Mike Shanahan is forging a new identity for the Redskins: Building through the draft


Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan is moving against the franchise’s recent history in working to build through the draft instead of making a flashy free agent signing. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist December 14, 2011

For 40 years, the Redskins have thrown away high draft picks like they were cheap lottery tickets. In half those seasons, Washington didn’t even have a first-round pick.

For decades, whenever the Redskins wanted Donovan McNabb, Mark Brunell, Brad Johnson, Clinton Portis, Laveranues Coles, Jason Taylor, Pete Kendall, Dan Wilkinson or Sean Gilbert for a quick fix or a style makeover, they tossed picks from the first four rounds into the trade pot.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

That is over. Or, at least, it’s over for now. The Redskins are infamous for their six different regimes in 12 years under owner Daniel Snyder. But this time it’s the real thing — probably. The Redskins are attempting one of the most difficult transformations in sport or business: creating a new identity.

Washington is witnessing a change in the way its pro football team is built that is fundamental, yet so alien to this city’s expectations that it tends to be passed off as a mere one-year trend. We’re seeing a seismic shift in franchise philosophy, from wheeling, dealing and pizzazz toward building through the draft under Coach Mike Shanahan.

Get used to what you’re watching — Ryan Kerrigan making sacks and Roy Helu running for 100 yards, guard Maurice Hurt and safety DeJon Gomes, starting when necessary but assuming key roles quickly. Next season, when they return from injury, Jarvis Jenkins and Leonard Hankerson may be entrenched at defensive tackle and wide receiver. Evan Royster ran well and Willie Smith coped at left tackle against the Patriots on Sunday.

Nose tackle Chris Neild and linebacker Markus White were both active Sunday and injured wide receiver Niles Paul has been in nine games. That’s right, 10 draft-pick rookies have entered the picture in one season. Even from the skimpy 2010 draft class, Perry Riley now starts at linebacker and Trent Williams, assuming he’s scared straight, could play left tackle for years.

This isn’t just a fluke caused by injuries and suspensions. It is a foreshadowing, an acceleration of a pattern that will define the Redskins as long as Shanahan is coach.

There is no more basic NFL DNA than your stance toward the draft. In Pittsburgh, under the Rooney family, the Steelers have had at least one pick in the first round of every draft since 1967. The Giants have had a first-round pick in all but two drafts since ’76. Can the Redskins make such a basic shift in where they see value? Will Snyder be excited by the granularity of analyzing mid-round picks?

Commitment to the draft, for teams that have succeeded at it, entails decades of consistency. Washington got addicted long ago to instant gratification. Redskins fans have little sense of what radical outliers the team has been for generations. For the first 20 years, the aptly named “Future Is Now” approach worked as George Allen swapped his way to a Super Bowl, then general manager Bobby Beathard — who began his tenure in 1978 — drafted so amazingly that few noticed he was doing it with one hand behind his back; in nine of his 12 Redskins drafts, Beathard had no first-round picks.

Since then, however, the theory has flopped. The most symbolic moment may have come when the Redskins tossed in a second-round pick (!) as enticement to get that dumb Denver coach (Shanahan) to hand over Portis in exchange for a Redskins defensive back named — oh, yeah, Champ Bailey.

The McNabb trade, as second- and fourth-round picks went out the door, may have been the end of an era. Shanahan, like New England Coach Bill Belichick, wants young players to mold to his systems and to his entire NFL zeitgeist.

How much will the Redskins’ world change? Ignore the crazy Allen years (eight straight drafts without a first-, second- or third-round pick). Instead just look at the last 30 Redskins drafts, since 1982, the first Joe Gibbs Super Bowl season. The Redskins should, in theory, have gotten 120 players in the first four rounds: 30-30-30-30. Just pick when it’s your turn.

Here’s what the Redskins’ distribution of picks actually looked like in those rounds: 19-26-24-20 for a total of only 89 players.

Now, look at the Patriots. Their distribution of picks in the first four rounds of the last 30 drafts is: 34-41-38-43. That’s a total of 156 picks compared to 89 for the Redskins. Talk about a huge deficit in young talent.

In the last 10 drafts, with Robert Kraft at the top of the pyramid in New England and Snyder in Washington, the disparity has been even greater. The number of Pats picks stands at 10-15-11-13 for 49 in the first four rounds compared to a 7-7-7-4 and a total of 25 for the Redskins.

How do the Pats replenish their roster with young Rob Gronkowskis while the Redskins founder? Over a decade, it helps a ton if the Pats have 49 bullets in the first four rounds to 25 for the Redskins. The Patriots’ record over that time is 120-37 while the Redskins are 64-93. Yes, the Pats have Tom Brady, the Redskins a revolving cast of comedians. But the draft philosophy matters, too.

It’s commonly parroted that Shanahan is a superior coach but some kind of dolt as a personnel evaluator. The facts contradict that, at least partially. In his 13 Denver drafts, Shanahan hoarded picks almost as much as the Patriots with a 12-15-14-19 distribution in those first four rounds. That’s 60 prime players rather than the normal allotment of 52 you might expect.

So, how good were the men Shanahan tabbed? In the first four rounds of the last 30 drafts, the Redskins have drafted only 15 players who reached a Pro Bowl. In 13 drafts, Shanahan nailed 12 future Pro Bowlers.

Of course, Shanahan had the odds on his side because he’d maxed the number of picks he held in his hands, including some as gifts of the Redskins.

After nearly 20 years of futility, fans howl, “When are the Skins going to emphasize the draft, show patience and rebuild with a solid foundation?”

It’s being attempted right now. Unless too many losses or too many bad picks bring us Regime No. 7, we may even get a chance to see if it works.

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