The former Washington coach reflects on what went wrong in Washington with Robert Griffin III and what it will take for the humbled quarterback to succeed in Cleveland. Plus Shanahan addresses his own future in football
After four decades of coaching, Mike Shanahan’s day-to-day routine is a bit different these days. Now it includes trips to the Virgin Islands, Baker’s Bay in the Bahamas, Hawaii and the like—and visits with his six grandkids (a seventh is on the way). But the two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, now 63, always keeps a keen eye on the NFL. Last week, that involved watching the last quarterback Shanahan coached, Robert Griffin III, signing with the Browns after being released from the team where he was once the hopeful savior. The futures of Shanahan and Griffin were once tied together in the nation’s capital, but after Griffin’s 2012 rookie season when he shook up the league, the optimism quickly evaporated. From his home in Denver on Tuesday afternoon, Shanahan talked with The MMQB about what went wrong in Washington, what it will take for Griffin to be a successful starter in the NFL again and the possibility of getting back in the game himself—just not as a head coach.
VRENTAS: What was your reaction to the Browns signing Griffin?
SHANAHAN: I was thinking that in Robert’s best interest, he needed to go to a place where the head coach had the background of running different style offenses. When you take a look at Robert’s background, and what he was able to accomplish in 2012, there was no quarterback that played as well as he did that year. I thought that going to a system that accentuated what he did in 2012 would give him the ability to get back to where he was. People say a lot, well, people caught up to the read-option, but when you take a look at a guy like Russell Wilson in the last two years, he ran the ball 118 times in 2014, and averaged 7.2 yards per carry, and he ran it the next year 103 times. He had more yards than Robert did as a rookie, and Wilson did that in 2014, two years after it was said, people caught up to the read-option. I think the truth is that Colin Kaepernick didn’t run the option anymore, and neither did Robert, and Russell Wilson was very smart at how to slide and how to throw the football away. He continues to put pressure on defenses that makes him one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. But going back to your question, I think Robert, if he gets with the right system, and accentuates his positives, he can do some of the things he did in 2012, even though he really hasn’t taken a lot of snaps in the last two and a half years.
VRENTAS: How do you think new Browns head coach Hue Jackson will do coaching Griffin?
SHANAHAN: If you take a look at [Jackson’s] background, he has run a lot of different schemes as a coordinator and an assistant coach, depending on who his quarterback was. Wherever Robert went, he had to go to a guy who would run a system that gave Robert the best chance to be successful. I think Robert now, after a couple years, he looks back at 2012 and probably can see a little bit differently than he did in his second year. I don’t think he realized some of the things he did were so spectacular, and how hard it was on defenses to slow up that running game and take advantage of the play-action game. I think for him to have success in the NFL, he’s going to have to combine what he did in 2012 and some of the new things he will be coached to do.
VRENTAS: How different would Griffin’s career in Washington have been if he hadn’t hurt his knee as a rookie, and instead of recovering from ACL and LCL surgery, had a full offseason to transition into an offense that didn’t rely so much on his college principles?
SHANAHAN: I don’t think the injury had anything to do with it. When we started 2013, in the preseason, Dr. [James] Andrews gave him 100 percent full go. He told me at the start of training camp that there was no need to hold him back. The only reason we kept him out of the preseason games is Dr. Andrews didn’t think it was good for him to be taking shots. What I decided to do, because we practiced at game-day speed, I thought it was in Robert’s best interest to do team work, not against our defense, but after the practice was over with so he wouldn’t have to plant his knee awkwardly. But Robert took every snap in that camp and had every mental rep you could ask for in the offseason. Going into 2013, at least our first three or four games of the season, we did try to stay away from the read-option and some of those things he did so successfully just to make sure he was okay. But we could see after the first three games, and in Week 4 against Oakland we went into a play-action no-huddle type offense, and we just barely squeaked by the Raiders. Going into that bye week, over the next five games we were able to go back to some of the things we did his rookie year because that was natural for him. What wasn’t natural, like in the first three games, was for him to sit back and drop and throw. It had nothing to do with the injury. It had to with his background in a drop-back attack. The rest is kind of documented what happened after that, that he really believed that he wanted to throw the ball more and run less, and that wasn’t going to work with me running the offense. That’s one of the reasons Jay was hired: He was going to run a drop-back attack, and Jay has done that. Robert wasn’t completely comfortable in that, and I think that has proven out over the last couple years.
VRENTAS: Your careers were closely tied, but it didn’t work out for either of you in Washington. Is there anything you would have done differently?
SHANAHAN: There are always things you would have done differently, but after the first year and the best year in the history of the game, it’s hard to get much better than that. And then all of a sudden we go into the next year, and it doesn’t work out that way, and I think the key is, what is Robert going to do now with Hue? Are they going to adapt a system that he did very well in, in 2012 and some of 2013, or are they going to run an offense that features a drop-back attack? His success will [depend on that]. It’s not a slam at Robert at all, because that is what he has done all through high school and college. That’s what he’s learned. The NFL is hard enough, there is a lot of time and a lot of repetition, and it does take time if you are going to switch back to a drop-back attack. Robert did some great things in his rookie year, and I think Hue will take advantage of some of the things he did do well.
VRENTAS: If you believe he needs to run an offense with a read-option component, is it possible for him to have a long and successful career in the NFL given the injury risks?
SHANAHAN: I think you have to answer the question in your mind, and you just said something right there—can he stay healthy in the read-option attack? As a rookie, the two times Robert really got injured, one was when he had a concussion against Atlanta. He dropped back to pass but he scrambled to the right and held onto the ball, and (Sean) Weatherspoon knocked him out at about the (5)-yard line. The drop-back pass (would have been) a touchdown, but he wound up having a concussion. The other time he got hurt was against Baltimore, on a second-and-19, when he scrambled pretty good for a 13-yard gain, and cut back to the inside, and (Haloti) Ngata hit him. That’s when he lost his LCL. Then in the playoffs, when he got hurt against Seattle, he lost his LCL and his ACL. None of that had to do with the read-option. I think the read-option is what kept him healthy. He had faked the read-option where people were playing the run and he was just outstanding with his play-action passes. He got better with the drop-back passing game, because the secondary coverages we saw were fairly simple. And everybody said, you know, we can’t run the read-option anymore because they’ve it taken it away. The only guy that’s really run it consistently is Russell Wilson, and he’s had more success the last two years than even the first two years.
Would I really want to be a head coach? Not really. The more I look at it, I think I could help a team more at this point in my career as a consultant.
VRENTAS: You’re bullish on the read-option attack still having a place in the NFL.
SHANAHAN: People really just don’t really understand how tough it is on a defense and how you have to be very disciplined to work against it. One of the things you do with the read-option is, if there is any question that the defensive end or outside linebacker is going to take you, you give it to the back. Russell Wilson doesn’t miss many reads. If there is a question if he should run it or pitch it, he pitches it. If you take the pitch away and you take the back away, then Russell Wilson runs. And Wilson doesn’t care how many yards he gets. He gets as many yards as he can, and then he falls to the ground. You will never see him get hit running the read-option, or very seldom, because he knows when to give it, when to keep it, when to slide, and that’s what quarterbacks who run the read-option have to do. He knows there is nothing more important than him staying healthy. For all these analysts that say, oh, you can’t run it because you take too many hits, well, that was true about Robert. Robert did take too many hits. One thing I didn’t do a very good job of is trying to emphasize to him that you can’t take a hit; you’ve gotta slide, you are too valuable. But was hard for him, because that’s not what he did in college. He was such a good athlete, and he was used to being faster and quicker and sometimes bigger. But in the NFL, these guys all can run and they all can hit, so you have to give yourself up. He was very competitive, and he didn’t want to do that.
VRENTAS: What is the key to Robert having success again in the NFL, if you think that is possible?
SHANAHAN: No. 1, he is going to have to do things that the coach thinks give him the best chance to be successful. Before, he thought it was the drop-back passing game. Going into his second year, he thought that was going to be a natural fit for him. That’s up to Hue Jackson now, and I think that Hue will do an excellent job of giving him the chance to run a system that utilizes his talents. Robert is going to have to be all-in, and he should be right now, given the fact that his options are limited. Hue will make that decision, and Robert has to buy in. If he doesn’t buy in, then Robert will be out of the league.
VRENTAS: Did Jackson talk to you at all about signing Robert?
SHANAHAN: I didn’t talk to anybody about Robert. The only guy I really talked to about Robert was Jeff Fisher. I called Jeff about three weeks ago on another issue that had nothing to do with Robert. As we were talking, I was asking him about free agency, and I said, ‘If you do talk to Robert, let me tell you something about him. If he’s committed to do what you guys want to do, and he goes back to running what we did in 2012, I think you’ve got the right guy at the right time, because he might be willing to do that now.’ Jeff had a meeting to go to and he said, ‘Hey Mike, I’m going to call you back on this; that is really interesting.’ But I never did talk to him again. When I tell people what Robert did, and I said this to Robert (this offseason): There is a reason why you did something nobody else could do. Take advantage of it. Don’t look at yourself as being a running quarterback. Look at yourself as being a guy that an opponent has to commit everybody on defense to stop the read-option and you can take advantage of that in the play-action game and the drop-back game.
VRENTAS: There was a report that John Elway had some concerns about Griffin’s character after making some phone calls. Did you talk to Elway about Griffin, and if so, what did you say?
SHANAHAN: I talked to John one time last summer over at the house, but that was not just about Robert, it was about football in general. I don’t really remember our conversation, except that I said I think Robert will go back to running the offense we ran in 2012, which is not the offense we ran in Denver. I told John that we ran strictly an offense that Robert was used to, or that he had run when he was at Baylor, and we didn’t do a lot of the principles that we did with Denver except for the zone running scheme. That was about the only thing that we had in common, so it was hard to say how Robert would do in the Broncos system when it was so different than the system we ran with John. And that was the length of our conversation. But I didn’t talk to John (about Griffin) this offseason. I had not one phone call by anybody this year, didn’t speak to anyone about Robert, except when I called Jeff.
The more reps he has and the better support staff that they give him, you’ll see Kirk Cousins’ career keep going up. He’s a slam dunk for the future.
VRENTAS: Do you think a couple years of humbling has changed Griffin’s mindset as to the type of quarterback he wants to be?
SHANAHAN: If he doesn’t, he won’t be in the league. There is a reason he had that type of year (as a rookie). He is a heck of an athlete and a heck of a quarterback, but one of the reasons why he was so good is he was in that system his whole life. I can’t speak for Robert over the last few years, I just know that if I’m a quarterback and I go through 2014, and I go through 2015, and I really don’t get a chance to play, whatever the coach wants me to run, I’m going to run it to the best of my ability. If it is more read-option, he has to learn how to protect himself and throw the football away. If it’s not, he has to go and try to become the best quarterback he can be. We’ll see where that takes him.
VRENTAS: You are also responsible for Kirk Cousins being in Washington. The organization just franchise tagged him to keep him under center for at least another year. What does his future look like?
SHANAHAN: You can see what he did as a rookie in 2012, the three games he started, and 2013, how he played. If you take a look at each snap and who was healthy and who was not, he has the intangibles to separate himself from a lot of quarterbacks. Not only does he have the physical skills, he’s got the intangibles. He will keep on getting better. Part of that is because he is a very intelligent guy. Recall is very quick. His ability to know where everybody is and locate people very quickly is one of the best in the NFL. He’s had success without even having a lot of reps, and he’s got the reps now. The more reps he has and the better support staff that they give him on both sides of ball, you’ll see Kirk Cousins’ career keep going up. He’s a slam dunk for the future.
VRENTAS: You think he’s the long-term answer at QB for Washington?
SHANAHAN: I know he is the long-term answer. He has the ability to win a Super Bowl. That’s his talent. You get the supporting cast around him, and he will win you a Super Bowl. Unless you are around him everyday, you really don’t know, but he really does have those intangibles. When you watch him every day, you can see that he has what it takes not only to lead other players, but the confidence to play big and handle adversity. Being a guy that takes on the criticism without even blinking an eye. It’s hard to find guys like that.
VRENTAS: You talked with one of your former teams, the 49ers, this offseason about their head-coach opening. How serious were those talks?
SHANAHAN: We talked the year before, and it was really more about Kaepernick and where I thought he was and what I thought you could do. This year it wasn’t as much about the quarterbacks, it was the organization overall. Those are the types of things that you enjoy doing, because you get the chance to talk to different people. At the end of the day, if it works out and they are on the same page, you feel great. But if not, you don’t feel bad because you let them know what you thought it took to win a Super Bowl. If they aren’t 100 percent behind it, then you go a different direction. One of the reasons why I love San Francisco so much is my past history with it, knowing these players, knowing the town, knowing what the organization is all about and what it has accomplished, that was fun for me. That made it a little bit more intriguing than some of the other jobs.
VRENTAS: What was the opinion on Kaepernick that you shared with them?
SHANAHAN: I just went back to his first three years, with Harbaugh, when it was a run-oriented team with a top five defense. With a run-oriented team with a top-five defense that was as successful as it had been, you’re going to be in the Super Bowl every year. I asked why, in 2014, did you guys go to a drop-back passing attack with Kaepernick, with Harbaugh still being on the staff? What was the thought process there? Why did you go in a different direction? You look at Harbaugh’s last year, and they got away from the read-option almost completely and they went to a drop-back game. And last year, they try to change it up, they had a different coordinator with the passing game and the running game, and when you do that you have to have a play-action game that complements both of them. So I thought that Colin Kaepernick’s last two years were very tough.
VRENTAS: Would you like to be a head coach in the NFL again?
SHANAHAN: Well, the one thing as you get older, you are not trying to get yourself a job as much as you are trying to, if you do land a job, you know it gives you a chance to win a Super Bowl. It would have to be the perfect job for me. I was lucky enough (in the 1990s) to go to an organization like San Francisco that had won five Super Bowls in 13 years, where you could see the way things were done as an offensive coordinator to give you the chance to win a Super Bowl. Once you experience that, you understand the importance of that opportunity. When I was offered the Denver job the first time, at the end of the 1992 season, I didn’t go because I didn’t think, after the interview, there was a chance to win a Super Bowl. Two years later, when I talked to Pat Bowlen again, I thought, this team has a chance to win the Super Bowl. But to answer your question, would I really want to be a head coach? Not really. I’d like to be involved with some team to help them in some way to get them to the next level, if the right opportunity came. The more I look at it, I think I could help a team more at this point in my career as a consultant. Not as a head coach, but helping ownership put a team together, because you do feel you have an eye for what it takes to win a championship.