Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan: Firm but fair

Following his nine-day-long stare-down with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan has assumed the posture of a domineering, unyielding leader of men. It’s a profile desperately in need of an asterisk, given the coach’s less publicized soft side.

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Mike Shanahan
(Photo: Associated Press)

Long story short

Haynesworth learned what his teammates already knew: Shanahan’s word is law.

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Shanahan’s leadership skills came under fire not long after coming on board, when he stressed the importance of commitment to his offseason workout programs. The Redskins responded with 95 percent attendance.

Haynesworth, the most notorious defensive tackle in the game, sat out the sessions. He wanted out rather than play nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme orchestrated by Shanahan’s hand-selected defensive coordinator, Jim Haslett. Shanahan gave the malcontent a brief out clause. All he had to do was agree to forfeit the $21 million roster bonus that was due to him in April, and the team would have given him a full release.

But instead, Haynesworth cashed the check and remained property of the Washington Redskins. Shanahan’s message to the 6-foot-5, 330-pound man was, “We expect you to be the best defensive end, best nose tackle, if we play you at free safety, you’re expected to be the best free safety. Even though he’d have to lose a little weight.’ Whatever position we wanted to play him at that he would do the best job he possible could, and make a commitment that he was going to be the best football player,” Shanahan recounted.

A training-camp clash was inevitable. Just how would the new coach show his recalcitrant star who was boss? Via wind sprints, that’s how. Although Haynesworth had lost 30 pounds from working with his own trainer in the offseason, Shanahan insisted he be in football shape and meet the standards set forth by the Redskins. That meant passing the now-famous 300-yard shuttle conditioning tests before he practiced.

Haynesworth finally met the coach’s conditioning requirements on Saturday. After his most significant work of training camp, Haynesworth refused to take questions from the media, but instead offered a three-sentence statement thanking his fans for their support.

His teammates and coaches say their impression from talking to Haynesworth is that he likes the defense better than he expected. At the same time, it appears Haynesworth has learned what his teammates already knew: Shanahan’s word is law, regardless of how talented or how handsomely a player is paid.

“He wants everyone doing their job and working hard. He won’t accept anything less,” said fullback Mike Sellers, who is now playing under his fourth head coach with the Redskins. “Players know what he wants, players don’t challenge him.”

Not anymore, at least. After failing in his first two attempts, Haynesworth continued to work on the side with the conditioning team and Haslett. Then came the knee soreness that prevented Haynesworth from taking the test again for seven days. And, as Shanahan insisted, no test, no practice.

“If you can’t run, you can’t play,” Shanahan said. “Take a look at last year at how many games he played without practicing. We’ve got to make sure that he can practice so he can stay healthy and play at a very high level. … Take a look at his injuries last year. I mean, he couldn’t practice. If you can’t practice, you’re not going to get the job done. So my job is to make sure that he can play the best once we start our season and that’s to get him in football shape and if that knee isn’t ready to go, we’ll make sure that when it is ready to go, he’ll go full speed.”

Speculation abounded both in the local and national media that what unfolded was simply a game of poker between two stubborn and proud men: an offseason boycott being raised a conditioning test. A conditioning test raised by a sore, swollen knee. A swollen knee raised by negative MRI results and another day of conditioning. Finally Haynewsworth folded.

“I think he decided, you have to get on board or the boat’s going to leave without you,” fellow defensive lineman Kedrick Golston said after practice Saturday.

Shanahan had his share of opponents and proponents during the ordeal. The topic dominated radio airwaves and fan message boards. Some agreed with Shanahan’s handling of the situation. Another said eventually some concession would have to be made, because the most disruptive defensive tackle in football couldn’t be sidelined indefinitely. The talking heads worried that Shanahan would subject the team to Haynesworth dividing the locker room.

But the players stood by their coach.

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