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With Mike Shanahan now in charge, the Washington Redskins hope to take the first step for a franchise turnaround

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By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 1:14 AM

One key to happiness is hoping for the best but keeping a sane grip on what's really most likely to happen. Unfortunately, those two ideas are often far apart. Seldom is the fantasy-reality gap bigger than in sports. Hence, the creation of the word "Boooooo."

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However, nowhere is the suspension of rational discussion more commonplace nor the addiction to football hallucination more prevalent than in the Washington area, as Redskins season approaches.

This is a colorful, tragicomic local tradition, inculcated in me since childhood when someone, probably my father, convinced me that having a 5-foot-7 quarterback (Eddie LeBaron) wasn't really a significant disadvantage.

The current owner of the Redskins, who wore a team belt buckle as a kid, has operated under the same magic spell that afflicts many of us. But for me, the fog has lifted. I'm starting to think, 50 years late, that the start of a Redskins season might be a nice time for realism.

Just so you know, they're going to go 7-9 this year.

Maybe 8-8, if a lot goes according to plan. Or 6-10, if it doesn't.

If any coach and quarterback can surpass these standards, it's probably Mike Shanahan, a genuine football guru, and Donovan McNabb, who was an absolute steal.

But this isn't a prediction column. It's a probability analysis. Nobody can see the future, but I can study an NFL record book. Usually, history mumbles. This time, it speaks clearly. In pro sports, little is new. And the Redskins don't look different from dozens of losing teams in the last 20 years that switched coaches.

First, the good news: Changing coaches, especially when you stink, is a fine idea. In the last 20 years, 18 teams that went 4-12 switched coaches. Their average record the next season was 7-9. If the Redskins aren't significantly better than last year, even with their Albert anchor, I'd be dumbfounded.

Is there even a chance the Redskins could make the playoffs? Sure, there is. Unfortunately, it's just not much of a chance - less than 20 percent. Since '90, there have been 54 teams that lost 11 or more games, then got a new coach before the next season. How many made the playoff the first year? Ten of 54, or just 19 percent.

It goes without saying that the Redskins themselves, to the last man, should be focused on being one of that 19 percent. They are getting paid millions to believe deeply that they will be like the '92 Chargers, the '06 Jets or the '08 Falcons. All those teams bounced back from 4-12 seasons to go 10-6 or 11-5 and make the playoffs. Every athlete should start from the assumption of victory. And every fan is entitled to dream of a remarkable year.

But don't make yourself miserable by expecting it.

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