He was supposed to be a savior when the private jet pulled off the runway at Dulles International. Mike Shanahan stepped off the plane with the Redskins insignia three winters ago and squinted into a late-day sun. Here was the moment that was going to change everything about a franchise quickly becoming the most dysfunctional in the league. The sheer burn of Shanahan's will would make it good again.
Now comes another lost Sunday with FedEx Field having long failed to be any kind of home advantage and the Redskins withering to another loss in front of empty stands. Afterward, Shanahan announced he was giving up on making a go of the postseason. At 3-6 in a conference filled with defenses built for January, he couldn't see anything but a wasteland stretching into the new year. The Redskins are beaten up. They miss their two most dominating defensive players and their most reliable pass catcher. Without defensive linemen Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker and tight end Fred Davis, the Redskins aren't very good.
It's hard to know why things haven't gone right, because, slowly, Shanahan has made the Redskins better. Back when the season started and there was nothing so much as hope, star linebacker London Fletcher noticed the talent that didn't make the final cut and realized this was probably as gifted a Redskins team that he has been on. But that was before the injuries, before the heart of the defense and Davis and receiver Pierre Garcon were lost. That was when there was a thought Robert Griffin III could take the Redskins to the playoffs.
Still, rot lay below the surface. Rebuilding the Redskins turned out to be a harder task than Shanahan thought. The offensive line was fractured. The defense was old. No franchise quarterback existed. The passing game was defunct. It takes more than two years to steer a broken old battleship.
What's remarkable is how Shanahan didn't see this. He had to know during his year of exile that he would soon be the head coach of the Redskins. Team owner Daniel Snyder and a group of executives had already made a September midnight run to Denver in hopes of wooing him to take the job then owned by Jim Zorn. Shanahan had an office not far from the Broncos complex. In that office he had installed giant television screens upon which to watch games and record them and watch replays and assess talent around the league. What should have been clear to him then – as it was to seemingly everyone in the NFL – was that the Redskins were a broken football team.
Around the league, the biggest criticism of Shanahan is that he doesn't listen to his scouts. He has always insisted on personnel control but doesn't heed good advice on players. Several former coaches and executives who have worked with him say he scouts off highlight tape. He wants to see a player's 10 best plays. He says he will coach him to that.
Those former workers say Shanahan believes he has the magic answer for that player. A favorite line, they say is: "He hasn't been coached by me."
Shanahan's detractors mock this as coaching hubris. They say his bad decisions ruined rosters in Denver and kept the Broncos from winning more than one playoff game in the 10 years after his back-to-back Super Bowl titles. And it's not hard to look at the current Redskins roster and see the same mistakes. In a rebuilding so vast it didn't allow for many stumbles, he missed on several receivers, three quarterbacks, a handful of running backs and backups all over the field.
Yet he appears to have gotten one big thing right. He took the risk of trading three first-round draft picks and got RG III, and then he invented a variation of the old Baylor and current Redskins offense. He gave Griffin a freedom to run the offense that he might not have allowed many quarterbacks. And it worked. Griffin has been everything he was supposed to be.
Maybe this is what matters most. Perhaps this roster even with Orakpo, Carriker, Davis and Garcon wasn't going to be good enough to squeeze out a wild-card spot. Maybe quitting on the playoffs is the right thing. Give Griffin time. Let him feel the sting of losing. Let him long for something great.
Griffin is good. He is really good. There is not a quarterback in the league who has a better combination of speed and accuracy. It's not Griffin's fault his receivers keep dropping his passes. When things break down he can outrun any linebacker and most safeties. And the offense, with Griffin running it behind a competent line along with decent receivers, should still be difficult to stop. Teams will undoubtedly spend the winter coming up with answers for Griffin and the Redskins, but there are no solutions for speed and accuracy. As long as he can run and he can hit receivers, Griffin will be effective. Shanahan needs to get him the help.
No, Mike Shanahan has not been the savior. That private jet did not deliver a difference: just more false starts, more confusion, more upheaval. And yet there lives one hope in Washington, a hope that teases with promise. Shanahan has bought a future with RG III. Maybe Redskins fans need to hear that today. Another season looks lost but the fact Shanahan bet right with Griffin should give him these next few months to be the one who finally gets the Redskins back.
What other hope does Washington have?
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