ASHBURN, Va. – Less than a month after taking the job of Washington Redskins coach, Mike Shanahan called a meeting.
A big meeting. Everyone who works for the franchise was invited, from secretaries to marketing people to the employees based at the stadium on the other side of D.C. The only people not there were the players, who were off because it was February.
It took place in the Redskins Park auditorium and lasted about an hour. Shanahan gave a power point presentation of some 50 points he thought were "very important for the organization."
"You talk to everybody," Shanahan said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And everybody's got a job to do. And you let everybody know how important their job is to the success of this organization. For us to win a Super Bowl, it's going to take everybody, not just the players, not just the coaches. We've got to have the best of the best in all different areas, secretaries, marketing, stadium personnel. Everybody's got a job to do, and that was the essence."
No one at Redskins Park had ever seen anything like it, not from a coach. Joe Gibbs, as the joke goes, was so football-focused he probably couldn't have found the marketing department if he tried. Steve Spurrier couldn't remember the names of his players, much less the random people he might meet in the hallway. Here was a new coach trying to unite the entire organization, an important step as he went about setting a new tone of order, discipline and control for a franchise that has been a roller-coaster of inconsistency for more than a decade and was coming off a 4-12 season.
While the players weren't at the meeting, they quickly got the message as well. When Shanahan made the following comment at a chamber of commerce speech in May, he might as well been speaking directly at a certain unhappy defensive lineman named Albert Haynesworth.
"I like the standard set high," Shanahan said. "The one thing that I found out players want is consistency. Once you give a special player or a star player extra attention or let him get away with things, it takes way the morale of the team."
So Shanahan is in charge — in full, unyielding charge — of one of the most storied organizations in the NFL, having been given contractual control by Dan Snyder, who seems to really, really mean it this time when he says he's become a hands-off owner. Gibbs, though in the Hall of Fame, never wanted his picture on the front of the media guide, but Shanahan is there in grand style — holding a football while lined up ahead of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.
It's certainly valid to say he's earned it, having won two Super Bowls in the late 1990s with the Denver Broncos. He's tied for 16th with 154 regular-season and postseason wins, only 17 behind Gibbs. He turned 58 this week, so he should have plenty of vigor left, and he's had a year off to recharge the batteries after being fired by the Broncos at the end of the 2008 season.
He spent the 12 months of downtime visiting other teams, watching games on television and making contacts with potential assistant coaches so he could assemble a staff quickly when he got a new job, but nothing that he saw or heard persuaded him to change his style.
"He's the same," said running backs coach Bobby Turner, who held the same job under Shanahan in Denver. "He's demanding. He's a perfectionist, and he's expecting perfection."
Some people inside Redskins Park initially thought Shanahan was a bit of a neat freak, but that's because the place was so cluttered. The training room and weight room were a mess, so Shanahan had them tidied up. Newspapers would pile up at the front desk; that's no longer the case. There's new paint, inside and out.
"He wants our building and everything to look like a professional building," said his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. "If it looks dirty and no one's addressing it, he's definitely going to notice it."
Mike Shanahan readily cites the people who have helped him hone his leadership style, among them Barry Switzer at Oklahoma, Darrell Mudra at Eastern Illinois (Shanahan's alma mater) and the winning machine that became the San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
The common theme: Come up with a vision and get everyone in the organization behind it. It was as the offensive coordinator with the 49ers in 1992 that Shanahan first witnessed a version of the all-inclusive meeting he led at Redskins Park in February.
"Everybody knew they were part of the winning process," Shanahan said. "Everybody's got to be on the same page. There was a culture. There was a standard that had been set. There was no substitution for the standard."
Shanahan took that philosophy to Denver and has now brought it to Washington. And it comes with no exceptions, as Haynesworth has been quick to learn.
A tense, drawn-out and very public test of the coach's what-I-say-goes authority has dominated Shanahan's first seven months in Washington, and the coach has come out on top — at least so far — by not wavering a bit. Haynesworth is a two-time All-Pro with a $100 million contract, but he must abide by the rules, even if that means alienating him by making him pass a conditioning test and play with the backups as a de facto punishment for boycotting the team's offseason workouts.
After all, Shanahan nearly died from a ruptured kidney after taking a hit while playing quarterback at Eastern Illinois yet wanted to keep on playing, so he doesn't have much room for sympathy when Haynesworth has a sore knee or some variation of a headache.
"He sets the rules; we've got to abide by them," fullback Mike Sellers said. "There's no questioning."
Even when Shanahan appears to loosen up — taking the players bowling instead of practice, for instance — it's a meticulously calculated move. This is the coach who created a game room during a Super Bowl week with the Broncos so the players would stay in the team hotel and out of trouble. There's nothing like keeping them happy and under control at the same time.
"He's thrown a lot of bones. It's good for morale," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "If you're working at the Ford dealership and you do things like this for your workers, they'll want to work hard for you."
Shanahan can be humorous one moment, then hit you with a look that could freeze a forest fire. He exudes confidence, sometimes refreshingly so. Some coaches like to find ways to spread responsibility, and therefore the blame when things go wrong. Does Shanahan have someone in the booth specifically telling him when to throw the replay flag? No, he prefers to look at the stadium replay and make the decision himself. Does he carry the infamous chart that's supposed to tell you when to go for a 2-point conversion? Ha!
"I've been coaching for a while," he said, nonchalantly. "It should be automatic for you."
One of the knocks against Shanahan in Denver is that he became overconfident after winning the Super Bowls, that he believed his system was good enough to mold any group into winners. Both of his titles came with John Elway at quarterback, but Shanahan won only one playoff game over his last 10 seasons in Denver after Elway retired.
But Shanahan says there's no chance of winning it all if everyone isn't buying into the plan. He likes to tell the story of how he jettisoned former first-round receivers Mike Pritchard and Anthony Miller in favor of undrafted Rod Smith and free agent Ed McCaffrey during his early years as head coach of the Broncos, the lesson being that no one is irreplaceable.
"The people that don't buy in? The people that don't work?" Shanahan said. "The chances are they may get to a playoff, but they'll never do anything special like win the Super Bowl."
And that goes for the everyone — the secretaries, the marketing people and even Albert Haynesworth.