A Washington rise and fall for Mike Shanahan

December 30, 2013

There was something very Washington about Mike Shanahan’s demise as coach of the Washington Redskins. In fact, there was almost everything Washington about it. Like any pol or president, Shanahan’s rise and fall tracked the many acts of the classic Washington tragedy:

Prologue: The brave new dawn

Every would-be Washington miracle worker arrives amid grossly inflated expectations. The Wall Street hotshot with the magic budget-deficit fix. The fresh new face at Housing and Urban Development or Health and Human Services. The young president promising a new start/new frontier/chicken in every pot/full employment/affordable, easy-to-get health insurance.

Same with Shanny. After suffering through a 4-12 season in 2009 under Jim Zorn, the not-ready-for-his-headset head coach, Redskins owner Dan Snyder secretly flew to Denver to talk the great wise coach out of his bat cave and into a five-year contract in Ashburn.

The headlines roared: Victory in our time!

Act One: The big embrace

All the doors to our city open wide to your dewy new promise — from the glad-handing gantlet of smiling power brokers (senators to sports owners to publishers) to the party/restaurant invites to comped seats to any big event in town. You are the new show pony, and everyone wants to say they’ve seen/met/advised you — or put you on retainer. Table for 12 at Cafe Milano? Oh, but of course!

Washington Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan has been fired after four seasons with the team. The seventh head coach under owner Daniel Snyder departs with one division title and one playoff appearance, a loss. The Post's Redskins and NFL editor Keith McMillan offers the five best and worst moments of Shanahan's tenure. (Tom LeGro and Keith McMillan/The Washington Post)
Act Two: The tough early going

Uh-oh.

Campaign promises turn out to be like pre-season expectations: easier said than done. A few head-butts in Congress, or in the NFC East, can change the tune fast. The altered-expectations phase is usually signaled by someone of prominence uttering the phrase: “It’s very difficult to change the culture of Washington” and/or “Any of these teams can beat you on a given day.”

The first hiccup of criticism burbles up after the first boneheaded call. The news media and Twitter love a good I-told-you-so moment. The Redskins improved to a mere 6-10 during Shanahan’s first year (50 percent more wins!) and to an even mere-er 5-11 in his second season.

Didn’t we tell you he was over the hill/unelectable/prone to “gaffes”/a false prophet?

Act Three: Stay the course

But wait! Sure, it looks bad for our guy now, but there’s an explanation. Something about a quarterback who never learned the brilliant offensive schemes; something about salary-cap penalties (don’t ask; too complicated, like “health-care exchanges”). And so the push-back against the push-back begins. Trust us: The ship of state, and its captain, are perfectly sound.

Act Four: False euphoria

A few bold moves and/or minor victories — replacing the chief of staff, passing the Farm Bill, trading up for the second pick in the draft — bring a surprising, albeit temporary reprieve to the bad-news cycle. Politico starts writing unsourced stories about how so-and-so has his “mojo” back. Sports-talk radio callers start singing so-and-so’s praises again. Delusions of competence ensue. The hotshot really does seem to be a miracle worker. The team wins the week. And the month. And the division.

If only we knew what really was going on . . .

The number of NFL coaches and their total wins, by team, since 1999
Act Five: The reckoning

All of the weaknesses that have been kept under a lid — the ego dramas, the staff infighting, the general managerial incompetence — can no longer be contained. Soon, disaster is no longer theoretical or even imminent; it is evident, even to the talking heads and sports-talk radio callers. Your career is the moral equivalent of 3-13. Table at Cafe Milano? I’m sorry; we seem to be all full.

Leading to . . .

Act Six: The blame game

It’s not your fault, of course. Never was. Not with all the bad advice/owner meddling/extraordinary events such as the economy tanking/special teams play. Thus starts the vicious end-phase, with its dueling leaks to favored news outlets (please specify your preference when leaking: “sources familiar with the matter” or “senior officials with knowledge of the situation”), along with silence or worse, a tepid vote of confidence from the boss.

At this point, it’s a given that the man in the crosshairs will spend more time managing his “narrative” than managing whatever he’s in charge of managing.

But don’t kid yourself: Barring a miracle, or a really good performance on “Meet the Press,” all is almost lost. You’re about to begin . . .

Act Seven: Dead man walking

It’s over. But not entirely over. You still have to finish out the term even though everyone knows you’re going to take the fall at the appropriate juncture. Now’s the time to line up an MSNBC or Fox News gig, a book deal, a foundation, a political action committee, or an offensive-coordinator job at a Division III program.

Act Eight: The send-off

This phase is highlighted by the brave and charitable (but really slightly bitter and self-justifying) farewell speech.

In his brief and emotionless goodbye on Monday, Shanahan thanked the fans, the news media, his players and “Dan.” He blamed salary-cap penalties for hobbling his four-year term, even though the team both won and lost under the penalty regime. And he offered a Reagan-esque coda: “I believe we’re in at least a situation that we’re better off today than we were four years ago.”

Act Nine: The ones who got away

Having sacrificed one of their own to appease the gods/the media/the fans/the owner/the voters, the survivors busy themselves with the job of distancing themselves from the dearly departed. In public, everyone will wish What’s-his-name well. Privately, they will begin lobbying for his parking space and perks almost immediately.

Soon it will be Election Day, or Opening Day, and the cycle can begin anew.

Act Ten: Nostalgia

So much time passes, and Washington’s newest celebrity savior begins to bungle so badly that everyone remembers the previous flameout with a certain fond nostalgia. Where have you gone, Richie Petitbon?

Epilogue: Settling scores

At a certain unpredictable point, just when all the unpleasantness seems to have been forgotten, a series of score-settling books will hover into view. Each will add at least one startling (and extremely uncheckable) revelation to the well-told tale, but all will be memorable primarily for their ax-grinding and petulant self-justification.

Gentlemen, start your ghostwriters.

Michael Cavna and Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this report.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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