Mike Shanahan’s job isn’t in jeopardy — yet

Mike Wise
Columnist November 9, 2012

Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn have one thing in common: They all parted ways with Daniel Snyder with better winning percentages in Washington than Mike Shanahan.

The man who delivered Robert Griffin III just can’t serve up a winning season. At 14 wins and 27 losses in his 21 / 2 years refurbishing this dilapidated NFL franchise, Shanahan is past the midway point of his five-year, $35 million contract. More than his players, the coach of the Redskins is now asked openly how that path to the Lombardi Trophy is proceeding.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“You will have to ask Dan Snyder that,” the coach bristled Monday. He leaned intensely over his lectern at his weekly news conference, his tanned complexion the usual beet-red, as if every corpuscle was racing to the skin’s surface. He scanned the room for perceived enemies.

On television, the 20-minute exchange between Shanahan and reporters who cover the team came across less as a postmortem after Washington’s third straight loss and more of a referendum on the My-Way-Mike era.

“If he feels like this team is going in the right direction, then you ask him not me,” Shanahan said. “I know I am going in the right direction.”

Well, heck, if Mike knows, who really cares what Dan thinks? Now that Shanahan has given himself a vote of confidence, we can continue the season and forget he had an absolute dumpster fire of a week.

His brain-locked team, leading the NFL in penalties, committed 13 more last Sunday and got beat soundly by Cam Newton’s Panthers, who had already fired their general manager and were in disarray before they played Washington.

Suddenly, the sheen from Griffin’s theatrical start was gone, replaced by the numb feeling that 2012 just might end up as the same ol’ ‘Redskins, plus a special rookie or two.

Shanahan had ratcheted up the Carolina game, calling it, “a must win.” Afterward, clearly despondent over his team’s performance, he inserted his foot in his mouth, saying, “When you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come.” Tony Dungy on NBC and others, including me, who either attended the news conference or watched the sound bite said Shanahan sounded like a wave-the-white flag coach — after Week 9 of the NFL season.

The next day was even more peculiar. Shanahan proceeded to blame me and the rest of the media for interpreting his words exactly as he said them.

The first part of the team’s bye week was damage control. He told his players, some of whom were stunned when they later watched video of the news conference, that he would be the last to quit, that of the seven games remaining five were against NFC East foes, that every game now is a playoff game. And obviously that’s what he meant in the first place.

I don’t think Shanahan will prematurely lose his job in Washington because of his record. And while he may not politically like this analogy Shanahan is essentially the President Obama of NFL coaches; many people believe he inherited a god-awful mess and he needs more time to clean it up.

Beyond giving Shanahan time to genuinely right the ship, Snyder is scared to be again cast as the rash owner who always pays people millions to go away. Snyder wants more return on his $7 million-per-season investment in Shanahan, who, having not been to the playoffs since 2005 with Denver, is nonetheless the second-highest paid coach in American team sports behind the Patriots’ Bill Belichick.

But this is where I do think Shanahan can run aground of the owner and cause himself an early departure: If he continues along his “I know I’m right” path, leaving himself no wiggle room for reduced expectations, he could be toast.

He is so certain about his own certainty there isn’t a sliver of space for self-evaluation or regret. No mistake can possibly be his. Except to play revisionist historian on the fly, the man moves only forward.

Known for being about as forthright as a CIA operative, Shanahan was remarkably candid when I interviewed him in his office at the team’s headquarters in Ashburn in August 2011.

“I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight,” he said after that 6-10 first season in Washington. “One thing I told Dan Snyder was, ‘If you don’t plan on me being here for five years to do this the right way, then you shouldn’t hire Mike Shanahan. But I’m going to do it the right way. And if you believe in my background and you believe in what I’ve done, then you should hire me. But if you’re going to ask me to take shortcuts, I’m not going to take shortcuts. I’m going to do it the right way. And he said he would.”

When Snyder hired Shanahan, he gave him complete control over football operations as executive vice president and head coach. Pat Riley, Rick Pitino, Bill Parcells, Don Nelson and now Andy Reid have all learned a valuable lesson, however. It’s almost impossible to successfully wear two hats in an organization. In short stints, they succeeded. But all eventually realized they couldn’t successfully shop for the groceries and do the cooking, too. As GMs, they had to think about the future. As coaches, they had to think about the next game. The jobs naturally crossed purposes, got in the way of each other.

A checks-and-balances system is needed. When no one evaluates the evaluator except a still-smitten-he-got-Mike-Shanahan owner such as Snyder, you don’t have merely a great coach and franchise architect; you have a king-maker who will sacrifice a lot of pawns on the field to make sure the palace walls aren’t broached, to make sure his way remains the one, true way.

“Do you worry about guys losing faith?” he was asked bluntly Monday.

“I hope not,” he said, almost reflexively. “If they are, I’d be disappointed.”

Shanahan’s biggest problem isn’t injuries, salary-cap hits or outsized expectations; his biggest problem is he always needs to be right.

He needs to project himself as all-knowing football sage at every waking second. Once he cedes some of that control, shows a morsel of contrition now and then admits when he’s wrong, once he shows more authentic self-deprecation — not the forced zings — he might find that the people around him begin to have as much faith in the Redskins coach as he clearly has in himself.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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