Redskins make big moves without big splash

When you are working for Daniel Snyder, you are never working on the long-term plan, so Mike Shanahan can’t figure to have much time to turn around the Washington Redskins. The clock has been ticking on the head coach’s tenure from the moment he arrived in Washington with the expectation that hiring him guarantees winning.

It always seemed the most important offseason would be this one. By then he would understand the kind of team he had, the players he needed and the salary cap space to make it happen. So these three days that constitute something of a normal football winter might be the most important in Shanahan’s time with the club. If he chooses wrong and 6-10 repeats itself, he might not get another opportunity. He has to win now to win later.

Mike Shanahan has made some big moves for the Redskins over the past two days.
(Getty Images)

Once again the Redskins are lining up to be champions of an offseason, and yet for the first time they might be doing it right. The moves Shanahan has made in the past two days – dumping Donovan McNabb(notes) and Albert Haynesworth(notes) while adding Barry Cofield(notes), Stephen Bowen(notes), Josh Wilson(notes), Donte Stallworth(notes) and Jabar Gaffney(notes) – are solid. It’s what the Redskins have needed to do for years: ignore the glamour of big names while adding solid, anonymous pieces that make a decent team.

In the past, Shanahan has never been tempted by the shiny names that so dazzled Snyder and his GM Vinny Cerrato. Winters were never good if they didn’t include one or two big packages with giant bows out in front of Redskins Park. But, aside from London Fletcher(notes), the big signings rarely had value. All they did was clog the halls with egos. Shanahan’s predecessor Jim Zorn never had a chance the moment Haynesworth walked in the door. Haynesworth, his money counted, had little interest in trying.

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Shanahan has his own impatience. And has proven flawed as a talent evaluator. Some who have worked with him say he relies too much on his instincts, watching highlight tapes of free agents and draft prospects, while not listening to the advice of the scouts and assistants around him. When those players don’t work out, he fails to mask his disappointment. Things often don’t end well.

But Shanahan has also thrived on players who slip under the radar – low-round picks that come to him without pretense or ego – and he coaches them into winners. No coach may burn to win as much as Shanahan. He despises six-win seasons so much that he pushes as hard as he can for nine and 10 wins, sometimes at the price of long-term growth. Last year’s team, as miserable as it was, would have probably won a couple of more games were it not for the inability of Shanahan and McNabb to find common ground.

The Redskins are now better. Gone is the quarterback whose dispute with the coach divided the team. Gone is Haynesworth, who was never going to play here and whose presence on the roster angered everyone. New on the roster is Cofield, who will help the pass rush, and Bowen, whom the Cowboys appeared to still want. Wilson is an efficient corner who won’t drop all the interceptions Carlos Rogers(notes) did. When healthy, Stallworth has always been an effective receiver and Gaffney is a solid third or fourth option. None are superstars but the Redskins don’t need superstars, they need decent players who will buy into Shanahan’s system.

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Those who have had to adjust to Shanahan over the years say it takes a season to learn the madness of his offense. Linemen struggle to remember the variations and terminology. But once they grasp the system the blocking is always magical, holes open so well any running back, no matter how unknown, instantly becomes a star. Washington will probably run a lot with a new quarterback, John Beck(notes), in charge. But the receiver threat that was missing last season should be there this fall. The Redskins should score points. They should be competitive.

People forget how much NFL teams get better as they cut away the old and broken down. Behind McNabb and Haynesworth went several players who had become worn down and beaten up. In the previous regime’s zeal to win fast with as many impressive names as possible, Washington got too old to compete. Two days into the winter that really is a week in July, Shanahan fixed that.

The Redskins are younger and as a result, a little bit better.

Once again they have won the offseason.

Only this time, they might really have done some good.

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Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jul 29, 2011