This season will mean much for Mike Shanahan’s legacy

Mike Wise
Columnist September 8, 2012

Do you ever think about the Hall of Fame, or is that something you look at after your career is over?

“I don’t ever think about that to be honest with you,” Mike Shanahan says.

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

Come on. Never?

“I really don’t. I just know that if you take care of today’s business good things usually happen. The people that I’ve been around that think about those things, usually they’re retired — or thinking about retirement.

“The one thing I’m excited about is turning this organization around.”

At the least, he has turned it over. Just London Fletcher, DeAngelo Hall and Brian Orakpo remain as starters since he took over in 2010 — 19 of 22 on offense and defense are now his guys, players expressly acquired by Bruce Allen and approved by Shanahan. “If you count the kickers, that’s 22 out of 25,” Shanahan adds.

Can’t believe you got rid of Graham Gano. (I was half-kidding.)

“You never know with kickers, he may be kicking for the next 10 years,” Shanahan says, half-smiling. “I wouldn’t put it past him.”

It’s Year 3 of the My-Way Mike Refurbishing Project. After two seasons of laying concrete, building foundations, raising walls, he finally got to shop for chandeliers and linens this offseason — and, my, Robert Griffin III pretties up the place, doesn’t he?

Now, hours before a decibel-splitting opener in New Orleans’s Superdome, we begin to find out how much progress amid the hype has actually been made.

If the franchise stands at a crossroads, waiting to see when or if Griffin emerges into a perennial playoff quarterback, so does Shanahan, a football lifer the past 27 years, who mortgaged much of the franchise’s future draft picks to acquire the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor with the No. 2 pick in the draft.

Every QB-coach tandem is linked in some fashion, but Griffin is tethered tighter to Shanahan — for his emergence represents more than mission accomplished in rebuilding the Redskins; he gets Washington to a Super Bowl under Shanahan, that’s a ticket punched to Canton for his coach.

Otherwise, if the grand gamble implodes, if Shanahan can’t become the first Redskins coach to win more than one playoff game in the Daniel Snyder era of ownership, the coach begins to descend into George Seifert-Tom Flores territory — multiple Super Bowl winners who have never been thought of as the best in their profession, thereby deeming them unworthy of Hall-of-Fame induction. (Flores not getting in is a crime.)

The offensive guru, whose teams always competed, would be undone by the architect, who enters his third season in Washington with a record of 11-21. Though south of Jim Zorn’s two forgettable years, the record barely considers the big picture, which Shanahan is used to.

For instance, the most convenient indictment of Shanahan’s career post-Elway has been the oft-repeated fact that he hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season or a Super Bowl since Elway retired.

But excluding 2009, the one season Shanahan was out of football, his numbers are dizzying as either a head coach or a coordinator with total control of the offense.

No single franchise has amassed more total yards (114,406), rushing yards (40,413) or, yes, Super Bowls (three — two with Denver, one as offensive coordinator of the 49ers) than Shanahan the past two decades. Just the Steelers, Patriots and Packers have more wins than Shanahan’s 199 over the same period of time.

Only the Packers have scored more points than Shanahan’s offenses since 1992.

Of the seven most prominent quarterbacks he’s worked with in that time — Steve Young, John Elway, Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Donovan McNabb and Rex Grossman — two became Hall of Famers, five had Pro Bowl seasons starting under Shanahan for two or more years and only McNabb was a major disappointment.

As with any political convention, the numbers can be manipulated to arrive at any agenda-driven conclusion. Many of those touchdowns and yards were indeed piled up with an Elway-led offense in a zone-blocking era. But in researching Shanahan’s career, one stat stood out as impressively as any of the whopping offensive numbers: quarterback rating.

Whether it’s Elway and Young or Bubby Brister and Gus Frerotte, nine of the 10 quarterbacks who have started games for Shanahan the past 20 years had better quarterback ratings working under Shanahan than without him; Young and Plummer actually had ratings 15 points better; heck, John Beck was 10 points better — and he had to be benched last season.

Which proves one thing, of course: What was he thinking with McNabb, who went from face of the franchise in spring 2010 to pariah in, oh, a few months?

“When you bring a guy in and you talk to that player, you tell him if you want to be on the team for the next three years you’re going to have to prove it to me that you want to lead this football team,” Shanahan says, explaining why McNabb was jettisoned within a year. “Those are easy decisions.”

And Beck, whom Shanahan told me in his office almost exactly a year ago, “I know he can be that guy,” why didn’t he become a franchise quarterback?

“A lot of quarterbacks don’t have success because you don’t have the supporting cast,” he says. “I thought John Beck came in and did everything he could. I thought Rex came in and did everything he could. Then you got to make decisions on what you have to upgrade.

“So a guy like John Beck — if John Beck wasn’t a very good player he wouldn’t be on Houston’s team right now. Sometimes guys have ability and sometimes it takes guys a little bit longer.”

Translation: He wasn’t wrong on Beck; Beck either wasn’t ready yet or didn’t have the tools around him to flourish. So then, does Griffin?

“We brought a lot of character on this football team — it’s a totally different team from two years ago,” Shanahan says. “We got guys that are hungry that are preparing themselves. Hopefully it shows in wins.”

Asked if the criticism was fair given the mess he inherited, he replies, “I’ll be honest with you. . . . I’ve been in this profession long enough to understand that you better have thick skin when you’re losing; that comes with the territory. But it’s your job to get it turned around and you have to believe in what you do.”

A year ago when we spoke, Shanahan emphatically promised, “And when we do have this thing turned around, people will see it, and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s the way you do it.’ ” A year later, I asked him if he genuinely believes he’s getting closer.

“Oh, I know we’re getting there,” he says, more emphatically. “You can feel it in the locker room.”

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

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