Mike Shanahan will close his 28th season as a coach in the NFL on Sunday, when his Washington Redskins play what is essentially a meaningless game in Philadelphia. And though he has seen almost everything in pro football — he has been hired and fired, made and missed the playoffs, won and lost the Super Bowl — he has never faced the circumstances he does now. Whatever happens against the Eagles, Shanahan will have back-to-back losing campaigns for the first time in his 17 full seasons as a head coach.
For the Redskins, who haven’t had consecutive winning seasons since 1991-92, such is life. But for the man who was hired to overhaul the entire organization, this is new.
“I couldn’t have handled it earlier in my career,” Shanahan said Friday, not long after the Redskins practiced for the final time this season. “You don’t know the big picture. You’re just trying to survive. Unless you’ve been with different programs or organizations that have been down or have been up, you can’t really relate to where you’re at now. I can relate to this.”
Shanahan opened his Redskins tenure by going 6-10 in 2010. Win Sunday, and he only matches that record. Lose, and he has his worst record as a head coach. Jim Zorn — whose tenure running the Redskins was mocked from near and far — won 12 games in his two seasons with Washington. The Redskins must win Sunday for Shanahan to match that.
Yet ask Shanahan to take stock as he winds down the second of two difficult seasons, and he is unwavering.
“I feel very good about this football team and the direction we’re headed,” he said, “because we’ve got the right people.”
Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the Redskins will finish in last place in the NFC East for the fourth consecutive year. Yet Shanahan can sit behind his desk — tape of a practice session frozen on a television screen over one shoulder, the Redskins’ entire depth chart on the wall he faces — and emphatically restate his belief that the franchise he oversees will win, and soon. He does so, he said, because he can draw on all those experiences, good and bad. What others see? How others evaluate his team? It doesn’t matter to him.
“He doesn’t let perception become reality,” said his son Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator. “He knows what he’s doing. All of us know what we’re doing, but the difference with him is, he’s so strong in his personality and he’s had so much success his whole career, he’s seen it all. He knows when things are done right, when things are done wrong. And he knows we’re doing it right.”
There are, Mike Shanahan believes, several aspects to “doing it right,” many of which occur far from the practice field. For the past several weeks, he has begun many mornings by watching a half-hour of film on college quarterbacks, a different one each day, maybe 70 or 80 plays. It is a window into his world. The Redskins clearly are searching for a quarterback to eventually replace current starter Rex Grossman. And Shanahan will have the most significant role in selecting that player, be it through free agency or the college draft, this year or the next or the year after that.
“The key is you have to keep the right people coming in through the draft, through free agency,” Shanahan said. “. . . You can’t make a lot of bad decisions. You’re going to make some, but if you do, admit it was a bad decision and move on.”
That, essentially, is what has happened at quarterback in Shanahan’s two seasons in Washington. In 2010, he traded for Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb, wasn’t pleased with the results, then traded him away after one season. He started Grossman when the 2011 season opened, benched him during a four-interception outing against the Eagles in October, and inserted John Beck. Beck led one touchdown drive and moved the ball in that fourth quarter despite playing without left tackle Trent Williams, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and tight end Chris Cooley, all of whom were injured earlier in the game.
Beck started the next three games — a decent performance at Carolina, a disastrous one against Buffalo in which he took 10 sacks, and a jittery follow-up against San Francisco when he got rid of the ball too quickly. All three were losses. Offensive players, quietly and not, expressed a preference for Grossman. A week later, Shanahan turned back to him. Entering Sunday’s game, Grossman is tied for the league lead with 19 interceptions.
“You make [the decisions] based on what you see,” Shanahan said. “If John didn’t play the way he did for that quarter [against Philadelphia] — the drives, all that — then we wouldn’t have gone to him. . . . You want to do the best thing for your organization. Does John have a chance to be that No. 1 guy? We felt like we had a good feel for what Rex was and what he was doing. But losing those three starters, are you better off with a quarterback that’s a little more mobile? We didn’t know that.”
The episode raised questions about Shanahan’s acumen as a talent evaluator, in no small part because he said, in a moment of bravado, that he would stake his reputation on Grossman and Beck. But even as the Redskins continue their search for stability and stardom at quarterback, Shanahan believes the structure for evaluating who will be next, at any position, is in place.
Scott Campbell, the director of player personnel, oversees the college scouting process. Morocco Brown, the director of pro personnel, is heavily involved in evaluating potential free agents. Every position coach will have input on potential draftees and free agents. Shanahan said he does not feel the need to bring in another personnel man.
“The thing that people think is that I’m sitting here doing all the evaluating,” he said. “. . . My main thing is I get everybody involved. That’s how you eliminate mistakes. I’ve got to feel comfortable. They’ve got to feel comfortable. I’ve been doing this thing a long time, and I’ve made my share of mistakes. You have to learn how to limit mistakes.”
Beginning with last year’s draft and free agency, Shanahan believes the Redskins have limited theirs. Coaches believe the shift from a 4-3 defensive alignment to a 3-4 has gone well because they correctly evaluated free agent acquisitions Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen and first-round draft pick Ryan Kerrigan. They also believe second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins, a defensive lineman who missed the entire season with a knee injury, will have a big impact in 2012, further strengthening a front seven that has helped the Redskins move from 31st in total defense a year ago to 13th this season.
“You’re changing not just one guy; you’re changing all 11 guys,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “. . . You’re really starting it over from square one last year. And we made great progress, but we got to keep working at it. We got to keep getting better at it.”
That, Shanahan believes, will happen — and soon. He can tick off the plays from 2011 that still knock around in his mind — a third-and-21 conversion that allowed Dallas to turn a win into a loss, a missed field goal in overtime of the second Dallas game, an offensive pass interference call that negated a game-tying touchdown against New England, five losses by one touchdown or less — and build his case that his last-place Redskins aren’t terribly far from first.
“You win those games, we’re playing for something right now,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to keep things in perspective.”
How Shanahan does that, players and coaches say, does not change. Not from day to day. Not from week to week. And not from season to season, regardless of how difficult things become.
“He works in every aspect of it a lot more than I realized, from personnel to defense to special teams to offense, but he doesn’t try to control everything,” Kyle Shanahan said. “He makes everyone accountable. . . . If the players mess up in the game, and we didn’t put them through that situation, it’s definitely not their fault. It’s on us all the way. He coaches his coaches hard, which makes us better coaches.”
Eventually, though, that style must lead to wins. Right now, an offseason full of questions awaits: Who will be the quarterback? Who will be drafted? Is Mike Shanahan the right man to make the decisions? But for Shanahan, all that chatter amounts to so much white noise. Forget last place. Forget an 11-20 record. And most of all, forget the unrelenting analysis from the outside that goes along with it.
“I’m impervious to it,” he said. “You have to be, because you have to have a plan. . . . What you have to have is belief in what you’re doing. And I do, because I’ve been doing it for a while.”