Mike Shanahan’s firing is latest chapter in Washington Redskins’ sad recent history

Washington Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan has been fired after four seasons with the team. The seventh head coach under owner Daniel Snyder departs with one division title and one playoff appearance, a loss. The Post's Redskins and NFL editor Keith McMillan offers the five best and worst moments of Shanahan's tenure. (Tom LeGro and Keith McMillan/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist December 30, 2013

As Mike Shanahan exits, as the team he trashed ends its worst season in 52 years, a question remains: Can you kill the Deadskins?

Washington’s National Football League ghouls have been mostly irrelevant, with the league’s sixth-worst record over the last 22 years. They just finished a 3-13 season, tying their worst record since 1961 and getting outscored by 140 points, their worst margin since that year. Is there no penalty?

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Can this farcical franchise continue to rule Washington no matter how bad it is, no matter how much of an embarrassment it is to the city and its fans? If this tacky tabloid year doesn’t start a process of modest disengagement, of fan grieving, what would it take?

What Washington has endured for 14-plus years of the Daniel Snyder era is a morbid laboratory experiment in mass alienation of football affection.

It’s a cruel, interminable process but — eventually, in every city, in every sport and in every era — it has its effect. In the end, the bad owner breaks a piece of his city’s heart. It’s never fatal. Not even close. Some new enthusiasm replaces the old. But it hurts.

The last two days could be the worst.

Sunday’s 20-6 loss to the New York Giants and their backup quarterback was a contender for lowest-quality NFL game ever played. In three wet hours, quarterback Kirk Cousins’s trade value returned whence it came — perhaps a fourth-round draft pick. Then on Monday, Shanahan got his fond wish: A quick firing so he and his son could go job-hunting, plus $7 million to please go away and not coach in D.C. in 2014.

Week after week, this franchise tests the lower boundaries. Washington still agonizes over this team, or at least goes through the drill from memory. But will it always be this way? Someday, when the team again duplicates this season’s indignities, something wonderfully liberating might happen.

This town might react as it did long ago, the last time this franchise was so wretched on the field (1-12-1), so incompetently operated and so bereft of hope in the near term. Back then, D.C.’s response was a shrug, a few hurt feelings, a six-month hiatus of indifference and then a sensible level of interest in the next season. That attentive but wary kind of fandom has an accompanying cost: The tepid financial support a perennially exploitative team deserves.

“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken,” the aphorism goes, and it may take another 15 years of ineptitude to create that mood. Peter Angelos needed 14 straight losing Baltimore Orioles seasons to erase half of his 45,000 nightly paying customers. Dampening D.C. football lust may be even tougher. But the owner with the 224-foot yacht, who just fired the coach with the 35,000-square-foot house, may be clueless and vain enough to do it.

The ugliness of this season is hard to digest because it damages pleasant memories from just a year ago. But unless Robert Griffin III really does make an almost complete recovery from his injured knee and also learns to be an above-average pocket-passing quarterback — which he isn’t now — then the reality of this franchise is that the rare 10-6 or 9-7 season, followed by a quick elimination from the playoffs, is a mirage.

The good years are built on little that lasts, mostly the NFL’s annual luck-of-the-turnover, parity scheduling and temporary enthusiasm. The overall record is the truth: Steve Spurrier 12-20, Jim Zorn 12-20 and now Shanahan 24-40 are all exactly .375. In the last dozen years, since Snyder’s personality has become the team’s enduring culture, only Joe Gibbs II was a period that was just mediocre (30-32) rather than down-in-the-dumps lousy.

The number of NFL coaches and their total wins, by team, since 1999

What is the absolute best that any coach can do with a Snyder-owned team? We may already have seen it with Gibbs. He wasn’t as good the second time around, but he hired state-of-the-art coordinators, delegated authority, managed people, set a winning tone and looked hard at Snyder if the owner started to get into idle-rich mischief. Even Joe left a year early, jilting Snyder. He gave reasons. Did he leave one off?

Even amid the national mockery of the Snyder period, the last month of Shanahan’s four years as coach holds a unique place. Some other D.C. pro coach may have damaged his reputation more in his leaving and done as much to harm to his team as he departed. No, that’s wrong. Shanahan wins.

He arrived with a reputation for being slick and nasty when things went bad. Now we know what that’s like. Ever since the team’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 7, the first of a season-ending eight-game losing streak, it’s been every Shanahan for himself. You can’t prove he tried to make the Redskins’ life so hot, in a burning house that he may have helped set ablaze, that he and son Kyle Shanahan would both get fired and both get paid — $7 million to one and $1.5 million to the other. But one Washington sports executive said, “For two months he’s used the whole fire-me playbook.”

You can’t prove that, since he left RGIII in against Seattle to blow up his already injured knee, Shanahan has had one eye on the “Exit” door through which he suspected he might be booted. You can’t be sure his decisions and comments were attempts to rewrite team history in his favor, duck blame, polish what was left of his reputation and, the easiest fault to forgive, shield Kyle from career-stunting criticism.

You can’t prove he contributed to undermining Griffin’s reputation and painting Snyder as the same old meddling boob. His true motives, all of them, for “shutting down” RGIII the last three weeks and playing Cousins remain private. Was it to damage Griffin’s confidence and erode his stature with teammates, while setting up Cousins, a Shanahan draft pick, as a quarterback competitor in ’14 — a lingering torment for the future?

Shanahan keeps a veil of implausible deniability. Out of spite, did he really undercut the key player of a team that was paying him millions so the next regime couldn’t make him look bad by succeeding where he’d failed?

Even if Snyder is the chronic illness that afflicts his own franchise, and even if Griffin needs to lower his profile and heighten his craft, Shanahan’s departure is still good riddance.

In the calendar of bad days over the last 22 years, where do the last 48 hours stand? On Monday, a team with little overall talent, retiring vets, no first-round draft pick and a “franchise quarterback” who is also a project, saw an almost unbelievable sight. They basically fired their entire coaching staff, some of them escaping the bunker practically cheering and counting Snyder’s money. At least the Shanahans didn’t throw confetti as they left.

Maybe you can’t kill them. But you could die laughing watching them.

For more by Thomas Boswell, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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