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Home | Blog | Howard Roark Would've Made a Great Football Coach

Howard Roark Would've Made a Great Football Coach


Ten months ago when the Washington Redskins hired Mike Shanahan as its new head coach, Jason Reid of the Washington Post reported, “Shanahan made clear one principle that will govern his tenure: Any problems between members of the organization will remain internal.” Yet over his first half-season in charge, Shanahan has resorted to publicly humiliating two high-profile players on his roster. There’s a useful economic lesson in Shanahan’s management style, or lack thereof, and it goes to the root of the difference between bureaucracy and entrepreneurship.

In an October 31 game against the Detroit Lions, Shanahan pulled his starting quarterback, Donovan McNabb, with less than two minutes to play. The Redskins were only behind six points and a last-minute touchdown drive would have won the game. In lieu of McNabb, Shanahan and his top offensive assistant — Shanahan’s son, Kyle — elevated backup quarterback Rex Grossman, who had never played a single game as a Redskin and only played in one game the previous season (as a backup in Houston, where Kyle Shanahan ran the offense).

Empirically, the case for keeping McNabb in the game seemed overwhelming. He’s been a regular starter in the NFL for 11 years, and although his statistics for the current season suggest a decline in performance, the near-unanimous consensus of media and football pundits held that there was no situation — in particular, an end-of-game drive — where Grossman was more likely to lead the Redskins to a win than McNabb.

Shanahan disagreed. In a series of post-game press conferences and orchestrated media leaks, Shanahan and his son suggested (1) McNabb did not understand the terminology of the offensive system as well as Grossman, who had the benefit of an extra year working with Kyle Shanahan in Houston; (2) McNabb lacked the “cardiovascular endurance” that Shanahan demanded of his players; (3) the playbook designed by Kyle Shanahan had already been reduced substantially to accommodate McNabb’s unwillingness (or inability) to adopt an offensive scheme that differed from the one he previously ran as the starting quarterback in Philadelphia; and (4) Shanahan had planned to pull McNabb for Grossman in a last-minute situation all along.

As a football coach making an in-game decision, Shanahan might well have been in the right. But as the de facto CEO of a highly visible company that depends on good public relations, Shanahan’s decision and attempted explanations have proven disastrous. Shanahan is a poor public communicator who, like many coaches, comically overvalues secrecy. And in a city like Washington, where the majority of the population (and possibly the fan-base) is African-American, benching a popular African-American quarterback (McNabb) for a less-regarded Caucasian player (Grossman) unnecessarily opens you up to charges of racism. Whether it’s true is irrelevant; this is a question of public image in a business where customer — and yes, media — support is essential to the bottom line.

My objective here is not to revisit the decision itself. I’m not much of a football fan and don’t pretend to understand the game better than coaches. I’m more curious about what the decision — and subsequent media counter-reaction — tell us about the nature of executive decision-making.

The boilerplate media criticism of Shanahan is that he’s supposedly offered conflicting explanations of his decision: First it was McNabb’s inability to understand terminology, and then it was his lack of conditioning, and so forth. The media feels they are being lied to. But the truth is staring everyone in the face. Ultimately, the dispute boils down to this: The media and the public believe McNabb’s superior talent should have kept him on the field, while Shanahan & Son believe it’s their ideas — their offensive system — that must dictate all decision-making.

This is really no different then the conflict that thousands of firms struggle with every day. It’s also what drives much of the debate over intellectual property: Do ideas matter more than talent? When I started thinking about the Shanahan-McNabb affair, I recalled a 2008 lecture by Dr. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and CEO of Pixar Animation Studios:

A few years ago, I had lunch with the head of a major motion picture studio, who declared that his central problem was not finding good people — it was finding good ideas. Since then, when giving talks, I’ve asked audiences whether they agree with him. Almost always there’s a 50/50 split, which has astounded me because I couldn’t disagree more with the studio executive. His belief is rooted in a misguided view of creativity that exaggerates the importance of the initial idea in creating an original product. And it reflects a profound misunderstanding of how to manage the large risks inherent in producing breakthroughs.

[ . . . ]

While I’m not foolish enough to predict that [Pixar] will never have a flop, I don’t think our success is largely luck. Rather, I believe our adherence to a set of principles and practices for managing creative talent and risk is responsible. Pixar is a community in the true sense of the word. We think that lasting relationships matter, and we share some basic beliefs: Talent is rare. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur. It must be safe to tell the truth. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.

What Catmull describes is the essence of entrepreneurial management. On the other end of the spectrum, you have bureaucratic management, something that we frequently associate with government and the state. But private organizations — especially quasi-statist firms like the National Football League — are just as susceptible to this problem.

If you review the totality of Shanahan’s head coaching career — 11 months in Washington and 14 years in Denver — a common theme is his disregard for talent. Shanahan burned through quarterbacks, running backs, and defensive coordinators at an above-average rate in Denver. Shanahan demanded perfection, and when he didn’t attain it, he blamed everyone but himself.

Of all the media chatter I’ve read about Shanahan this week, the most revealing anecdote comes from this Les Carpenter column for Yahoo Sports:

Those who have worked with Shanahan say his greatest strength, yet also his biggest weakness, is his certainty that he can improve anybody. In the past he has eschewed the good advice of scouts to watch highlight tapes of prospects, choosing to see only the best plays that player made, confident he can coax them to that level as if to say they hadn’t been coached by him. (Italics in original)

This is the football equivalent of an economist who builds a regulatory model based on unrealistic assumptions about “perfect” competition. Every regulator believes he can improve upon the market’s performance if they just adopt his brilliant ideas.

From the start of the 2006 season through the October 31 Lions game, Shanahan’s head coaching record is perfectly even: 28 wins and 28 losses. This doesn’t just suggest he’s far from the level of “perfection” he claims to seek; it suggests he’s probably no better than any other coach in the NFL. Yet even after he was fired by Denver for three mediocre seasons, the Redskins rewarded Shanahan with a five-year contract that pays him $7 million annually. This is not based on Shanahan’s current abilities; it’s based on his personal friendship with the Redskins owner and a resume that includes two Super Bowl victories 12 years ago with a Hall of Fame quarterback, John Elway.

Having been rewarded in spite of his recent mediocrity, Shanahan is unlikely to, as Dr. Catmull suggested, “constantly challenge all of [his] assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.” Instead, Shanahan follows the first principles of bureaucratic management, which is to surround yourself with acolytes — e.g., his son, the offensive coordinator — and blame everyone else for failing to adopt your standards of “perfection.”

The McNabb situation was not the first sign of this. For several months, Shanahan was locked in a public standoff with the Redskins’ highest paid defensive player, Albert Hayensworth, who insisted he was ill-suited to the new defensive system that Shanahan planned to adopt. The media largely sided with Shanahan — out of envy over Haynesworth’s contract and his overall demeanor, which is reminiscent of a sullen teenager — but at the core of the dispute, Haynesworth was largely correct. His talents did not fit the new scheme. Rather than adapt to the talent he had or simply get rid of Haynesworth at any one of multiple opportunities, Shanahan decided to publicly embarrass his own employee for several weeks before quietly adapting his ideology to Haynesworth’s talent.

During the Haynesworth feud, but prior to the McNabb situation, the media consensus held that Shanahan’s actions were necessary to “change the culture” of a Redskins team that had performed poorly over the prior two seasons. This, too, reflects a key component of bureaucratic management, the idea that a single leader must impose cultural change by fiat. Culture is a reflection of the decentralized interactions between the individuals within a group. A person who constantly expends energy asserting his authority and “making examples” out of people is not building a better culture; he’s simply reducing the culture to the level of a joyless technocrat.

As Dr. Catmull said, “Talent is rare.” You can’t just keep throwing it away to service what you consider to be the perfect idea about how the talent should behave. Ideas without the talent to execute them are worthless in the marketplace. It doesn’t matter how brilliant an architect you are if nobody wants to buy and occupy the damn building.

Skip Oliva is a writer and paralegal in Virginia (skip@skipoliva.com).

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