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Next to Joe Gibbs, Mike Shanahan doesn't look out of place

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, March 18, 2010; D01

As Mike Shanahan and Joe Gibbs stood side-by-side at Redskins Park on Wednesday, they reminisced about the only time they had met as head coaches, back in 2005 when the Redskins lost, 21-19, to the Broncos in Denver.

"We were trailing, had to go for two points; it was raining, just classic, both teams battling their guts out," Gibbs said. Then the former Redskins coach remembered the outcome of the game. "I'm not sure I ever beat you in anything," Gibbs said to Shanahan.

"I still remember those 28 points in the second quarter," said Shanahan, referring to the Redskins' victory in Super Bowl XXII over a Broncos team on which Shanahan was an assistant coach. (And yes, it was 35 points.)

That was the scene the Redskins staged for their fans and media: a mutual-congratulation feast meant to link the best of the team's past with its highest hopes for the future. That's valid. Recently, the Redskins have shown signs of wanting to change their ways and mend some fences.

But more explicitly, placing Shanahan beside Gibbs shows how hard it is to fix a team that has become a major mess. Gibbs won three Super Bowls, but when he came back to town in '04, even he couldn't accomplish the task.

Gibbs inherited Steve Spurrier's 5-11 disaster, and in four years, despite the money owner Daniel Snyder threw at problems, Joe still had a losing record. Gibbs got almost every player he asked for as well as new coordinators on both sides of the ball. By the end, all he had to do was orchestrate. But still, when he retired abruptly after '07, he left behind a half-repaired team.

Once an NFL team has been truly broken, as the Redskins were the past two years under Jim Zorn, former general manager Vinny Cerrato and Snyder, it takes years to mend.

These days, the Redskins are trying to re-brand themselves in the minds of their disgruntled fan base. Who better to be general manager than Bruce Allen, whose father led the team to its first Super Bowl? Shanahan had the best résumé of the glamour coaches who returned to the NFL this year, so grab him. Gibbs's arrival Wednesday, for a banquet for his Youth for Tomorrow charity, was another benediction on the Redskins' latest fresh start.

"Like all of us who are Redskin fans -- and I'm Fan No. 1 now -- I'm all excited," said Gibbs. "Dan did a great job in hiring Mike. He's a proven product in the NFL.

"I wanted to let Mike know what I thought he had in Dan. He has a burning desire to win. He's one of the owners that pays a price. I never had any excuses."

So, back to you, Mike: Perfect owner, great city, insane fans, unlimited budget, no excuses (and a 4-12 team). Have fun.

"You embrace those standards that Joe set," said Shanahan, adding that Redskins fans "expect perfection."

That's the irony, isn't it? Joe set the standards. Then nobody who came after him could meet them. Not even Joe.

For many years it has been obvious that the Redskins needed to rebuild over several seasons. But the team's fans want the product fixed instantly.

Perhaps Gibbs knows better than anybody what Shanahan is about to face.

"When you first come in, nothing is easy about it," said Gibbs. "The turnover from one head coach to the next is big. You have to go through a process of evaluating everybody to see if they fit with what you want to do . . . Picking people is one of the hardest things in the world.

"The life span of a player in the NFL is only four years, so there's always a lot of turnover anyway. Also, your scheme is probably different, too. [If] they're switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, that's a huge change."

Slowly, Shanahan is putting his imprint on the team.

"It's not a sprint," said the new coach with the two Super Bowl rings from his days in Denver. "It takes a lot of hard work."

On Wednesday, Shanahan took another of his deliberate steps. The Redskins signed free agent quarterback Rex Grossman, presumably to provide a backup quarterback who knows the offensive system of new coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

"We want competition," said Shanahan, referring to all positions, including quarterback. "Grossman has a year in the system."

What Grossman's addition really shows is Shanahan's ability to increase his options -- an essential gift when rebuilding a team.

If the Redskins take an offensive tackle such as Russell Okung of Oklahoma State with the fourth overall draft pick next month, then they have protection at quarterback as well as the possibility of Grossman, who led the Bears to the Super Bowl in '06, actually winning the job.

However, what if a quarterback the Redskins covet, like Sam Bradford, is still available with that fourth pick? Then you could grab him, try to trade Campbell and still have Grossman as a security blanket in case the kid quarterback develops slowly.

Shanahan's biggest problem is that quarterback is merely one of myriad questions about his team. Asked about the retirement of left tackle Chris Samuels, a six-time Pro Bowler, Shanahan said, "Everybody would agree it's important to have a left tackle. And a right tackle, a left guard, a right guard and a center."

After the chuckling stopped, the reality of the remark set in. Shanahan doesn't just need a lineman. He needs almost a whole offensive line. Artis Hicks, the first free agent the Redskins signed this offseason, wasn't even a fulltime starter at any one position in Minnesota, but more a line utility man.

"Sometimes you have to find a way to get it done without a superstar like Chris," said Shanahan.

When Gibbs and Shanahan talk, one name clearly comes up a lot: Snyder.

"What did you major in?" Gibbs asked Shanahan.

"Physical education," the new coach said.

"Me, too. When things went wrong, Dan would say, 'I'm surrounded by P.E. majors,' " Gibbs recalled. "I'd be tempted to say, 'At least I graduated from college.' But then I realized he dropped out and became a billionaire.'"

Shanahan thought for a second. Perhaps no Redskins coach will ever have the homespun ease, and the leverage with an owner, that Gibbs possessed with Snyder. How will Shanahan, so respected but faced with such a busted machine, fit into this complex world of high expectations and constant reshaping of franchise identity?

"My 'P.E.' stands for 'Petroleum Engineering,' " Shanahan said, deadpan.

Good idea. Stick with that.

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