- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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Even when he was caught in the crossfire between Dan Reeves and John Elway in Denver or Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco, even when he was trading verbal rabbit punches with Al Davis and getting fired just 20 games into his head-coaching tenure, Mike Shanahan had the armor-piercing glare that he brought with him to the Washington Redskins along with his enduring nickname, "My Way Mike." As game faces go, Shanahan's is the best in the business. It's neither inscrutable as Lovie Smith's nor red-faced as Tom Coughlin's, and you don't need a spit shield or welder's mask as you did with Bill Cowher.
The beauty of Shanahan's incinerating in-game look is it can best be described as clinically insane. It's a death ray stare. When he focuses it on that playlist he has in his hand, it's as if he's commencing to do something right then and there that will rip out your larynx and entrails.
You can see why the look might have endeared him to Dan Snyder, the perennially disappointed Redskins billionaire owner who started secretly romancing Shanahan in the first few weeks of the 2009 season even though he already had a head coach in Jim Zorn. Owners have affairs of the heart all the time with head coaches who are not their own. Snyder, in particular, has been lampooned for his long-running habit of throwing big money at boldface names, only to get results that are lost in eight-point agate on the sports pages by the season's end. And after last year, Shanahan's first with Washington, it looked as if Shanahan's stay might not end any differently.
Shanahan began his first Redskins training camp by jousting with out-of-shape defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth over a fitness test, then got locked up in a passive-aggressive midseason standoff with quarterback Donovan McNabb (this after he had traded for McNabb and given him a contract extension). Both duels looked more gratuitous and insulting than they had to be. Washington again looked like a circus.
But now look: Haynesworth, who was traded to New England, can't stay on the field for the Patriots. McNabb, who was shipped off to Minnesota, can't buy a win to save his soul or his career.
And the Redskins are 3-1, and sitting atop the NFC East with the 1-3 Eagles awaiting them on the other side of their bye-week break.
Which makes it only natural -- even imperative -- to ask: What do you think of "My Way Mike" now?
Nobody's pretending the Skins have become a juggernaut overnight. But they were expected to be the dregs of their division once Shanahan said he intended to rely on either John Beck or Rex Grossman as his quarterback this season.
So at minimum, at least for now, their fast start should prevent Snyder from being mocked for the comical details recently reported by The Washington Post's Mike Wise about how he pursued Shanahan to be his coach. (It happened after a particularly bad loss in Detroit on Sept. 27, 2009. Some Crown Royal whiskey was involved. As Sunday night turned into the wee hours of Monday morning, Snyder ordered that his private jet be fired up for the second time that night and off he and a handful of advisors flew, landing in Denver around 4 a.m. ET to pay a house call to Shanahan at his 35,000-square-foot spread outside Denver. Why? Because this is what impulsive rich guys do. (The rest of us go to White Castle when we've been drinking.)
Shanahan didn't take the job until three months later. Now, he might be on the way to swatting away whispers that the NFL had passed him by, or that at this point in his career he had the sort of genius complex that made it tough to tell who was more at fault during last season's skirmishes. Were he and his hubris to blame, or the players with whom he was battling?
Both were still open questions by the end of the Redskins' 6-10 season. And that's as good a measure as any of how regard for Shanahan had changed since he and Elway and Terrell Davis were winning Super Bowls in Denver in 1997 and '98. At the time, those title runs were seen as true give-and-take collaborations. Elway was in his career dotage. Shanahan helped him avoid retiring as ring-less as Dan Marino. But as the years flew by and Shanahan became more distanced from that postseason success, the storyline started to warp and change.
By the end of Shanahan's 14-year stay in Denver, the question was this: What had Shanahan ever won without Elway? Shanahan's Broncos hadn't had a playoff victory in the 10 years since Elway retired.
The Redskins are winning now for a lot of reasons. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has the defense sacking quarterbacks and ranked in the top 10. Shanahan's son, Kyle, the Redskins' offensive coordinator, also clashed with McNabb, but he isn't hearing the "nepotism" talk as much anymore. Tim Hightower and Ryan Torain are giving the Skins a nice running back tandem. Shanahan literally has turned over half the roster since he arrived, and the players who remain are remarking about what a terrific, professional atmosphere Shanahan has created.
"These players are handpicked for our system," Shanahan has said.
"We're a totally different team," linebacker London Fletcher said this past weekend. "We have a better locker room. Coach Shanahan has cleaned up a lot of things."
The Redskins might yet fall back to earth. Grossman won the Skins' starting quarterback job, but his effectiveness has declined in each of the last three games, backsliding from 305 yards in the season-opening win against New York to just 143 against St. Louis last Sunday. For the year, he has six touchdowns passes against seven turnovers, which are just a shade off Tony Romo's Jekyll and Hyde totals. That won't be good enough when Washington's schedule gets really tough late in the year with games against the Jets, Patriots, Giants, Steelers and Ravens in addition to rematches with its NFC East rivals.
But if anything is galling Shanahan right now, it seems to be that the Skins are about the only team Dallas hasn't blown a lead against so far. They get a chance to avenge that loss (18-16 on "Monday Night Football" two weeks ago) when they see the Romo-Coaster again Nov. 20.
Shanahan was asked Sunday if the "coach part" of him was relieved that his team had survived two fourth-quarter turnovers by Grossman to outlast winless St. Louis and improve to 3-1, or if he wanted to "throw around the furniture" because they made the 17-10 game tougher than it needed to be.
"I'm disappointed we're not 4-0," Shanahan shot back. "But you've gotta get over those things. This is a long season. The key is to win. The key is to get better every week."
And how do you do that? You stare down every challenge.
"You've got to fight," Shanahan said the next day. "You've gotta fight through tough times. Or you won't last."
Sound familiar? It's the story of his coaching life.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.