Mike Shanahan’s poor defenses with the Redskins and Broncos speak volumes

The Post's Jason Reid clarifies his position that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan deserves the heat for the team's poor play this season and still believes he deserves a contract extension. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

How good is Mike Shanahan? Not how good does he think he is. How good really?

Not just as an offensive theorist, but as builder of all parts of a team, since that’s his job description. How good is he at picking coaches for all three units, then, as de facto general manager, guiding selection of every player? As he says, “You are your record.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Here’s the appetizer. In his fourth year, Shanahan has built the worst Washington defense in 50 seasons. This defense is so awful that if it slashed the number of points it allows by 40 percent in its past six games, it would still be the worst in D.C. since ’64.

Perhaps it’s better water-cooler chat to discuss Shanahan and Robert Griffin III’s relationship or how either stands in the esteem of owner Daniel Snyder. But there’s an elephant in the room. In his past six seasons, two in Denver and now four in D.C., Shanahan has been the architect of defenses that look like a bridge collapse. Whether you keep him, and for how long, or fire him, depends on whether you think he can fix this problem.

Since 1954, only two Washington teams have been so bad on defense that they allowed 400 points — 412 and 421 under Norv Turner. This year’s Redskins may give up 500 points. That’s f-i-v-e h-u-n-d-r-e-d. After 10 games, they’re on pace for 498.

Because Shanahan makes every important decision, he’s responsible for every important result. In his years, Washington has ranked 20th, 22nd, 22nd and now 30th in points allowed. That’s an average ranking of 24th in a 32-team league. That’s the worst defensive standing, relative to the whole league, in the reign of any Redskins coach since Otto Graham in the ’60s.

The Redskins are currently giving up 31.1 points per game. Only one Washington team in history has been worse — it was in 1954. In the past 50 years, the worst mark was 26.3 points. Yes, offense is up a tad in the NFL this year to 23.4 points per game versus 21.3 for the past 20 years. But even with that adjustment, the Redskins are awful in absolute terms, and also relative to the league as a whole.

In 20 years of NFL coaching, Shanahan has only had one top five defense. A half-dozen of his Denver defenses were good. He hasn’t always been bad. But for his entire career, his average rank in points allowed has been 16th — middle of the league.

It’s the trend of his past half-dozen teams, especially this one, that’s most worrisome. In Shanahan’s final two years in Denver, his Broncos ranked 28th and 30th in points allowed (409 and 448). In other words, his last two Broncos teams gave up more points than the two worst Redskins teams of the entire 16-game-season NFL era of the past 35 years.

Those Denver defenses got him fired in Colorado. Snyder thought he was spending $35 million to get Shanahan’s exceptional offensive mind. And he did.

As bad as this 3-7 season has seemed, the Redskins lead the NFL in rushing — yards-per-game (155) and yards-per-carry (5.1). With one good game they’d crack the top 10 in scoring. As inaccurate as Griffin has been at times, as questionable as some of Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling has been in the red zone (with one of the NFL’s worst ratios of yards gained to points scored), the offense isn’t the issue.

What’s sunk this season, with their playoff odds now at 1.4 percent, has been awful defense, as well as atrocious special teams that are last or next-to-last in the NFL in kicking field goals or returning any ball that’s punted or kicked. Apparently, Snyder’s $35 million bought that, too.

The Redskins allowed an average of 314 points in the three years before Shanahan arrived. That’s the baseline. Since he brought in Jim Haslett as coordinator and replaced a functional 4-3 defense with a generally inept 3-4, the number of points allowed, per full season, has skyrocketed to 398.

There are other dark clouds over Shanahan’s tenure. How much responsibility should he carry for RGIII’s injury against Seattle? I’d say more than half, since he’s the adult, no matter how much RGIII, 22 then, wanted to play. Every one has their own view of that.

How much blame does Shanny share for getting Donovan McNabb? He and Snyder get to split it. (Many of us cheered and were wrong.) How much was he involved with dumping Albert Haynesworth’s contract into an uncapped year, a risk that led to $36 million in salary-cap-penalty retribution from colluding NFL owners? No one in Ashburn is saying, but, again, Snyder and Shanahan are the two essential “yes” votes. This week Shanahan has complained about cap-hit pain. But he was in the kitchen helping to make that stew or at least not screaming, “No!”

Snyder and Shanahan also linked arms, in bliss, trading 400 draft picks for Griffin. Many of us said, “Go for it.” How many would make that trade again today, post RGIII knee surgery?

Aside from two Super Bowl rings, there is one enormous reason to give Shanahan, signed through next season, more time to prove that he can still build a decent defense.

Continuity.

If any franchise should understand the chaos born of panic, it is the Redskins. Every time you change the coach, you alter offensive and defensive systems and, more important, you make a chunk of your roster obsolete. Snyder’s been through this four times. From Turner to conservative Marty Schottenheimer to pass-crazy Steve Spurrier to ground-centric Joe Gibbs to try-anything Jim Zorn to Shanahan, no two coaches liked exactly the same type of players. The roster was blown up every time with about 20 new players the next season, then more switches the following year.

Firing Shanahan might lead to more roster destruction than normal. He values smallish, quick offensive linemen. How much would Kory Lichtensteiger and Will Montgomery be worth to the next coach? Shanahan also puts a premium on players who may lack talent but will buy into My-Way-Mike’s worldview. Nobody really knows, until he’s gone, which players performed better for him than they would for anybody else.

Act in haste; repent at leisure.

Nothing, except a franchise quarterback, means as much in the NFL as picking your coach. And nothing raises unexpected hell more than switching one. At least debate the issue along the right lines. With complete control, and without any major injuries this season, Shanahan has overseen the construction of the worst Washington defense in 50 years. That’s where you start.

That’s the 500-point elephant in the room.

thomas.boswell@washpost.com

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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