SANTA CLARA — 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 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,” said 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 said. “ … 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 league 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.”