Mike Shanahan hasn’t solved Washington Redskins’ problems during uneven tenure

December 28, 2013

Four years ago next week, Mike Shanahan sat in an office at Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s estate in Potomac and signed a five-year contract to become the team’s new head coach — a contract that implied more than a $7 million annual salary. Shanahan would be granted full control over the Redskins’ football operations.

Desperate for a change — Washington had finished a 4-12 season two days earlier — Snyder decided to hand the keys to his baby to a man he for years had wanted to lead his team. “Nothing but optimism,” recalled one of the four people who joined Snyder and Shanahan at a celebratory dinner that evening at The Palm, an upscale restaurant in Tysons Corner.

As the Redskins prepare to conclude their 2013 season, the optimism of that Jan. 5, 2010, night is gone. Snyder and Shanahan are deeply divided, and people in and around the organization are increasingly convinced that the two will part ways shortly after Sunday’s game. The team remains in ruin, and perhaps at Shanahan’s feet is greater destruction than what came before him. The roster needs an overhaul. There are suspicions inside the organization that Shanahan’s son, Kyle, the offensive coordinator, is empowered because of his father and has used it to his advantage. The team’s franchise quarterback, Robert Griffin III, was injured last year and deactivated this year. Fans and outsiders again see a franchise in turmoil.

There is no single reason that can explain the team’s collapse under Shanahan, who on Sunday enters his 64th regular season game as Redskins coach with a combined record of 24-39. This story is based on interviews with nearly 20 people inside the Redskins organization or close to it, who insisted on anonymity so they could speak more freely about the problems bedeviling the franchise. They suggest a root cause for the downfall lies with the very power Shanahan insisted on and Snyder granted him four years ago.

Shanahan, like many football coaches, puts high value on the control he has over his team. But he seemed to become more protective of his authority — and Snyder’s role — particularly after Griffin’s emergence last season. Before Shanahan’s arrival, the owner had a reputation for meddling in the team’s football operations and befriending team stars — practices Shanahan was determined to end. As a result, though Snyder granted him all the authority he wanted, the mere perception it was slipping away repeatedly caused Shanahan to go on the offensive to seize it back — never more so than this season, when media leaks and organizational discord have defined the team even more than its 3-12 record.

The push and pull helped to poison Shanahan’s relationship with Griffin, the team’s most important player, and ultimately, with Snyder himself.

“It’s an embarrassment,” said one former employee with intimate knowledge of the coaching staff. “And if Dan lets it go on, he’s at fault, too.”

Responding to interview requests for this story, Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie said Snyder and General Manager Bruce Allen do not conduct interviews during the season. Shanahan did not reply to multiple attempts to reach him for additional comment.

In January 2010, after 11 years of ownership and six coaches presiding over one of the National Football League’s most turbulent franchises, Snyder believed he had finally found his dream coach. Snyder had been recruiting Shanahan since at least 2008, when immediately after one particularly unsightly loss he flew with team executives on his private jet to Denver to court the out-of-work coach.

When Snyder fired Jim Zorn the following year, Shanahan was his man. Other teams could offer a similarly lucrative contract, but Snyder promised to allow Shanahan to run the team as he saw fit. Snyder would stay out of day-to-day decisions on personnel and keep his distance from star players. He looked the other way when Shanahan hired his son as offensive coordinator. And he promised time for Shanahan to rebuild his team and its reputation.

“One thing I told Dan Snyder was: ‘If you don’t plan on me being here for five years to do this the right way,” Shanahan said in 2011, “then you shouldn’t hire Mike Shanahan.”

Shanahan’s way is only way

A few months after Shanahan was hired, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth entered the coach’s office to talk about his role in Washington’s new defense. Shanahan wanted to change the scheme from its customary 4-3 to a 3-4, an alignment that requires three linemen and four linebackers. He did so even though the team’s personnel didn’t fit the new system and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had little experience running it.

Haynesworth’s concern was that moving to nose tackle — the middle position among the three down linemen — would limit his statistics, particularly sacking the quarterback, wasting the talents of a player Snyder had signed to a contract in 2009 guaranteeing him $41 million, at the time an NFL record. Shanahan wouldn’t budge, and because this was what his new coach wanted, Snyder — who had formed an early relationship with his big-money defensive lineman — backed his coach.

As training camp began in 2010, the coach wanted to make an example of Haynesworth. He put the 350-pound tackle through a daily conditioning test. Haynesworth continually failed, sparking a battle of wills between the two that lasted the rest of the season. Haynesworth was gone the following year, taking with him approximately $35 million.

The less-remarked upon story at the time, though, was that Snyder had supported Shanahan despite the cost and embarrassment of the Haynesworth signing. It set the tone for the two strongheaded men’s relationship, in which Snyder largely complied with Shanahan’s requests, large and small. When the coach asked for an indoor practice bubble at Redskins Park, it was built and opened in 2012. When Shanahan wanted training camp moved away from Ashburn, the team relocated it to Richmond in 2013. Shanahan asked for better accommodations on road trips, for earlier departures for games on the West Coast and for improved food at the team’s headquarters — and in each case, the answer was yes.

In return, Shanahan indulged Snyder’s desire to add a big name. Shortly after Shanahan took over, the idea of trading for Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb came up. Shanahan was hesitant, though the team clearly needed a quarterback. But his son, Kyle, openly didn’t like the idea, according to multiple members of the coaching staff. He believed McNabb’s footwork and mechanics were sloppy and, at 33 years old, that his speed was diminishing.

Shanahan, with Snyder’s support, decided to give McNabb a chance — at the discount price of a second-round draft pick and a conditional pick the following year. The team finalized the trade in April 2010. Almost immediately, Kyle Shanahan clashed with the new quarterback. The coordinator, a bright coach with a strong offensive mind, was three years younger than McNabb, and he insisted that McNabb run his offense, which under Kyle’s direction in Houston the previous year had led the league in passing. McNabb resisted.

After one meeting in which Kyle Shanahan criticized McNabb in front of teammates, a Redskins player recalled, the quarterback pulled his coordinator aside, warning him to never speak to him that way again. McNabb started 13 games that season, but with three games left, he was benched in favor of Rex Grossman, who had played for Kyle Shanahan in Houston. McNabb finished his only season in Washington as the team’s third-stringer; seven months later, he was traded to Minnesota.

After the drama surrounding Haynesworth and McNabb was finished, the message was clear: The Shanahans were in charge, and challenging their authority had consequences.

“He set a standard,” defensive lineman Kedric Golston, who has been with the team since before Mike Shanahan took over, said of the head coach. “If you wanted to be a part of his standard and do it his way, then you stayed here.”

Father-son is a problem

Not long after the Shanahans arrived, alliances formed on the coaching staff — fueled by a perception that Mike Shanahan would look out for his son’s interests before those of other coaches.

Indeed, Shanahan’s first draft choice (offensive tackle Trent Williams in 2010), biggest free agent signing (wide receiver Pierre Garcon in 2012) and biggest move (the trade to move up in the 2012 draft to select Griffin) all benefited the offense.

“If Mike has several million to spend, do you think he is going to help build the defensive coordinator’s unit or give that money to his kid?” said one team official familiar with the roster’s salary structure.

Kyle Shanahan, now 34, has bristled at the suggestion that his rise has come because of his father; in fact, he joined his dad in Washington only after making a name as an offensive innovator with other teams. Still, Shanahan has mostly allowed his son to craft the offense as he saw fit, watching offensive meetings sometimes on a closed-circuit video feed and approving Kyle’s game plan but rarely making broad changes.

This wasn’t the case for the defense. Shanahan, in his second year into the job, began sitting in on coaches’ defensive meetings. According to a former coach, staff members stormed out several times, furious after Shanahan had changed that week’s defensive game plan.

Haslett, the defensive coordinator and a former NFL head coach, also had part of his play-calling duties on the defense usurped by Shanahan, according to two coaches and a veteran player.

One of Shanahan’s first calls came in September 2011, during a game at Dallas. With the Cowboys on their own 30 with 2 minutes 20 seconds to play, Shanahan called an all-out blitz — “Cover-0,” as it is known — and it backfired, resulting in Dallas quarterback Tony Romo finding wide receiver Dez Bryant for a 30-yard gain. Dallas eventually kicked a field goal for an 18-16 victory, and Haslett was left to shoulder the blame.

Not all in for RGIII

For the second time in 26 months, the celebration was on. Snyder, Shanahan and Allen, the team’s general manager, traveled to the Bahamas a month before the 2012 NFL draft, traveling on the owner’s plane and spending a March weekend playing golf. Two years after Snyder got his coach, the Redskins had just orchestrated a trade with the St. Louis Rams to move up four spots in the draft, where they would select Griffin at No. 2 overall.

Shanahan had concerns that Griffin had no experience in a pro-style offense and with the number of draft picks it would take to move up from the draft’s sixth slot to get him, a team official said. But Snyder was sold. Griffin had won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor in 2011, and he was young and black, charismatic and bright, exciting and polished — the perfect fit for Washington and the new Redskins. For Snyder, a lifelong Redskins fan who had grown up to buy the team as a marketing man, Griffin was a dream — and he made no secret of his wishes, according to a team official.

Shanahan, knowing he needed a quarterback, relented. Washington sent three first-round picks and one second-rounder to St. Louis, sealing a deal to move past other clubs searching for a team-altering quarterback. The Redskins again would have their man, this time at the game’s most important position.

When the team made the draft pick official and Griffin took the stage at Radio City Music Hall that April, holding a Redskins jersey and wearing burgundy socks, Shanahan vowed to protect him at any cost. Shanahan had coached John Elway in Denver, and he had watched as media continually questioned the quarterback for not winning the Super Bowl. Shanahan believed that it took years of coaching to rebuild Elway’s confidence, which finally allowed the Broncos to win consecutive championships at the end of the 1990s. “A daily battle with the TV guys, the talk shows and the newspapers, ‘Yeah, you can get us there, but can you win the big one?’ ” Shanahan recalled in 2011.

So when Griffin arrived at Redskins Park, Shanahan immediately put limits on who could even speak to the rookie. Only Shanahan, his son and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur could contact Griffin to discuss football. Shanahan limited his media availability to once during the week — two fewer times than Griffin faced reporters as a junior at Baylor — and after games. Kyle Shanahan stood on a balcony and timed Griffin’s Wednesday news conferences; if the meeting surpassed 10 minutes, the coordinator complained to Wyllie, the team’s communications director. Requests for one-on-one interviews were declined even if Griffin was willing, and if a reporter wandered too close to Griffin’s locker, it was common for Wyllie to interrupt the chat.

Even Griffin himself rolled his eyes, occasionally telling reporters to quiet their laughter, lest Wyllie hear it and, following instructions, end the jocularity.

Valleys among the peaks

But when the 2012 season started, Griffin’s parents began to question privately Shanahan’s desire to protect his quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 217-pound Griffin was hit often during the Redskins’ home opener against Cincinnati, and Kyle Shanahan kept calling zone-read plays — in which the quarterback had the option of running with the ball or handing it off. The plays effectively used Griffin’s speed and evasiveness as a ball carrier, but his parents let it be known they believed they put him in unnecessary danger.

A month later, family members were specifically irked when Griffin ran a receiving route as part of a trick play — and was leveled by Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark. To further rouse suspicions, Griffin said during one of his Wednesday news conferences that no one had bothered to tell him — before he had played two regular-season games — that an NFL rule allowed defenders to hit a quarterback without the ball if he was carrying out a fake.

After nine games, though, the Redskins and Griffin hit their stride. In one way, the problem for Griffin was that the zone read was working. The rookie quarterback was seen as a game-changer. Kyle Shanahan was called an offensive genius who was hearing whispers about being a head coach. And Mike Shanahan’s plan — that gritty determination and doing things his way — was paying off in the name of seven consecutive wins to end the season and an unlikely NFC East championship.

As the mania was peaking, Snyder could hold himself back no longer. He had kept his distance from players under Shanahan, but after a win in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, Griffin remained in Texas, where he had grown up. He shared the holiday meal with his family, as well as Snyder and his wife, Tanya. Whether or not occasions like this were innocent, they were enough to get Shanahan’s attention.

Two and a half weeks later, Griffin injured his right knee in a win against the Baltimore Ravens, forcing Shanahan to sideline him the following week. When Griffin returned Dec. 23 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Shanahan watched a clearly hobbled Griffin return to the sideline. Shanahan told his quarterback he was considering pulling him from the game. According to a member of the coaching staff, Griffin looked at Shanahan and replied that he either believed in him or he didn’t. Interpreting the words as a warning that his long-term relationship with the quarterback could be in jeopardy, a team official said, Shanahan called a running play to test Griffin. The quarterback ran the play to Shanahan’s satisfaction, and the coach left him in the game.

Two weeks later, according to a person familiar with the discussion, the Shanahans sat with Griffin before Washington’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks and went over plays they would and wouldn’t use. The men agreed to leave the zone read mostly out of the game plan, relying more on Griffin’s passing, according to this account. But when the offense took the field, Kyle Shanahan called one zone-read play, then another.

The play-calling deeply affected Griffin’s trust in the Shanahans, according to one person in the quarterback’s camp.

Griffin appeared to aggravate his knee injury in the first half, and Shanahan said earlier this month he had wanted to remove Griffin from the game. Instead, Griffin again talked his coach into allowing him to remain in the game, and James Andrews, the team orthopedist, said there was no medical reason to remove him.

“I could have kicked myself in the rear end because my gut was — even though the doctor said, ‘Hey, he was fine. It was all stable. Hey, you don’t have to worry.’ Robert said it was fine — I knew in my gut. I watched him. I said: ‘Hey, that’s what I should have done,’ because I did see it,” Shanahan recalled.

With 6:19 left in the fourth quarter of a game that was tilting in Seattle’s favor, Shanahan and the FedEx Field crowd watched as Griffin tried to corral a bad snap, planting on his weakened right knee and crumbling to the turf as a ligament snapped.

It was an image that would define the next seven months.

An ugly downward spiral

Shanahan realized before training camp began in 2013 that he had a problem, according to a member of the coaching staff. Griffin had lost faith in his coaches, and Snyder seemed to be growing closer with Shanahan’s quarterback.

During the offseason, they attended the Hollywood premiere of the movie “Oblivion,” dined occasionally in Georgetown and went to a party at the French ambassador’s residence following the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Three years after Snyder dined and drank with Shanahan, it was now Griffin flanking the owner.

Perhaps more symbolic, when Griffin underwent reconstructive knee surgery after damaging his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in January, Snyder was at Griffin’s side. Shanahan visited only after the procedure, and the visit was brief, which the quarterback took notice of, a person close to Griffin recalled.

As the months passed, Griffin and Shanahan traded barbs, many of which were delivered through the media. Shortly after a peacemaking discussion between Griffin and the Shanahans, the head coach told reporters at the NFL owners meetings that Griffin needed to learn to slide to protect himself and avoid being hit. Angered, Griffin sent a text message to ESPN anchorman Trey Wingo, with one part standing out: “My first NFL season and my injury that ended it showed me a lot about the league, my team and myself. [I] know where my responsibility is within the dilemma that led to me having surgery to repair my knee and all parties involved know their responsibilities as well.”

Entering the season, those close to Shanahan thought the coach felt forced to play Griffin, healthy or not, the team’s best option or not, because if he didn’t, they said, the perception around Redskins Park was that Griffin would demand changes. An offseason promotional campaign Griffin did for Adidas, built around the slogan “All In for Week 1,” added to the pressure on the coach.

Shanahan was losing control of his most important player, and he responded the way he had years earlier: by reasserting his authority. After Andrews cleared Griffin to practice during training camp, Shanahan preferred to wait; he held his own workout for the quarterback before granting clearance and beginning a slow return to practice. Shanahan said he was being cautious; Griffin believed it was a power move, according to two people in the Redskins organization.

“That’s my job, not to necessarily do what he likes but to do what’s the best thing for him and this organization,” Shanahan said.

More than four months later, with Washington’s record at 3-9 and Shanahan’s job security under fire, a gameday morning began with an ESPN report suggesting Shanahan had been displeased with Snyder’s relationship with Griffin and had considered quitting after the 2012 season. Members of the Redskins organization felt they had given Shanahan everything he wanted, and people close to Snyder said the owner was angered and bewildered by the story, which came just hours before the team played the Kansas City Chiefs.

Shanahan has yet to deny the report’s details, and an assistant coach who said he confronted Shanahan about it said Shanahan told him he had, in fact, considered stepping down — though he had given no indication to the other 20 or so members of his staff.

The reports kept coming, a new one surfacing almost each Sunday, with those inside and outside the organization suspecting that Shanahan was behind the leaks. The coach denied he was their source. “I can’t do anything about those reports,” he said. “I can guess where they come from. . . . A lot of things do come out, it’s part of this business, but you’ve got to be tough enough to work through it.”

Three days after the Kansas City game, Shanahan benched Griffin, saying he was doing so to protect the young quarterback from injury during the final games of a lost season. Griffin visibly bristled at the decision. Snyder has yet to comment.

Last Sunday, as the Redskins ended their home schedule, Griffin stood on the FedEx Field sideline in warmup apparel. Afterward, the locker room was quiet, and players began looking toward an uncertain future.

“Every year is a new year,” said Golston, the defensive lineman. “Every day is a new day in this business.”

Unlike in that restaurant four years ago, there were no smiles or cheers. On this day and in this room, there was only regret.

Staff writers Mike Jones, Jason Reid, Liz Clarke, Dave Sheinin and Mike Wise contributed to this report.

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