Sally Jenkins: Coach Mike Shanahan is testing Albert Haynesworth's loyalty more than his fitness

On the sixth day of training camp, Redskins coaches mix in a few new drills while Albert Haynesworth spends another day observing practice from the sidelines.
By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; 1:08 AM

Let's play the fill-in-the-blank game. Albert Haynesworth will pass his conditioning test before [blank]? Fill in with the absurdity of your choosing. Before . . . Brett Favre announces his next comeback? The midterm elections? The Iraqi drawdown is completed? Malia Obama plays in the WNBA?

Haynesworth continues to be the man of the hour at Redskins Park, or rather, the man of every minute of every hour, his condition so compulsively updated, tweeted and blogged that we know the exact length of his bathroom break. His fitness test has become such a serialized comedy-drama that if you want to find out what happens next, as Coach Mike Shanahan says, "You'll just have to stick around." On Day 6 of the Conditioning Watch, Haynesworth idled through yet another training camp session, nursing his knee instead of running his sprints. He watched from the sideline with a helmet on his head, set apart like a kid sent to the Manners Chair. After the session ended, he was escorted away by Redskins media executive Zack Bolno, who warded off all questions, presumably part of the isolation punishment.

"How's the knee?" someone asked as Haynesworth trudged past.

"Ask Zack," Haynesworth replied.

Let's be clear: Haynesworth's knee is an issue, but it's not the real issue. Is it hurt to the point that it requires an MRI exam? "No," Shanahan said, "It's not." Could Shanahan let Haynesworth practice without passing the test? Sure. Will he? Certainly not. What's really going on here, the real show, is an attempt by Shanahan to subdue a 300-pound prima donna, and reduce him to wordless obedience.

Shanahan says Haynesworth must complete two shuttle runs in 70 and 73 seconds to prove he's in "football shape." Nonsense. The bursts of effort required of a defensive linemen last seven or eight seconds, not 70, and Haynesworth looks as fit as he ever has in his career, trim and muscled. This isn't really a fitness test. It's a loyalty oath. It's Shanahan's way of testing Haynesworth's unqualified commitment.

Shanahan is known for the strict culture of his locker rooms, and he doesn't tolerate those who don't bend to his program. This is a coach who once penalized Jake Plummer for being 15 seconds late to a meeting, who has a 72-point program for success, and who assigns seats at team meetings. Journalist Stefan Fatsis, who went through a Shanahan training camp with the Denver Broncos, described how Shanahan had all of the clocks in the building synchronized, so that he knew whether players were in their meeting rooms by 7:57 a.m.

In Shanahan's view, if you're not early, you're late. And Haynesworth is very, very late, what with his refusal to attend offseason workouts, and his mulish resistance to playing in a 3-4 alignment. From all indications Shanahan views training camp as the end of a phase, not the start of one. You're supposed to come to his camp already well advanced in your fitness and knowledge of his system. It's said that Plummer never recovered Shanahan's good opinion after he attended just 85 percent of Shanahan's supposedly optional offseason workouts. Haynesworth's percentage of accommodating Shanahan to date is exactly zero. So where does that leave him?

"He kind of put himself behind the eight ball by not being here at least 50 percent of the time," Phillip Daniels said. "It's just something you've got to do. He's got to pass that test and get out here. It's fair. The test is fair. He's gotta pass it, and once he does that, he'll be out here with us."

Shanahan's critics will say he's being uncompromising. Haynesworth, after all, showed up at camp 35 pounds lighter than last season and has done everything else asked of him. He has by all accounts been an engaged and acquiescing student of the new scheme, bowing to defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's plans to use him at both nose tackle and defensive end. He has stayed for a half-hour after every practice for extra work in agility and walk-throughs.

"He is learning the stuff; he's in the meeting rooms; he's asking lots of questions," Daniels said. "He's bought into playing either the end or the nose, so I mean that's all you can ask, and that's all we can get right now. So we've got to be patient until he passes his test and we get him out there."

Perhaps most encouraging is Haynesworth's effort to counteract his reputation as a selfish and self-absorbed teammate. He has taken a visible interest in second-year player Jeremy Jarmon, tutoring him on the sideline and demonstrating techniques.

"Albert's always been able to help me out, sometimes when Coach is occupied and doing things, he's able to kind of just keep some of those ideas fresh in my head that Coach was going over in meetings and stuff," Jarmon says. "He just talks to me about hand placement and stance and things like that."

So why doesn't Shanahan relent? Why is he still taking such a hard line? Surely it's best for the organization to get the most impactful defensive lineman in the league back on the field and up to speed. Even Shanahan's supporters wonder if his insistence on principle is beginning to set the team back. You hear whispers that Haslett wants Haynesworth on the field and get the sense that even Haynesworth's critical teammates, formerly so resentful of his absence, are ambivalent about it now.

"The more he sits out on the side watching, the more he's missing," Daniels said. "He needs to be out there, going live and learning stuff. That's the only way you can learn the defense, is to go out and put yourself in it and go live. It's really hurting us as a team, 'cause he's sitting there watching and he can't compete."

But Shanahan is right to hold his line, and here's why: The conditioning test is not just about Haynesworth. It's about everybody else in the organization, too. Every single player is intensely aware of how Shanahan is handling Haynesworth. To let him off the hook on the sprints would immediately devalue every player who showed up at minicamp or performed a "voluntary" workout. Too often the currency at Redskins Park has rewarded talent instead of commitment. Shanahan is changing the currency, restoring the value of daily dedication.

Is Shanahan making an example of Haynesworth? Sure. Is it fair to make him the sole example? Maybe not. But if Haynesworth didn't want to be singled out, he never should have set himself apart, and tried so hard to make himself an exception in the first place.

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