted recently. "The learning curve for me was drastic. I missed seven games. The last game I didn't play was against the Giants. I watch all the games and I'm in tune to what we're doing, [but] I couldn't have called a third of the plays in that game. I couldn't have told you what they were, what the responsibilities were. The way they'd grown from Week 1 to Week 7 was unreal."

So is the ascension of Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on lists of potential head-coaching candidates. And Cooley's explanation hints at the primary reason why.

After leading a middling offense his first two years in Washington (ranked 18th and 16th in the league) under his father Mike, the younger Shanahan retrofitted the traditional scheme Mike has run around the talents of Robert Griffin III, for whom the Skins yielded a ransom to draft. Kyle installed concepts that Griffin ran at Baylor, mixed them with the old stuff, and created a unique attack designed to put his rookie quarterback in the best spot to prosper quickly. It worked. To wit:

Exihibit A: Griffin's 104.2 rating, 66.4 completion percentage and 18-4 TD-INT ratio.
Exhibit B: Washington now ranks fourth in total offense.
Exhibit C: With Griffin out in Week 15, it was easily adjustable to fit Washington's other rookie quarterback, Kirk Cousins.

"He's definitely exaggerating a little bit, just talking likely Cooley does," Kyle Shanahan said over the phone, when apprised of his tight end's comments. "The whole basics of the zone read, we'd worked on that, did it really hard, put time into it from a Football 101 standpoint starting in OTAs, going from normal formations, getting the o-line right, getting the quarterback and running backs on the same page with the ballhandling. What Cooley saw was the simple ways to do it. That was the first couple games."

From there, the Redskins have kept defenses on their toes not by changing the concepts, but expanding the looks.

It's working. Washington topped the league in rushing at the quarter pole, stood second both at the midway point and after Week 12, and has risen back up to first since. So at this point, the idea that other teams would simply "catch up" to the problems the Redskins have created with their unique attack looks shaky.

"We've added moving parts -- out of crazy formations, running guys across the formation, bringing receivers in the backfield," Kyle continued. "Each week, we add to it. We got most wild with it the first time we played the Giants. To me, a lot of it is illusion. And it all goes back to what we've already done. The teaching has never really changed. The window dressing has. We can make it look like a lot of different stuff."

The motivation to innovate here, moreso than the actual schematics, illustrates part of the appeal Kyle Shanahan will draw from other clubs in need of a head coach this offseason. The 33-year-old chose to base his offense around the talent on hand, rather than forcing the talent to adapt to his ways. Which is to say he's inventive enough to be adapatable, something that would help any coach get the most out of his players.

In Griffin's case, Kyle said, "When we studied him, we saw a lot of things he did well, but (the zone-read) is what he did best, and we weren't going to take that away from him." So the Redskins went about trying to take what Griffin did best and make it something the offense could do well.

The interesting thing is that as Kyle Shanahan compiled tape of Baylor -- as well as the Tim Tebow-quarterbacked Denver Broncos, the Cam Newton Carolina Panthers and the Vince Young Tennessee Titans -- to see how NFL defenses were combatting the option, neither he nor any other Redskins coach consulted with any outside coach or option guru.

"I'm kinda glad we didn't," Kyle said. "Because of that, we had to look at it hard, study more tape, and we wound learning it better and coming up with our own impressions."

As you might expect, he scoffs at the notion that it's any kind of gimmick.

Kyle explains the offense forces defenses to account for 11 players, since the quarterback is part of the play, rather than 10, which opens up things everywhere else on the field. Washington runs, by Kyle's count, about nine plays per game off the read-option and the threat it creates. And when the Redskins are running it, and not playing off it, an extra gap is created. It plays the angles and is built to put defensive guys in bad spots, which, he reminds, is offensive football.

Kyle concedes it can't be all you do in the NFL. But it can be an important element, so long as you can keep your quarterback upright.

"We don't want Robert to get hit, but the thing I've noticed is that people notice when he gets hit running the ball," Kyle Shanahan said. "But they don't realize how violent it is in the pocket. ... He doesn't get hit like (Matt) Schaub did or Rex (Grossman) did. Robert will do that (dropback) stuff, but with the threat of the zone-read, and the fact that he's not sitting there, defensive linemen aren't teeing off on him. It's not the same."

Still, to make it work, the Redskins have built in rules for Griffin. In scramble situations, he's only to run when he's not accounted for by the defense, and in most of those spots he's told to use the angles there and run to the sideline. They're coaching him to slide some, and get out of bounds more -- on option plays, too.

Kyle Shanahan also mentions that Griffin's two injuries this year came on scrambles, not designed runs.

Mike Shanahan told me earlier in the season that he expects the offense to be in a state of evolution for the first three years of Griffin's career, something evident in the way Kyle's running things. And maybe the best thing? In part because both the option looks and the old offense are rooted in zone-blocking concepts, it's easy to go back and forth in scheme, which allowed the Redskins to smoothly transition to Kirk Cousins last week. But again, the idea remains the same.

"You can't just turn it on, and become a pocket passer. Most guys who are have been since they were born," Kyle Shanahan said. "They've been throwing from the pocket and reading coverages since Day 1. Robert's such a good athlete that he hasn't had to do that. He understands football, and he can do it. He works at it, and the way he thinks and works, he's gonna be good at everything. This is just what he does best now."

It doesn't take Amos Alonzo Stagg to recognize that. But it did take skill, and guts, to build it like this.

So far, it's paid off for the Redskins. Soon enough, it should pay off for Kyle Shanahan too.