By Sally Jenkins
Monday, July 26, 2010; D01
I write this before training camp has opened, and the souring effect of reality sets in. I write it with the knowledge that anyone who predicted success for the Redskins in the last few offseasons wound up at the bottom of the idiot pile. Nevertheless, the Redskins have cause for optimism. Not the fantasy-league optimism of the past based on whopping amounts of poorly spent cash, but optimism based on sense, and reason.
Just about every offseason for a decade, the Redskins have spouted false hope and sold us empty jerseys based on the idea that they were just one or two stars away from contending. If it wasn't Albert Haynesworth who was going to put them over the top, it was that strapping trio of wide receivers they drafted, or Adam Archuleta. Remember Vinny Cerrato's insistence that they had a playoff roster last year, even as they started 2-5 with catastrophic weaknesses? Then there was Clinton Portis's declaration: "I really do think on paper we've got the most talented team in the NFL." There has been none of that nonsense this time around. Nobody is pretending that the Redskins are better than they really are, least of all Mike Shanahan, and that's the most reassuring thing about the new regime as it prepares to open camp.
If we know nothing else about Shanahan and the team he is putting together, at least we know that he doesn't rationalize their weaknesses, or attempt to defend the indefensible. One of the first things he was asked when he was introduced as head coach and vice president of personnel was whether the Redskins were better than their record. He answered: "You are what you are. If you're 4-12, you're 4-12." Shanahan will bring somewhere between 35 or 40 new players to camp. He has turned over fully half the roster that was purportedly so "talented on paper." He's done it quickly and for the most part inexpensively, without awarding huge motivation-sapping contracts. While all the attention has been on his bolder moves, such as grabbing quarterback Donovan McNabb and right tackle Jammal Brown, it's moves such as Larry Johnson and utility lineman Artis Hicks, that may be just as significant if they produce and give the Redskins the substance they've lacked.
Why is Shanahan's brand of optimism more believable than the brands we've listened to before? The most striking thing about Shanahan's leadership is that he doesn't talk so much as he acts. You get the sense Shanahan brought in certain players simply to challenge the status quo. Whether guys like Johnson and Willie Parker get on the field or not, they are already serving Shanahan's purpose. Every coach claims to be demanding, but Shanahan doesn't just demand, he leverages. His remark that Portis needed to work harder in the offseason wasn't a toothless suggestion -- he followed it up by bringing in no fewer than five running backs hungry for a piece of his job. Consequently, reports that Portis is putting in the offseason work, so disappointingly untrue last season, are realistic for once.
Shanahan has also made it clear he's not sold on what he sees at wide receiver. He's not sitting around hoping Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly finally mature in their third seasons, or accepting their lip service about becoming big timers. The Redskins go into camp carrying 11 receivers. It's put up or shut up time.
Shanahan has done more than anyone perhaps thought he could in a single offseason, addressing a variety of urgent needs, while rattling the cages of some established veterans who might be complacent. There's a distinct theme to the sort of guys he's brought in: They are players whose value slipped because they were injured or supposedly worn out, who he is betting can still play at a high level and are deeply motivated to show what they still have. If his judgments about even some of them are right, the Redskins will be considerably better.
Reality check: None of this necessarily means the Redskins will be an overnight contender. They probably aren't going from 4-12 to 10-6 in one season with all they had to do. They're transitioning to a new 3-4 defense, they remain one of the oldest teams in the league, and they're reliant on a lot of "ifs." If Haynesworth reports fit and committed. If the young receivers finally develop. If rookie tackle Trent Williams learns fast on the job. We simply don't know what Portis has left in him, or how much a Joey Galloway can contribute. We don't even know how McNabb will perform -- will we get the Pro Bowler, or the guy who so often threw balls at his receivers' feet last year?
The fact is, they could be considerably improved and still be an under-.500 team. For that reason, Redskins prognosticators are all over the map -- Fox Sports has them at No. 17 in its power rankings, while the New York Times has them last in the NFC East for the third straight year.
But the ace in the hole is Shanahan. There's a sure-handedness, and an I-mean-business aura to his dealings that we haven't seen at Redskins Park in years, not even during Joe Gibbs's tenure. The bet here is that Shanahan's presence alone is worth at least eight victories -- although in an interview with Redskins.com last week, he spoke as if 8-8 would be a cringe-worthy failure. "To go 8-8 in Denver, I didn't want to go out, I didn't want to eat. You're embarrassed because it's your name on the football team." There is no reason for Redskins fans to "temper" their expectations, he declared. Even that wasn't phony optimism on Shanahan's part -- it's based on his record. He had just two losing seasons in 14 years in Denver. Nine times he won nine games or more.
We don't know a lot about the Redskins yet, but we do know this much: They are already a better-coached, less enabling, better-run franchise. Their hopes aren't reliant on a home run strategy but rather on Shanahan's coherent plan and sheer professionalism.