December 11, 2013

The most compelling power struggle these days in Washington is not taking place be in offices on Capitol Hill or in the halls of the White House, but rather about 25 miles west in the offices at Redskins Park. For those of you who haven’t tuned in, the current fight between Coach Mike Shanahan and owner Dan Snyder has the intrigue of the best political drama, like “House of Cards.” Leaks designed to undermine your opponent and win the PR battle, kabuki-style press conferences not to answer questions but to deliver messages, lots of money and huge egos in a death match; the best show in town.

Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

To set the scene: Dan Snyder is the widely reviled team owner who has turned the “once-proud Redskins” franchise (sportswriters have that phrase on auto-key, along with “renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews”) into an off-field soap opera and an on-field comedy or tragedy, depending on your fandom. Mike Shanahan is the “beet-faced” head coach, who won two Super Bowls with John Elway in his career twilight and arrived four years ago in Washington as the latest fix for the franchise.

But like promising political messiahs who have foundered in Washington’s swamps, the gridiron under Snyder’s team has proven unstable for football saviors, wrecking the knee of a star quarterback and tarnishing the reputations of elite coaches: Marty Schottenheimer and even the (auto-key) “beloved Joe Gibbs.”

The arc of Redskins’ failure is familiar: A fanfare coaching hire (seven in the 14 long winters of the Snyder reign); off-season drama and hype (hype being Snyder’s one professional skill) to mask the disappointment and boredom of the season; bitter recriminations; and a firing to complete the cycle.

We are now in the penultimate act of the latest Redskins’ melodrama: the show-down, the moment when the knives are pulled and violence is nigh. While we know how it will end (Dan Snyder is the author and protagonist after all), this particular Redskins play is interesting for the tough crudeness of the antagonist, Mike Shanahan, and the presence of a new and confused prince, Robert Griffin III, whose affections and attentions the two rivals seek.

As a Division II college quarterback, Mike Shanahan was once hit so hard it split one of his kidneys in two and stopped his heart. So he knows how to survive a hit, and we know from the last few days, he knows how to deliver one, too.

Hours before the season was to hit a new low with a 45-10 loss to Kansas City in front of the smallest home crowd of Snyder’s tenure, a story appeared on ESPN not only with Shanahan’s DNA and fingerprints all over it, but with his business card left at the crime scene. “Anonymous” sources were cited saying that Shanahan considered quitting after last year’s only successful season because Dan Snyder’s desire not only to own a football team, but to have some of its  players be his buddy, specifically his prized new quarterback, was hurting the franchise.

Those who appreciate subtlety and stealth in the PR aspect of negotiations were appalled by how clumsily Shanahan stuck the knife in his boss’s back. Within hours, other reports noted that Shanahan or his agents had to be the source for the story, and that his obvious motive was to maintain his reputation by casting blame on the hapless and blame-worthy Snyder, the easiest of targets. But there is another explanation of Shanahan’s purpose. As is often the case in Washington, following the money leads to the truth.

Shanahan may care about his reputation, but he also presumably cares about the $7 million left on his $35 million contract. It is not just the monetary value he wants; it’s another way of keeping score and inflicting a little pain on the way out the door. To get a coach even of Shanahan’s diminished stature, Snyder had to lard his contract with guarantees that payment in full would be rendered in the event of a firing. These guarantees are rumored to include clauses not only giving Shanahan full control of “football operations,” but allowing him to quit and receive full contract value in the event Snyder meddles in those operations, as he has done repeatedly in the past. This is the pattern that Shanahan alleges is continuing as Snyder and Griffin have a bond that supersedes his with the quarterback.

Shanahan seems to be trying to provoke the owner into firing him. He not only let it be known he almost had to quit last year (adding the self-serving detail that he only came back because he didn’t want to run out on (auto-key) “RGIII’s gruesome knee injury,” an injury many blame him for) but taunted Snyder the next day by saying he might bench Griffin to make sure he’s fresh for next season and that he would only play the current 3-10 lineup, thus guaranteeing we will learn nothing about the potential of new starters for next year.

But give credit to the Redskins owner. Like Kevin Spacey’s character, he’s learning that revenge is best served cold. So far, he has stayed publicly placid, even generating something he’s never experienced: some good press. Perhaps he’s laying the groundwork to do what the best political dramatists aspire to: become a winning and sympathetic symbol of power even as he retracts the bloody knife.