As we watch the rest of Mike Shanahan’s second season as Redskins head coach unfold, there’s only one question that matters: What is owner Daniel Snyder thinking?
Snyder listened to Washington’s frustrated fans and got out of the way after he hired Shanahan to run the team’s football operation. After 23 games, however, the Redskins are not progressing under the two-time Super Bowl winner. Shanahan says the roster is more talented than it was last season, but it still has a growing list of problems — and Shanahan has yet to offer any solutions to them.
For Shanahan, the hope is that the Redskins hit bottom in their embarrassing 23-0 loss to Buffalo Sunday, and that they will show improvement — or at least be somewhat competitive — during their final nine games. Undoubtedly, it will be a key stretch for Snyder as he evaluates the state of the franchise after Shanahan’s two years in charge.
In January 2010, Snyder gave Shanahan everything he requested to join the organization: player-personnel control, an assurance the owner would no longer meddle in football matters, having his son as the offensive coordinator — Snyder agreed to it all. But where are the Redskins as they approach January 2012? That’s what Snyder, who declined an interview request for this column, must determine before deciding what changes he should ask Shanahan to make — because several changes will be necessary unless this unexpected mess is cleaned up quickly.
The Redskins have dropped three straight and four of their past five games. The offense has struggled whether Rex Grossman or John Beck is at quarterback. The defense, the foundation of the team’s 3-1 start, suddenly can’t stop the run.
With all of that, it would seem difficult to find much positive about Shanahan’s brief tenure. To be fair, though, the Redskins have made some strides.
The organization was a laughingstock when Shanahan arrived. He provided instant credibility. An adult was finally in charge. A disciplinarian took control of an undisciplined organization, which was what the Redskins needed at the time.
Washington’s salary-cap situation is better. Before Shanahan arrived, the Redskins were second to none at making big mistakes on free agents (remember Albert Haynesworth?). Recently, they’ve demonstrated a wiser approach. Defensive end Stephen Bowen and nose tackle Barry Cofield, for example, were good offseason additions.
The Redskins used to give lip service to building through the draft — then offered their top picks to teams while chasing high-profile players in trades. The draft seems central to Shanahan’s strategy. Shanahan got it right last spring by drafting outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Left tackle Trent Williams, the Redskins’ top pick in Shanahan’s first year, could anchor the offensive line for years if he works hard.
Eventually, Washington’s defensive front could be formidable. Brian Orakpo and Kerrigan are productive edge rushers. Bowen, Cofield and end Adam Carriker, despite the defensive line’s current slump, have shown encouraging signs.
Clearly, the Redskins have something to build on there. But that’s about all they have.
They do not have a capable quarterback. At the game’s most important position, Washington has made no progress despite having a leader, Shanahan, who supposedly knows more about quarterbacks than most coaches.
Foolishly, Shanahan staked his reputation on Rex Grossman and John Beck this season, expressing confidence that both could effectively guide Washington’s offense. Truth is, Shanahan staked his reputation on himself, arrogantly believing his coaching and his offensive system would elevate the play of Grossman and Beck.
How’s that working out?
Instead of selecting a quarterback with their 2011 first-round pick, the Redskins drafted Kerrigan, which I thought was a good move. Washington needed to focus on bolstering its defense in the draft, I repeatedly wrote, because Shanahan didn’t do enough to address the move to a 3-4 defensive scheme before last season — a move that resulted in the team’s worst defensive performance since 1954.
On the other hand, I never thought Shanahan would actually rely on Grossman and Beck.
Snyder’s unfulfilled search for a franchise quarterback has been among his biggest disappointments as owner. He probably won’t be happy if one or more of the rookie quarterbacks the Redskins passed on in the draft in April have a star turn this season.
Washington’s awful offensive line could ruin a young quarterback. The group Shanahan picked wasn’t very good before Williams was sidelined and guard Kory Lichtensteiger was lost for the season. It’s downright awful now, as evidenced by Buffalo’s nine sacks Sunday and Washington’s 26 yards rushing in the game.
In the secondary, strong safety LaRon Landry is a potential star, but he hasn’t regained his pre-injury form. Cornerback Josh Wilson and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe haven’t helped as much as the Redskins hoped.
At 36, inside linebacker London Fletcher was Washington’s lone bright spot in Sunday’s debacle, finishing with a game-high 20 tackles and intercepting a pass. The Redskins should re-sign Fletcher, but at his age he could suddenly experience a big drop-off.
The Redskins have young wide receivers and running backs. Maybe they’ll emerge as playmakers.
Regardless of what the Redskins still may be lacking in personnel, though, the person in charge must achieve the best results with the available talent. Obviously, that’s not happening.
Although Shanahan would disagree, Washington was not prepared to face the Bills. Shanahan and his staff were unable to deliver a timely spark — in play-calling, motivation, adjustments, anything — during the Buffalo game, which was only the most recent example of a problem that has been increasingly apparent during the losing streak.
This gets to what may be a deeper cause for concern. And that is coaching.
At the end of the 2008 regular season, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen made the difficult decision to fire Shanahan, who had failed to deliver for years despite having his every request met. Snyder also has given Shanahan a lot — and come January he will have the right to question what he’s doing with it.