2011 NFL preview

Shanahan’s Redskins are building a more solid foundation in Year 2

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post - “People say I look more relaxed,” Shanahan said. “Well, yeah.”

Command central for the Washington Redskins is the swiveling, burgundy chair in the center of Mike Shanahan’s office. Over Shanahan’s right shoulder sits one flat screen, on which he can flip from one meeting to another, from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan teaching a pass protection philosophy to defensive backs coach Bob Slowik reviewing a coverage, power points aplenty. Over his left shoulder sits another flat screen, on which he can watch each play from each practice session he oversaw this preseason. ¶ The images flickering on those two screens represent the Redskins’ present and future, the players and coaches who will make up Shanahan’s second team here, with real-time evaluations of how they’re performing.

But across Shanahan’s desk, on an opposite wall, hangs the Redskins’ immediate past, and in some ways it is just as instructive about the state of the franchise Shanahan inherited and the direction he intends to take it. Affixed to the wall is a board with the names of players who are no longer here. Some — center Casey Rabach and running back Clinton Portis among them — were mainstays from administrations past. Others — say, wide receiver Roydell Williams or nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu — were signed by Shanahan as stopgaps in 2010, but have since been cast aside.

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The Washington Post's Rick Maese joins the Post Sports Live crew to discuss Mike Shanahan's decision to start Rex Grossman over John Beck for the Redskins' season-opener against the Giants on Sunday.

The Washington Post's Rick Maese joins the Post Sports Live crew to discuss Mike Shanahan's decision to start Rex Grossman over John Beck for the Redskins' season-opener against the Giants on Sunday.

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The Post Sports Live crew offers predictions ranging from the Redskins' 2011 record to who will be the team's offensive and defensive MVPs.

The Post Sports Live crew offers predictions ranging from the Redskins' 2011 record to who will be the team's offensive and defensive MVPs.

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What remains is a roster most people outside the team’s Ashburn training facility figure will nestle into the bottom spot in the NFC East for the fourth year in a row. Yet what Shanahan sees on those two flat screens and that board across the room has him smiling, at ease.

“People say I look more relaxed,” Shanahan said. “Well, yeah.”

At this point last year, the foundation of the franchise Shanahan took over was in disarray, old and on the decline. Gone, now, are 26 players who started 280 games in 2009 and 2010. Of those released before Saturday’s final cuts, 10 were so close to the ends of their careers that they are not currently on NFL rosters. Shanahan has heard all the doubts about the roster he has assembled, and doesn’t much care. The difference between 2010, which yielded a 6-10 record that matched the worst of Shanahan’s 15 full seasons as a head coach and now is simple: These Redskins are Shanahan’s.

“When you go into that second year, and if for whatever reason these aren’t the players that you like or you want, it’s your fault,” Shanahan said last week. “. . . The majority of your football team better be based on the guys that you feel fit in your style — and they have what it takes to get to the next level.”

The stats about the Redskins’ level over the last dozen years are, by now, familiar: two winning seasons and two playoff appearances — and no division titles — since 1999. Only five other teams — Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville and expansion Houston (which started play in 2002), the dregs of the league — have failed to win a division championship in that time. So Shanahan’s task was and is complex — change a culture of losing, rein in a reputation for disarray, and alter the fortunes of a franchise that was once a model in the NFL but hasn’t been a consistent force in two decades.

“It takes a while to get everything the way you want it,” said Tony Dungy, the former coach in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis who now works as an analyst for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. “It’s probably going to be three or four years before everybody understands exactly what you want to do.”

Since Daniel M. Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, only one coach — Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, the winner of Washington’s three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s — has lasted more than two seasons. When Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls and made seven playoff appearances in 14 years coaching the Denver Broncos, considered becoming Snyder’s seventh coach, he said he had to be concerned about that record of turnover, a major factor in the franchise’s instability.

“Of course you are,” he said. “But that’s why I asked Dan: ‘Hey, if you want me, this is what I believe in, and if you don’t, then you probably shouldn’t hire me. This is the way I’m going to do things if you do hire me.’ ”

Shanahan’s plan: have the franchise ready to win consistently — “not one year great, the next year bad,” he said — by the third season.

“Obviously, that’s the way he wanted it,” Shanahan said of Snyder. Thus, the scorched earth at Redskins Park. But there is much work ahead.

* * *

The 2010 Redskins, should anyone choose to remember them, will be recalled for two characters: defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and quarterback Donovan McNabb, and the way Shanahan handled each. “More national news than you’d really want,” Shanahan said. Those story lines — Haynesworth repeatedly failed to pass a preseason conditioning test and was ultimately suspended for the final four games of the year, McNabb struggled in Shanahan’s system and was ultimately benched for the final three games — fit right in with the Redskins’ reputation as team turmoil.

“When you look . . . back throughout the years, there was a lot of dysfunction, a lot of changing of coaches and things like that,” said new defensive lineman Barry Cofield, who signed as a free agent from the rival New York Giants. “There was a lot of off-the-field news waves being made, things like that. I think that’s something that’s changed.”

It is, at the very least, changing. The Redskins’ story lines from this preseason were of the conventional sort: Who will start at quarterback, John Beck or Rex Grossman? There are, of course, personnel and strategic elements to Shanahan’s overhaul of the Redskins. But getting the focus on football, and only football, was every bit as difficult. Shanahan said that during this preseason camp not a single Redskin violated curfew, and only one player was late for a meeting or practice.

“Last year,” he said, “I had 50.”

The holdovers from previous regimes – there are only nine players who remain from Gibbs’s last team, in 2007 believe that represents a change in attitudes and actions.

“A lot of things around here was lax,” said veteran wide receiver Santana Moss, who is entering his 11th NFL season, the last seven with the Redskins. “. . . I can truly say that over the years, once you was out here practicing, some of the guys probably felt like they was here, that they made it. But with this staff, it’s not, ‘I’m going to come to work today, and I’ve made it.’ This staff is: you got to come to work today and show me that you deserve to be here every day. Every day you’re getting graded. Every day you’re getting watched.”

Haynesworth and McNabb were traded just before training camp. Running back Clinton Portis, he of the interesting costumes and occasionally more interesting ponderings, was released. The most controversial words from a Redskin during the five weeks of preseason likely came from Grossman, the journeyman quarterback. His crime: saying the Redskins would win the NFC East.

“There’s definitely a different feel, a different vibe,” said linebacker London Fletcher, the team’s emotional compass. “There’s not all that extra stuff that you have to deal with on a week-to-week basis as far as distractions that keep you away from being mentally focused for the opponent. . . . When you have different distractions that are within your own locker room, that definitely hurts.”

* * *

When Shanahan and his staff arrived in early 2010, their intention was to change the Redskins’ offense from a straight-ahead, power-blocking unit to one focused on a zone-blocking scheme, and to overhaul the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. That meant acquiring new players who fit the new philosophies and getting some versatile holdovers to adapt. But it also meant training the entire organization about what kind of players would be necessary.

“When we first got here, scouts were bringing up guys who didn’t really fit,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “ ‘How ’bout this guy?’ You’re like, ‘No, no.’ You need a certain guy at outside linebacker. You need a certain guy at end. You’re looking for a certain kind of nose tackle. . . .

“I think the big thing now is everybody in the building understands what we’re looking for to fit the defense — and the offense. I think the scouts have a way better understanding. Last year, I don’t know who did.”

A year ago, with Haynesworth refusing to play nose tackle and players such as Andre Carter — a traditional 4-3 defensive end who moved to outside linebacker in the 3-4 — playing out of position, the Redskins ranked next-to-last in the league in yards allowed. Offensively, with Mike and Kyle Shanahan, the head coach’s son, unable to get McNabb to excel in their offense, they averaged fewer than 19 points per game, 25th in the league. Even though the defense held opponents to 17 points or fewer nine times — “You should go 9-0 in those games,” Mike Shanahan said — the fact that several players, on both sides of the ball, didn’t fit what the Redskins were trying to do led to just the fourth losing season in Shanahan’s 16 full campaigns as a head coach.

So part of Shanahan’s first season, and part of the team’s transformation, involved evaluating both the players on hand and those who might become available in the offseason. When the Redskins signed, for instance, Cofield and Stephen Bowen, two badly needed defensive linemen, Shanahan had watched every snap they played the previous season.

“When I bring a guy in here,” Shanahan said, “I know they’re going to fit.”

That might sound like bravado, and it may be. Still, there was a sense during training camp — among players and coaches, if not outside the building — that the players still here, and those brought in, fit quite nicely. The dire prognostications — ESPN The Magazine predicted they’ll go 3-13, The Sporting News 2-14, and one Las Vegas sports book had only Carolina and Buffalo with longer odds to win the Super Bowl — don’t matter in Ashburn.

Tight end Chris Cooley has spent all eight of his NFL seasons as a Redskin, but this is his fourth offensive system. “We’re at another level in terms of what kinds of improvements we’re trying to make as a team as opposed to the last few years or before,” Cooley said. “. . . It’s the first time that I’ve been part of an offense where I thought, ‘We’re not just learning this offense. We’re going to start to perfect this offense. We’re going to start to grow this offense.’ ”

That, Cooley said, gives him an entirely different sense as the Redskins prepare to host the New York Giants on Sunday, the third time in four years they’ll open the season against the Giants.

“This will be the first time I go into the game saying, ‘I feel like I know what’s going to happen this week,’ ” Cooley said. “We’re not going into New York thinking, ‘Are we good? Or are we not?’ I feel like I know we’re a good football team.”

Very few people not wearing burgundy and gold would agree with that assessment. Shanahan, sitting in command central — with all his evaluation tools at his fingertips — does.

“If you don’t feel good about your guys going into your second year, then you’re in trouble,” he said. “Not to say that you’ve arrived, but you better feel good about your guys.”

A quiet training camp has now closed. The preseason prognostications are all in. And the Redskins find themselves in a most unusual spot: Nodding quietly to each other, comfortable not only with where they are, but where they’re headed.

“In the past, you could sense that some people just wasn’t fond of what was going on,” Moss said. “It showed in us playing. It showed in attitude. Now, here, the attitude is, ‘Hey man, we can win.’ You hear more about winning than you hear about anything else.”

 
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