HOUSTON – Though he is the NFL's youngest offensive coordinator, a 28-year-old wunderkind who'll call plays for the Houston Texans this season, Kyle Shanahan doesn't feel sheepish about the team's decision to go green.
Truth be told, the fast-tracked son of Broncos coach Mike Shanahan began acting the part long ago.
During previous coaching stints with the Texans (as receivers coach in 2006 and quarterbacks coach in '07), Buccaneers (as an offensive quality control assistant from '04-05) and UCLA (as a graduate assistant in '03), Shanahan struggled to learn his place. Prone to blurting out suggestions in meetings with other coaches and players, the young assistant ultimately came to understand that such an approach made him come off as too cool for school.
"It's hard, especially as a young coach, you can't just speak up and give your opinions all the time," Shanahan said after a recent Texans practice. "I used to do that and get stares. People would look and think, 'Is this guy showing off?' No matter how good I thought the idea might have been, I learned it was better to catch (another coach) on the way out of the meeting and suggest it gently."
Shanahan (center) with Schaub (left) and Sage Rosenfels.
(Courtesy of the Houston Texans)
Mike Shanahan's take on his precocious son? "Yeah, that would take him awhile to learn. He's not shy."
Now, like his accomplished father, Kyle will get to channel his assertiveness into game plans and on-the-fly adjustments on Sundays. With the Texans coming off an 8-8 season, the most successful in their six-year history, there is talk in Houston of a first-ever playoff appearance. With a promising quarterback in Matt Schaub and a star wideout in Andre Johnson, this is a team with the potential for big things on offense.
Shanahan's potential to become one of the game's most innovative young strategists is a key part of the package. After offensive coordinator Mike Sherman left to become the head coach at Texas A&M, third-year coach Gary Kubiak – a Mike Shanahan protégé who played for and coached under him in Denver – turned to Kyle as the replacement last January.
"I would've been disappointed if I didn't get the job," Shanahan says. "I was ready."
Still, the move was viewed with some cynicism around the league. There have been a handful of second-generation coaches who've risen rapidly through the NFL ranks, including David Shula (a bomb as the Bengals' head coach), Jimmy Mora (took the Falcons to the NFC Championship game and is in line to take over as the Seahawks' coach next season), Wade Phillips (guided the Cowboys to the playoffs last season) and Mike Nolan (fighting to keep his job in his fourth season as the 49ers' head coach), and some outsiders wondered whether Shanahan's name was his most important qualification.
"I know it's out there," Kyle says. "You get a job this young, people are going to say 'It's cause of your dad' or 'It's cause of your name.' But trust me, no one in this business is hiring someone as a favor. There's too much on the line – people's jobs, people having to move their families – for someone to think that way."
Schaub, who's only a year younger than his coordinator – he says he calls him "Kyle" rather than "Coach" but insists "Dude" is off-limits – bristles at the notion that Shanahan got the gig based on anything but merit.
"Anyone who talks five minutes of football with Kyle will clearly understand why he has the position he does," Schaub says. "He's a quick study, he's got a great base of knowledge and he's very, very smart. He's going to show a lot of people that he's a lot more than Mike Shanahan's son, I can assure you."
Both Mike Shanahan, Denver's head coach since 1995, and his wife, Peggy, tried to talk Kyle out of coaching for much of his childhood, mindful of the long hours and vagabond lifestyle. As a teenager, he used to spend a fair amount of time at the Broncos' facility but, even while attending meetings, would tune out while "trying not to fall asleep."
As Kyle got more serious about football, starring as a high school receiver who would later play at Texas, he began watching game tapes of Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Ed McCaffrey, Rod Smith and other prominent wideouts his father had coached. By the time he got to college the coaching bug had overtaken him, to the point where his parents stopped giving him the "You can do something better with yourself" speech.
"When he was really young, I used to tell Peggy, 'I think he's too smart to go into coaching,' " Mike Shanahan says, laughing. "But he proved otherwise."
Convinced that his son would develop into a more well-rounded coach who could better handle tense situations "without being in a place where his dad's the head coach," Mike encouraged Kyle to seek employment elsewhere – though he doesn't rule out a reunion at some point.
"I told him I would love to be with him someday after he earns his spurs," the elder Shanahan says. "Of course, I'll probably be working for him."
For now, Kyle views his youth as a blessing that enhances his ability to communicate with players. Like his father, Shanahan is a Type-A personality whose instinct is to personalize his battle with the opposing defensive coordinator. "He's a lot like his dad," says Texans receivers coach Larry Kirksey, who worked under then-49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan during San Francisco's record-setting 1994 season. "He gets that look in his eye, like he wants to come after someone."
Yet Schaub believes Kyle, who is also the Texans' quarterback coach, could benefit by toning down his emotions at times.
"He can be kind of a high-strung individual by nature, as a lot of us are," Schaub says. "But once you step into that role of offensive coordinator, just as quarterbacks have to have an even-keel-type of mindset, it's best if you don't get too high or too low. Sometimes I've got to bring him back down, or up, to square one. Sometimes I've had to say 'chill out' or 'cheer up.' "
Shanahan (L) and Kubiak in the preseason.
(Courtesy of the Houston Texans)
One thing that is sure to get both father and son keyed up is when their teams compete against one another. It happened most recently last December, when the Broncos visited Reliant Stadium and suffered a 31-13 drubbing. Mike and Peggy Shanahan spent that Thursday night in Houston and went out to dinner with Kyle, his wife Mandy and their daughter Stella, who was born in August of '07.
"Luckily our granddaughter was there to distract me," Mike says. "I wasn't in a very good mood."
Asked which Shanahan should be expected to hold the mental edge in such head-to-head scenarios, Kyle says, "I like to think I've been in his head since I was born."
"He is," Mike agreed, laughing. "And that's not a compliment."
In a more serious tone the elder Shanahan, who was 35 when Al Davis hired him to coach the Raiders before the '88 season, swears that his son is "so much farther along than I was at his age." Asked what has made him proudest on a professional level, Shanahan says the positive feedback he has gotten about Kyle from players and coaches has been truly gratifying.
One of those players is Johnson, the Texans' sublime wideout, who was skeptical when Kyle was named his position coach before the '06 season.
"At first I thought, 'How is a guy my age going to coach me?' " Johnson recalls. "But after sitting down with him, I realized he knows his football. It's not shocking to me that he's our offensive coordinator now. Pretty soon, he'll probably be a head coach."
For now, Shanahan is enjoying the perks of his latest promotion. Not insignificantly, he no longer has to maintain an unnaturally low profile in meetings.
"I finally have the clicker and the controller in my hand," he says. "I don't have to hold my tongue. I enjoy finally being able to speak up."
The showing off, he hopes, will come on Sundays.