Turning around a season and a franchise


A Mike Shanahan coached team has never finished worse than 6-10. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
November 7, 2011

Four-game losing streaks represent a quarter of an NFL season completely wiped out. Mike Shanahan is in the midst of his fourth as a head coach, one punctuated by Sunday’s unsightly 19-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers — the latest result that has every part of his Washington Redskins under heavy analysis from inside and out.

A season-and-a-half into his tenure in Washington, Shanahan has won fewer games than all but three Redskins coaches who lasted this long. Fewer than Jim Zorn. Fewer than Steve Spurrier. Fewer than Joe Kuharich. So he stood Monday discussing not only how a coach turns around a month-long slide, but how he alters the course of an entire franchise.

“Hopefully it doesn’t happen too many times, or you won’t be in this profession very long,” Shanahan said of the losing streak. “That’s the nature of the game. I’ve always approached it the same way. … It’s tough, because you put so much time in. The guys have played extremely hard, so you got to find a way to get in the win column. You just got to go back to work.”

Yet midway through Shanahan’s second season, the question becomes: With an overhauled, improving defense that has allowed only 14 touchdowns — fourth-fewest in the league — and an offense that can look inept, what outcome can be expected from all that work? In 16 full seasons as an NFL head coach, Shanahan has never finished worse than 6-10 — his record in 1999, the year after John Elway retired in Denver, and 2010, his first season in Washington.

But looking at the remaining schedule – including Sunday’s game at Miami (1-7), which just crushed Kansas City for its first win — finding three more wins could prove difficult, regardless of how badly they’re needed.

“Winning is incredibly important,” defensive lineman Barry Cofield said. “It changes the mood in the locker room. It changes the way practice goes. It changes the relationship you have with your coaches, fans, everyone. Winning can cure a lot of things.”

But would one win change where the Redskins stand as a franchise? Shanahan spent a considerable portion of his Monday meeting with the media discussing whether or not the Redskins are “rebuilding,” particularly because they’re now starting a number of young players. Running back Roy Helu, guard Maurice Hurt and receiver Leonard Hankerson — all rookies, all playing positions vacated by injured veterans — received their first career starts against San Francisco. All three likely will start against Miami.

“When you lose a starter that’s a veteran player, and you play a young guy — you’re playing your next best player — is that considered rebuilding, because you’re playing your next best player?” Shanahan said. “I don’t believe so. You’re trying to win the football game.”

The Redskins have gone more than a month since they last won a football game. That unexpected reality leaves players who have endured the calamities from the past to explain that the franchise, now, is somehow in a better spot, even if the results don’t say so. Just more than two years ago, the Redskins took play-calling responsibilities away from Jim Zorn and gave them to assistant Sherman Lewis, who had been in retirement calling Bingo games three weeks earlier.

“When you look back to ’09 and the regime that was here before, it was the kind of regime that was in disarray and a locker room that wasn’t a great locker room,” said linebacker London Fletcher, a defensive captain. “There were a lot of divisive pieces in the locker room. So it’s a different atmosphere. Coach Shanahan came here last year and he started a process of rebuilding years of mistakes by the prior people who were running things. That’s going to take a while.”

Especially, it seems, on offense. After scoring just 11 points the past two weeks, the Redskins rank 27th in points per game (15.9) and are tied for 27th in total touchdowns (13). Sunday, they didn’t cross the San Francisco 30-yard line until their final possession.

Invariably, in such a situation, the offensive coordinator endures some scrutiny. In Washington’s case, the offensive coordinator is the head coach’s son, Kyle. In discussing that dynamic Monday, Shanahan said he initially advised Kyle not to leave the Houston Texans — who had an established offense led by quarterback Matt Schaub and all-pro receiver Andre Johnson — for the Redskins, who needed to be overhauled.

“I said, ‘This is going to be a work in progress,’” Mike Shanahan said. “‘It’s not going to happen overnight. You’re with an established team. You’ve got your ducks in order.’ I said, ‘We’re going to have to rebuild this football team, starting on offense.’ He understood that. He enjoyed the challenge, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It is, without question, a challenge now. Half a season remains, the last win seems a distant memory, the home fans are booing loudly, and the players are having to repeat their faith in the franchise’s direction.

“We feel like from a leadership standpoint, we’re getting the right kind of coaching, we’re getting . . . pointed in the right direction,” said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, the other defensive captain. “We feel like we will be a great team.”

When? Shanahan said Monday he will evaluate everything game by game. But he understands greatness, right now, seems a long way off.

“The thing we have to do is we have to grow up real quick,” Shanahan said. “They’re getting some good practice time. They’re getting some good playing time. I believe they have a lot of talent to get to the next level. But in order for all that to work, and to score points, you’ve got to all mesh together, and right now we’re not doing that.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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