Is Mike Shanahan or Daniel Snyder to blame? Washington doesn’t deserve either of them

The Post's Mike Jones says Dan Snyder has decisions to make regarding Mike Shanahan's future, but Art Briles is not the answer. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist December 8, 2013

When the two-minute warning was announced Sunday, the fans remaining at FedEx Field — and there could not have been more than 1,500 left — let out a sarcastic mock cheer as the scoreboard, seen through a light drizzle and snow, proclaimed the true state of the sickly home franchise: Kansas City 45, Washington 10.

And so another year for the Washington unprofessional football team of the Daniel Snyder era is ending with its season in chaos and controversy — drenched in mortification, chained with a 3-10 record — long before the last games of its season were played.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Who deserves more blame, Mike Shanahan, the weasel of a coach who defames his enemies, deflects blame and now may duck out of town if he gets the firing he craves? Or Snyder, the man who picked Shanahan, his seventh coach in 14 years, while all around the NFL old hands said, “If this ends badly, those two guys really deserve each other.”

Monday’s chat: Boswell’s archived Q&A

Maybe this is the bottom for a team that can’t even get its name right. You can hope. But you have deep doubts. The pattern repeats, though the characters change. Only the sadness, the futility, mixed with the smoldering embers of outrage, remains.

Yes, it’s happened again. Now it’s the Shanahan era, once trumpeted, now down in flames, that takes its place in the line — for bitterness, for ugly endings and for the endless blame game that always accompanies Snyder’s flops — with the departures of Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn.

Because of Shanahan’s well-known gift for NFL street fighting — he’s already shown his gift at bloodying the reputations of enemies like Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb — this may be the most damaging of all the Snyder-coach exoduses.

Shanahan, it now seems apparent, wants to be fired. His motives can be ascertained in the future. But his targets as he leaves we probably already know: Snyder, the easy-but-always-deserving target, and Robert Griffin III, the quarterback to whom the franchise future is tied. Last season, Shanahan left RGIII in far too long against Seattle and contributed to a knee injury that may limit the ceiling on his whole career. What psychological scars and damage to reputation will he leave now as he departs?

For the third straight week, a controversial story broke hours before Washington was to play. The pattern, the timing and Shanahan’s postgame refusal to address the source of those stories have all led team insiders to believe that Shanahan or his supporters have planted the leaks to make him look less bad as he tries to get out of town before an awful team, that fell behind 31-0 in the first half, ruins what is left of his once (but no longer) formidable NFL reputation.

This time, ESPN reported Shanahan was ready to quit and had cleaned out his office before last year’s playoff game against Seattle because he was so upset at Snyder’s preferential treatment of RGIII, including the use on occasion of his “security guard.” The story also said something about RGIII’s fiance using the owner’s limo.

So we’re supposed to believe that, after a 7-0 run led by Griffin that resurrected Shanny’s frayed reputation, the coach was fuming about limos and security guards? That would mean Shanahan had the NFL’s most fragile, most easily threatened ego. Or he feared any locus of team authority not centered in himself. If true, that would even open the possibility that a simmering, disgruntled Shanahan “ready to quit” would perhaps subconsciously leave RGIII in that Seattle game too long. Wishing him harm? Oh, surely not — at least consciously.

Perhaps these are perverse lines of argument, foolish on the surface but even thornier underneath, that Shanahan himself would be wise to quash. Was he really that threatened and angry with a rookie who’d saved his season after he’d publicly quit on his team at 3-6? Was he dissatisfied — to the office-clearing point — with a quarterback who begged to play, even after he was hurt? Seriously, does any rational being think Shanahan had any cause for anger at RGIII last season?

No, the anger, the threat to his authority, the damage to the Shanahan legacy, has all come after the RGIII injury — an injury still more often laid at Shanny’s feet than anyone else’s. What we have here is backstabbing, self-aggrandizing Shanahan revisionist history, as well as some curiously timed water-carrying on Sundays that infuriates and unsettles the franchise.

If RGIII doesn’t sense the range of dangers in the NFL now, he never will. The blind-side hits don’t only come on the field. Asked about the pregame reports that his coach was disgusted by his buddy-buddy relationship with the owner, Griffin said, “I didn’t hear about it. and I hope no one heard about that because I wouldn’t want that to be what happened out on the field today. . . . It’s pretty crazy . . . Is it calculated? I don’t know. . . .

“That’s not what the game is about. Constantly, I come to these press conferences and get asked questions about non-football things,” Griffin added. “I’m getting frustrated. I’m trying to hold it back. Some things are allowed to happen. We can cut a lot of it out and it’s not being cut out. It’s very unfortunate. That’s all I can say and all I will say.”

In the Great Snyder Depression, there have been many low points. He fired Schottenheimer in part because he just didn’t like him, even though he’d won eight of his last 11 games. Then he hired Spurrier, who lasted only two years, then phoned in his resignation from a golf course. Some thought that the bottom was when the only human Snyder and his pet general manager, Vinny Cerrato, could get as head coach was a position coach, Zorn, who thought the teams colors were maroon and black.

But none of that, apparently, was the true and absolute bottom. Out-of-work Kremlinologists who now study Ashburn, Va., will someday determine whether Shanahan really wants to be fired so he can get the first shot at the open Houston coaching job and take his son, Kyle, a successful offensive coordinator there in ’09-10, with him to a safe harbor and, perhaps, a No. 1 overall draft pick. After all, the Texans are the only team in the NFL with a worse record than Washington. Or maybe “fired” ensures him more of the $7 million for ’14 that he’s owed, whereas “I quit” squanders it.

Perhaps there is some other explanation of recent events, though none comes to mind unless Martians are involved.

Less than a year after Washington won the NFC East, the coach refuses to answer any question that doesn’t suit him, says he didn’t have the team “prepared to play” (code for there’s your reason to fire me, Dan) and won’t shoot down reports he’s furious about his 23-year-old quarterback’s close relationship with his football-know-nothing owner.

At first, you want to laugh, in self-defense, perhaps: a weasel, a skunk and a peacock come into a bar . . . oh, sorry, that’s just Mike, Dan and Robert.

Then you wonder, after a 74-yard punt return and a 95-yard kickoff return by Kansas City, what marvels the Washington special teams still have in store.

FedEx Field empties before halftime, with the score 31-0 after 20 minutes, the crowd so sparse by the end that you could count the house.

When the head coach, red in the face, defiant, is virtually holding a “Fire Me, I Dare Ya” sign at his own news conference, the mood of the day changes.

You can only laugh to keep from crying for so long. Shanahan and Snyder may deserve each other. But Washington doesn’t deserve either of them. Even if this team’s fans are loony with adoration at times, they merit far better than an inept owner and a coach who wants to undermine the reputation of the team’s quarterback as he slinks out the door with his loot.

Unfortunately, no solution immediately presents itself, any more than it has for the past 14 repetitively excruciating seasons.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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