LANDOVER, Md. — As he recharged his batteries during his year off after getting fired by the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan made the rounds to watch a few NFL training camp practices, seeing what he could pick up as he waited for his next job.
One destination was definitely on the itinerary: the New England Patriots, coached by old friend and rival Bill Belichick.
“We know what type of people that we try to get on our football team, what’s your makeup going to be, and so I’ve watched him through the years. I know that he’s watched me,” Shanahan said. “It’s been fun to talk about over a couple beers or dinner, something like that.”
Shanahan spent a day-and-a-half with the Patriots during that 2009 camp, taking in three practices.
“It’s certainly nice when you’re not butting heads against each other, it’s a lot easier to have conversations and try to help each other out,” Belichick said. “I mean, I have so much respect for Mike and what he’s done, the way he goes about his job, the way he coaches his team and the accomplishments that he’s had as a coach throughout his exceptional career. He’s one of the people that I respect the most in the NFL.”
Belichick has won three Super Bowls titles, Shanahan has two. They are no-nonsense coaches who have reputations as control freaks with little tolerance for foolishness or dissension, and they face each other Sunday when the Patriots (9-3) visit Shanahan’s latest employer, the Washington Redskins (4-8).
“They both want the best out of their players, and they put you in situations where you can be successful,” said Redskins receiver Jabar Gaffney, who played for Belichick’s Patriots from 2006-08. “Obviously, they’ve both won championships and they both know what they’re talking about.”
That said, they are not coaching clones.
“There’s only one Belichick,” Gaffney said. “There’s definitely only one Bill, and the way he goes about his preparation and getting his team prepared is unparalleled.”
It’s been a while since either coach won the big one. Belichick’s last title came at the end of the 2004 season, while the second of Shanahan’s back-to-back championships came in 1998. But while the Patriots have remained a perennial powerhouse under Belichick — this is their 11th straight winning season — Shanahan sputtered in his later years with the Broncos and is struggling to get the long-suffering Redskins headed in the right direction.
This year has been especially bizarre for both coaches. Belichick is the guru of defense, yet New England is ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed. It’s been the offense led by Tom Brady and the seemingly unstoppable pass-catching duo of Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker that have overwhelmingly carried the Patriots to the brink of another AFC East crown, which they will clinch with a win and a loss by the New York Jets to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Just last week, the Patriots allowed Dan Orlovsky to pass for 353 yards for the winless Indianapolis Colts, whose fourth-quarter comeback made New England’s 31-24 victory closer than expected. Injuries and poor play have forced Belichick into some unusual lineups, including a start at safety last week for wide receiver Matthew Slater.
Shanahan, meanwhile, is supposed to be the offensive genius, but the Redskins ranked 20th in yards gained and 31st in rushing. Injuries and substandard performance have likewise played a part — as well as the coach’s miscalculation of what he had at quarterback — but now he must also deal with the loss of two of his most talented players. Tight end Fred Davis and left tackle Trent Williams were suspended Tuesday for the rest of the regular season after failing multiple drug tests.
Shanahan holds a 5-3 edge in head-to-head meetings against Belichick — all coming in Broncos-Patriots games — but it’s hard to brag when the Redskins have won only four games all season and have dropped seven of their last eight.
“With four wins,” Shanahan said with a smile, “I’m not in a position to talk a whole lot about what we’ve done in the past.”
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP