The struggling Redskins are facing tough questions, and the answer to one will help determine the course of the franchise for years: What will happen with Coach Mike Shanahan?
Sunday’s embarrassing loss to the Dallas Cowboys (Dallas returner Dwayne Harris should send thank you cards to Redskins special teams players) left Washington with a 1-4 record and ramped up media speculation about whether Shanahan will return next season if the team finishes with its third losing record in four seasons under him. Regardless of how the Redskins fare in their final 11 games, owner Daniel M. Snyder is on the hook to pay Shanahan $7 million during the 2014 season, the last of Shanahan’s five-year, $35-million contract. But even if Snyder permits Shanahan to complete his contract, he may have to double down or be prepared to make yet another coaching change after the season.
Generally, every coach — let alone a two-time Super Bowl winner like Shanahan — would want an extension before the final year of a contract. It would be surprising if Shanahan agreed to let things play out during a lame-duck season. What’s more likely is that Shanahan would push for a new deal in the offseason, forcing Snyder to make a huge decision. For the Redskins’ sake, Snyder should either commit to Shanahan beyond next season or fire him with a year left on his contract.
Fact is, having job security is essential for coaches to maintain command of the locker room. When owners back coaches with their wallets, players notice. They also pay attention when owners take a wait-and-see approach with the guys they’re expected to follow.
Shanahan knows this. The last thing he would want is to begin next season with his job status hanging over the Redskins. If Shanahan returns without an extension, it would be the type of distraction that could torpedo the team’s season before it starts.
From the first day of training camp, Shanahan’s contract situation would be the biggest Redskins story. Each time the team lost, speculation would intensify about Shanahan possibly being fired. As part of their daily to-do list, reporters who cover the team would question players about Shanahan’s status.
The Redskins failed in that poisonous working environment under Shanahan’s predecessor, Jim Zorn. Early in Zorn’s second season, it became clear he wouldn’t return for a third. Figuring Zorn wouldn’t be around after the 2009 season, players tuned him out. There was chaos in the organization and it showed on the field: the Redskins went 4-12. That’s not a sound way to run a football team.
With Shanahan’s arrival, the Redskins finally got on the right path. He brought stability to one of the NFL’s most unstable organizations. Snyder — whose team has had seven head coaches in his 15 years as owner — stepped aside while Shanahan directed the football operation. Last season, the Redskins won their first NFC East title in 13 years.
At Shanahan’s direction, the Redskins stopped chasing other teams’ stars and began drafting and developing their own. They’ve made smart moves in free agency instead of big ones. Shanahan is most responsible for the Redskins’ grown-up approach to roster building. Shanahan built his reputation on offense, and the Redskins had the league’s most balanced and dynamic offense a season ago.
Shanahan has made some big mistakes. In his first season, he got distracted feuding with Albert Haynesworth and was duped by Donovan McNabb. Shanahan’s bad decisions on quarterbacks derailed his second season (you just can’t stake your reputation on John Beck). Overall, though, the Redskins have been better off with Shanahan than they were without him.
But considering that Shanahan has operated with more freedom than any Redskins head coach in the Snyder years, he hasn’t accomplished enough, his critics contend, to warrant receiving an extension. In 2012, the Redskins had a season-closing, seven-game winning streak. Excluding that improbable run, Shanahan’s Redskins record is 12-25.
The Redskins haven’t cracked the league’s top 10 in defense, which they used to do regularly, since Shanahan took over. Statistically, Washington’s 2010 defense was the team’s worst in 56 years. This season’s special teams units seem determined to make a run toward the worst part of the record book.
The return and coverage teams are in disarray. During the Cowboys’ 31-16 victory in Week 6, Harris, a third-year return specialist, had a career night, ripping off an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 90-yard kickoff return that that set up a Tony Romo touchdown pass. If Redskins special teams players are being coached well, they’re not showing it.
A poor record, ongoing problems on defense and major breakdowns on special teams — none of that reflects well on Shanahan. That’s why the stakes are so high for him in the final 11 games.
If the Redskins finish well, Shanahan could argue he still has the team moving in the right direction. He could point to Robert Griffin III’s rustiness after reconstructive knee surgery and the NFL-imposed $36 million salary cap reduction penalty as factors that slowed the team’s progress. Conversely, it could be rough for Shanahan if the team remains on the current road.
Before he agreed to lead the Redskins, Shanahan told Snyder he shouldn’t hire him unless he planned to let him complete the job. And perhaps Shanahan will get the time he initially requested. He just may not get more.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.