Let’s briefly shift our focus from the guys on the field to the architect of the Washington Redskins’ surprising late-season surge. Coach Mike Shanahan’s personal comeback is another surprise that deserves a closer look.
Just six weeks ago, Shanahan was at his lowest point in Washington: His team had lost three in a row to fall to 3-6, and he seemed to be writing off the final seven games of his third season here. Now, he is suddenly directing one of the NFL’s hottest teams. The Redskins are in the hunt for their first playoff berth in five seasons after a stunning four-game winning streak that has the District abuzz again about its favorite sports franchise, for all the right reasons for a change.
The player-personnel investments Shanahan made in April — selecting quarterback Robert Griffin III after trading four high-value draft picks for the right to do so, seeing potential in running back Alfred Morris and picking Kirk Cousins to back up Griffin — are paying dividends now. After two-plus seasons of striking out a lot and being criticized, including by me, for his high-stakes roster mistakes (Donovan McNabb and John Beck quickly come to mind), Shanahan is on the type of roll that owner Daniel Snyder expected when he hired the two-time Super Bowl winner. It’s exactly what Shanahan envisioned, too.
“This is what I’m here for,” Shanahan said. “This is why I came . . . to do the things we’re doing now.”
That would be winning. Washington (7-6) has its longest streak since winning four consecutive games to close the 2007 regular season. The Redskins haven’t been over .500 this late in a season since 2008.
In the NFC East, the Redskins trail the New York Giants by one game. The Redskins are also among the top teams vying for one of two wild-card berths. They’ve managed to salvage their season, in large part, because Shanahan was bull’s-eye correct about Griffin and Morris.
Shanahan risked the franchise’s future in gambling that Griffin would be great and so far has hit the jackpot. “Obviously, everybody has seen what Robert can do,” Shanahan said, “and he’s off the charts.”
Before suffering a knee injury Sunday, Griffin had elevated his performance during this season-turning four-game stretch, during which he has thrown 10 touchdown passes and only one interception while completing 68.5 percent of his passes.
“It’s easy for everyone to look at it now and say, ‘They needed to do whatever they had to do to get him,’ ” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “But you know there are no guarantees when you’re talking about the draft, and Coach Shanahan is the one who put himself out there and made the call. That’s what you want the guy in charge to do: Come up with a sound plan and make good decisions.”
Drafting Morris also has proven to be among Shanahan’s best moves in Washington.
In watching Morris’s college film, Shanahan noticed Morris ran powerfully. He was seldom brought down by the first would-be tackler or behind the line of scrimmage. So why was Morris still available in the sixth round? Well, when other NFL teams evaluated Morris, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, they saw one of the slower players at the position in the draft. Shanahan saw a potential rushing champion.
Although Shanahan didn’t let many people in on the secret, Morris was Shanahan’s starter from day one of training camp. “I looked at him and thought, ‘Hey, he brings us something we haven’t had,’ ” Shanahan said. “I’ve seen it before.”
Former league MVP Terrell Davis and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Mike Anderson were also once-obscure sixth-rounders who ran to NFL success under Shanahan. Morris, whose leg power is evidenced by his ability to squat 645 pounds, has rushed for at least 100 yards in the past three games. He ranks third in the NFL with 1,235 yards rushing.
“It’s pretty safe to say Coach Shanahan reminded everyone he knows how to find great running backs,” center Will Montgomery said.
It seems Shanahan also may have done well in picking the No. 2 quarterback, though few in the media thought so at the time.
Shanahan was ripped by Redskins observers for using a fourth-rounder to select Cousins when the Redskins had so many other needs and already had picked Griffin. If everything played out as planned with Griffin, Cousins’s biggest contribution would be holding a clipboard, critics said; another rookie quarterback was a luxury the Redskins couldn’t afford.
“That wasn’t my thinking,” Shanahan said. “You have to . . . realize how important that quarterback position is. So often, when we see a quarterback go down, the team doesn’t have a chance because they don’t have a competent quarterback at No. 2. If you see a guy who’s there in the fourth round, and you believe that he can be a top-notch quarterback, you don’t hesitate. . . . At least I don’t.”
Shanahan’s thinking made sense Sunday after Griffin was injured and Cousins delivered an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon, and then ran for a tying two-point conversion with 29 seconds remaining in regulation. If Griffin’s knee doesn’t cooperate, Cousins will make his first career start against the Cleveland Browns this Sunday. With as many chances as the competitive Griffin takes while running, Cousins figures to get more opportunities in the future.
“Maybe some other people were surprised by how Kirk handled himself, but I wasn’t,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I got him. These are the kind of guys you want on your football team.”
Shanahan’s football team is making him look better each week. And if this keeps up, it may turn out Shanahan was the right guy for the Redskins after all.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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