Redskins’ Mike Shanahan enters 2013 season facing questions on Robert Griffin III

The Post Sports Live crew predicts whether Robert Griffin III will have more touchdowns, rushing yards and a better completion rate this season compared to his stats from his last year. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
September 7, 2013

The last time Mike Shanahan stood on the sideline at FedEx Field for a meaningful football game, what should have been a proud, chest-puffing moment for him and his team — the first postseason contest of his coaching tenure with the Washington Redskins — instead turned into a nightmare.

So much changed for Shanahan and the Redskins when the team’s face-of-the-franchise quarterback, Robert Griffin III, was unable to reach that low snap late in a first-round NFC playoff loss Jan. 6 to the Seattle Seahawks, collapsing to the turf with a knee injury that would be surgically repaired three days later. Instead of the Redskins’ 2012 season ending with a hopeful narrative about Shanahan redirecting the franchise’s fortunes and steadying the team as a 3-6 start gave way to seven straight wins and an NFC East title, a dark cloud of uncertainty moved in and a new set of issues arose.

Now questions remain, even with Griffin, eight months removed from his surgery, poised to take the field for Monday night’s season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. They’re not just the standard questions Shanahan welcomes on the heels of the team’s breakthrough season — whether he can manage, after turning around a club that totaled only 11 victories in his first two seasons at the helm, to get the Redskins to take the next step and secure a Super Bowl triumph. Those are easy.

The additional questions Shanahan faces are trickier: Will he tinker with the offense that he and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, devised last year for Griffin to try to ensure the quarterback remains upright and relatively unharmed in his second pro season? And can he coexist harmoniously with Griffin?

The Redskins’ opener comes after an offseason in which Shanahan was widely criticized for leaving Griffin in the playoff game after the quarterback aggravated his already damaged right knee. It comes after a training camp in which Griffin said he didn’t completely agree with Shanahan’s plan to ease him back toward full-time duties in practices and withhold him from the preseason entirely. Those comments by Griffin intensified the scrutiny of the relationship between the two to the point that virtually every sports-television talking head seemed to offer an opinion.

The Post Sports Live crew previews the Redskins season opener on Monday Night against the Philadelphia Eagles. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

When former NFL coach Dick Vermeil was asked at the height of that summertime furor whether he was following the Shanahan-Griffin story closely, he said: “I’ve followed it. How can you help it? The media loves this stuff.”

His team, his players

The manner in which the Redskins’ season ended, with Griffin headed to the operating table of orthopedist James Andrews, obscured what might have been one of Shanahan’s finest coaching jobs. Just when many were wondering whether he ever would make things work with the Redskins, when his record with the team had dipped to 14-27 and he was dealing with a controversy over whether a set of his postgame comments indicated he was throwing in the towel on the season, Shanahan found a way to make things click.

Now, if Griffin can remain healthy and resemble the dynamic player who was last season’s NFL offensive rookie of the year, it seems reasonable the Redskins are on their way to contending for a Super Bowl title sometime in the not-too-distant future. Such a victory would cement Shanahan’s Hall of Fame credentials, if they’re not already cemented by his two Super Bowl wins in Denver, and would finish the job of restoring the Redskins to NFL relevance for the first time since their three Super Bowl triumphs in the 1980s and early ’90s in Joe Gibbs’s first coaching go-around with the franchise.

As Shanahan enters the fourth season of a five-year contract, he at last has essentially turned over his roster, purging the unwanted veterans he inherited and replacing them with players to his liking. He has his quarterback. He has a deeper pool of talent at a variety of positions. He has told associates he finally has things set up the way he wants. He and General Manager Bruce Allen have all but survived the two-year, $36 million salary cap penalty imposed on the Redskins last year by the NFL, winning the division last season in the first year of the cap reduction and managing to keep the team basically intact for this season.

“I think the organization — Coach Shanahan, Bruce Allen — they’ve done a great job of adding to the talent of this football team,” linebacker London Fletcher said in training camp. “I think the roster, when you look at the young talent they have, the veterans, the older guys they have, I think it’s a great group of guys. The locker room — we like our locker room. We like coming to work. And guys really have a mentality of we want to come in and get better each and every day. When you have that type of character, that type of talent, that mix of young and old, you can accomplish some good things.”

Shanahan isn’t shying from increased expectations.

“You better have the bull’s-eye on your back someday,” he said in the past week. “Hopefully when you win the NFC East, you should have a bull’s-eye on your back.”

If things go well this season, the Shanahan-Griffin issues probably will fade seamlessly into the background. If the team’s season unravels, those matters likely will remain front and center.

Rift or no rift?

Coach and quarterback rarely have seemed on the same page throughout Griffin’s return. After Andrews reexamined Griffin’s knee in Tampa at the Redskins’ preseason finale, Griffin took to Twitter and declared himself cleared for takeoff. Shanahan, almost simultaneously, told reporters at a news conference that Andrews had some concerns that would have to be discussed. It wasn’t until Monday, four days later, that Shanahan officially named Griffin the team’s starter for the opener, long after it had become clear Griffin would start the game.

Are those signs of a fundamental disconnect that could undermine their relationship? Perhaps not. Shanahan, for his part, has spoken of the battles he used to have with his former Broncos quarterback, John Elway, and those two won a pair of Super Bowls in tandem. But some of those familiar with the interactions between the Redskins’ 61-year-old coach and his 23-year-old quarterback say there is some lingering mistrust in Griffin’s camp that won’t be resolved until it’s seen how Griffin is used this season.

The system the Shanahans crafted for Griffin’s rookie season, with its college-style option plays that put the ball in Griffin’s hands as a potential runner, was highly effective. But many football traditionalists say Griffin won’t last in the NFL as a regular runner. Griffin’s father has said he wants to see his son throw the ball more often this season and run with it less frequently.

Shanahan has defended the system, saying it actually helps to safeguard Griffin by slowing opposing pass rushers, and has added that Griffin will learn to protect himself by knowing when to slide and throw the ball away. Even in the week leading up to this game, Shanahan wasn’t tipping his hand on the subject, telling a reporter he would have to show up Monday to see what the Redskins will do on offense with Griffin.

“You’re always trying to take a look at what’s in the best interest of your football team [and] obviously the health of your football team as well,” Shanahan said. “But if we didn’t feel like Robert was full-go and he wasn’t ready to play and do all the things that you ask a guy to do, then he would not be playing in this game. We believe he can do everything that a quarterback is asked to do. And if that’s sprinting out, if it’s running the option, if it’s dropping back, we think he can do all those things because he’s proved it to us in practice. And there hasn’t been a setback, so that’s been a great sign.”

But if Shanahan is going to make meaningful changes to the offense, it’s doubtful he would have announced his intentions publicly — and to this season’s opponents — in advance. So that’s a wait-and-see matter, with the first peek coming Monday. Some observers say they’re confident Shanahan will handle the situation properly.

“I think a lot’s been made about it, more than really is there. . . . There’s never been too many coach-quarterback situations that have been all hunky-dory,” former NFL coach Dan Reeves said recently. “The coach has to do what he thinks is best for the team. The quarterback is a leader, too. I don’t see any big issue. Mike has been around some of the best quarterbacks ever. He knows how to handle quarterbacks.”

Wide receiver Pierre Garcon said in training camp that the team’s players “don’t pay attention . . . at all” to what’s said about Shanahan and Griffin. Defensive tackle Barry Cofield said in recent days the team’s preparations for the season have gone well and “that’s a testament to the leadership and the coaching that we have. No one has rested on their laurels.”

As the new season arrives and the intrigue swirls all around, the best option for Shanahan to quiet the talk of a rift with his quarterback is the same as it always is for an NFL coach: pile up victories and be among the last teams standing.

“Last year was last year,” Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss said. “We enjoyed it. It was a good ride. But we still didn’t get to where we want to go. So it’s another long grind until we get there. You can always remember those years, the good and the bad. But at the end of the day, it’s about the present. I think the present right now is we’re pushing to take this thing a little further.”

INSIDE Redskins special preview section
■ NFL gameday, D16
Season opener

Redskins vs. Eagles, Tomorrow, FedEx Field
6:55 p.m., ESPN

Of the 27 coaches in team history , only eight have coached at least four seasons. Mike Shanahan,
who is entering year No. 4 with the Redskins, won Super Bowl titles in years three and four with the Broncos. Joe Gibbs won a Super Bowl in his second season, 1982. Here’s a year-by-year glance of the win totals for each of those Redskins coaches.

’37-’40 ’54-’57 ’61-’64 ’71-’74 ’81-’84 ’94-’97 ’04-’07 ’10-’13
Ray Flaherty Joe Kuharich Bill McPeak George Allan Joe
Gibbs
Norv Turner Joe
Gibbs
Mike Shanahan
8-6-8-9 3-8-6-5 1-5-3-6 9-11-10-10 8-8-14-11 3-6-9-8 6-10-5-9 6-5-10-?
Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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