As Mike Shanahan comes aboard, a dash of optimism, a heavy dose of realism

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, January 7, 2010; D08

When Mike Shanahan was introduced Wednesday as Redskins coach, he took the podium with almost as good a career winning percentage (.598) as Joe Gibbs (.621) and Marty Schottenheimer (.613) and just as good a shot at reviving the franchise, too.

But no better chance.

Be encouraged. Maybe the third time will be a charm for owner Dan Snyder, who twice before has tried exactly this tactic: Hire a famous veteran coach and claim you won't interfere with cooking the meal. Oh, Marty was supposed to be the boss of all bosses, too.

So, hold the 21-gun salute.

Just because Snyder and ex-executive Vinny Cerrato are no longer doing the backstroke in the Redskin punch bowl does not ensure that the team's Kool-Aid will be easy to drink anytime soon.

Putting Shanahan and new GM Bruce Allen between the owner and his expensive amusement is a necessary safety precaution. But it's not sufficient to turn a slumbering franchise, dormant for 17 seasons, into a consistent winner and genuine contender. This is going to be hard and painful. And it's going to take time.

"We got our man," Allen said.

"I promise you I won't disappoint you," Shanahan said.

The new coach then praised Snyder, sitting in the front row, but conspicuously not on the dais, for being the most "passionate and positive" of owners. "That person is going to give you every chance to win a Super Bowl," said Shanahan who, thank heavens, added the words "not overnight."

Because my father came to D.C. the same year as the Redskins and because my son may, someday, extend our family's streak of continuous Redskins worship to 100 straight seasons, I understand that it's the nature of fans to be insane. But that doesn't mean the team, in its own internal view, has to be equally crazy.

The issue of preposterously high expectations, and the disappointments that go along with it, remains one of the Redskins' biggest hurdles. At Redskins Park, you can get money by the barrel. Realism comes by the teaspoon.

What kinds of fan pressure does Shanahan face? Ardent as Broncos fans are, they might not match Redskins fans, as Shanahan already suspects. At the 2004 Hall of Fame exhibition game, when John Elway was going into Canton, Denver played the Redskins.

"Eighty percent of the crowd was Redskins fans," Shanahan said. "I asked, 'Who's being inducted from the Redskins?' "

Nobody. For the Burgundy and Gold nation, Ohio's an easy road trip.

If we take a step back, it seems that, in terms of competent leadership, the Redskins are now right back where they were two years ago when Gibbs resigned. And it's not a bad place. There's plenty to be said for distinguished veteran coaches who'll attract proven offensive and defensive coordinators.

There's a similarity between Gibbs II and Shanahan that is reassuring, as long as you don't push it too hard. In his last three seasons, Gibbs was 24-24. In his last three years in Denver, Shanahan was 24-24 before being fired. Both won multiple Super Bowls, but both have won just one playoff game since the '90s. Both were called offensive geniuses at their peak. Has Shanahan's run-heavy version of the West Coast offense grown a bit stale in recent years as Gibbs's old schemes certainly did? We'll see.

Feel free to extend Shanahan some sympathy. Since '92, just four teams in the NFL have worse records than the Redskins. The last Redskins to lead the NFL in rushing, passing and receiving yardage were Larry Brown ('70), Sonny Jurgensen ('69) and Bobby Mitchell ('63) -- all before Bruce Allen's father George ever became the Redskins' coach.

So can we calm down and give Shanahan time to clean up this mess? The magnitude of his job hit him right in the face as soon as his plane landed here on Monday and, almost immediately, his players began ripping each other as undisciplined and selfish.

Then the feathers really hit the fan. In my lifetime, there has never been a more hostile and public war of words between star Redskins players than the current bolts hurled between Clinton Portis and Jason Campbell. Compared to this pair, Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer were exchanging valentines.

Because almost 100 percent of the locker room sides with Campbell and grew tired of Portis's act long ago, Shanahan wisely staked out an initial position leaning heavily toward Campbell saying, "I love the way he handles himself" and "hopefully his best years are ahead." For Portis, he seemed to lay down real rules, rather than the previous owner's pet guidelines.

"Some veterans that have been very successful and all of a sudden they quit working out and as a running back you can fall off a cliff," Shanahan said. "If you make a commitment that . . . you've got the work ethic to be as good as you possibly can be then you've got a chance to [still] be something special."

If Portis doesn't buy into that program, and he even drove Gibbs crazy with his work habits, then Shanahan shouldn't throw Portis under the bus. Instead, just put him on one -- out of town.

In fairness to Shanahan, fans should recognize that he faces a much harder task than Gibbs did six years ago. Then Gibbs retained several solid starters from Steve Spurrier's 5-11 team in '03: Chris Samuels, Jon Jansen, Randy Thomas, Derrick Dockery, LaVar Arrington, Laveranues Coles, Renaldo Wynn and Fred Smoot.

Then Snyder bestowed upon Gibbs, at the cost of only one Pro Bowl player (Champ Bailey), a treasure chest of new talent, including 12 new starters: Portis (1,315 yards), Mark Brunell, Cornelius Griffin, Sean Taylor, Shawn Springs, Chris Cooley, Marcus Washington, Lemar Marshall, Antonio Pierce, Phillip Daniels, Cory Raymer and Ryan Clark.

The result? The Redskins won one more game, going 6-10.

The Redskins are fortunate to get Shanahan. And Snyder deserves high marks for pairing him with Allen. They've long respected each other and ought to form a functional front office.

Still, the journey ahead of this team is so long that only internal candor will help them survive the trek. For the Redskins, this was their best day by far in more than two years. That tells you how much they've fallen and how far they must climb to get back up.

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