Sally Jenkins: Mike Shanahan may leave, but the Redskins’ problems will remain

The Washington Post's Jason Reid says with the season over, the question facing the Redskins is, who will coach next? (The Washington Post)
Sally Jenkins
Columnist December 29, 2013

Yet another brief Redskins era ended, under a dirty rain in a stadium full of jeering malcontents wearing garbage bags. The field looked like an environmental waste site, and so did Mike Shanahan, with his soaked sweats plastered to him and his grizzled face streaked with water. To summarize Shanahan’s tenure as coach: the Redskins are so defective, so toxically malfunctioning, that they are beyond the repair of a mere professional.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Name the coach. Go ahead, designate the savior who can make a difference with this franchise, who can lift it out of this pollution fog, who can break the solid, unredeemed dreariness it has existed in since 1999. Jon Gruden? Bill Cowher? You wish.

The problem, and it has been the same problem all along, what’s chronically wrong with the organization, is that the owner would rather be a central figure on a losing team than a marginal figure on a winning one. He simply can’t live with being a mute observer. This means tension instead of efficiency. It means fractiousness instead of cohesion. And it means drama instead of success, year after year.

The problem is pervasive, and goes way beyond this particular coach, whose main mistake was to ask for total control, and in return got total blame. “Any time you’re responsible for a football team, and you come away with three wins, it’s always disappointing,” Shanahan said after coming off the field following a 20-6 loss to the New York Giants.

Shanahan was probably not going to take this organization to the Super Bowl under any circumstances. He was too thin-skinned, too controlling, and not defensive-minded enough. But he should have been a solid hire at worst; he had led teams to nine conference championship games and three Super Bowl wins as a head coach or an assistant, and only a season ago gave Washington its first NFC East title in 13 seasons. But somehow, a team that won seven straight in 2012 and was said to be going “in the right direction,” went violently bottom up, and lost eight straight in 2013. When an outfit suddenly capsizes from playoff caliber to 3-13 in just months, something has ruptured. There was something wrong — unusually wrong — with what happened this season.

The guess here is that Shanahan was finished as Redskins coach long ago — a dead man walking maybe as early as last spring, when radioactively over-empowered rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III began to openly campaign against the coach to the owner, and the owner didn’t stop it. The result was that nobody knew who they were playing for.

“You could find guys who played exceptionally hard last year, and they didn’t [play hard] this year,” observed former tight end Chris Cooley. “Something was wrong with their situation. It’s so strange to me. You see the same group of guys who won that many last year, lose that many this year.”

Shanahan was too intolerant, not cut out for the kind of adroit situational massage that the Redskins’ annual dysfunction calls for. Possibly, the fates of his predecessors over-sensitized Shanahan to issues of control. Or maybe he just thought he was the guy who could finally handle this owner. This makes Shanahan no different from the six coaches who came before him. They all think they’re the guy who can handle Snyder, who can cure his hapless forays into locker room affairs, and his tendency to wield his cigar like a billy-club, and open fissures in his own organization.

This doesn’t absolve Shanahan of flaws. When he analyzes what went wrong, he has to look at his inability to build a decent defense and a deeper roster. His demand for control over all decisions may have sabotaged himself; if General Manager Bruce Allen had been more than a glorified door man, he’d have stepped in two years ago and said, “Coach, you’re one of the great offensive minds in the league, but let’s develop the other half of this team.”

Shanahan did a lot of things right. He drafted decently — at least, better than the past — made some good value finds in the lower rounds, and a spectacular one in Alfred Morris. He brought in some excellent free agents like Pierre Garcon, Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, and some who were not. John Beck and Rex Grossman were mistakes. Even with a lack of depth, he consistently put an elegant offense on the field.

But he made enemies for his policy of corrective intolerance with star players. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was equal parts unfit and unwilling, and Shanahan’s prediction that he and his $100 million contract would be out of the league within a year was exactly right, but left wounds. Shanahan was only a little more politic with Donovan McNabb, for whom the Redskins gave up multiple draft picks. When McNabb lacked both legs and any interest in learning a new offense, Shanahan benched him, and McNabb too was out of the league by the following year. The result was not what he intended: instead of being seen as tough and forthright, Shanahan was labeled abrasive and one willing to throw players under the bus.

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)

Shanahan, once known for consistent professionalism, has been undeniably damaged. But then, no coach under Snyder, with the exception of the beatified Joe Gibbs, has escaped with reputation un-dinged. Norv Turner left stigmatized as a soft, weak “vanilla” coach, Marty Schottenheimer as a hardheaded “real tough guy” whose methods were outdated, and Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn were lampooned as unprofessional. All different types, they all had similar results, because they all worked in the same unworkable dynamic, a managerial triangle. Schottenheimer vividly described it once in a radio interview, talking about Snyder’s habit of whispering with then-aide Vinny Cerrato. “Wait until I get up in the owner’s box during the regular season,” Cerrato told him, “and then we’ll see who Dan listens to.”

The names have changed, but the dynamic hasn’t. In 2013, we had the Shanahan-Snyder-Griffin triangle, with the player and owner whispering in each other’s ears. Shanahan made no secret of his unhappiness with it, and presumably, his view of this season’s disaster is that it exploded his locker room. And the result is that the Redskins are starting from scratch — again.

“You never know the direction,” Santana Moss said wearily after the game. “Every year is a new year and at the end of the day, when you leave this season, it’s like last year. We lost a playoff game and we didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring us. We knew that we got closer, and we didn’t go anywhere from there. So the offseason is always a million changes.”

With no progress.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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