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

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."

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.

For the Redskins to reach 9-7 this season - a winning record and a mark that might get them into the playoffs - they would have to win five more games than last year. How rare is that?

You guessed it: Darn rare. In the last 20 years, 115 NFL teams have changed coaches after the season. Just 17 of them - or 14.9 percent - improved by five wins. That should be sobering. But it gets worse. Of the 17 teams that showed big jumps, how many went backward in the new coach's second season? Answer: 13 of the 17.

So prepare yourself. Get your mind right. This is going to take time. Enjoy a respectable losing season or celebrate a .500 year. Call it progress. Don't wake up screaming every time the Redskins lose 23-3.

Washington plays seven games against teams that won 11 to 14 games last year and four more against .500-or-better teams. That's not a schedule. It's a 113-day final examination.

So, realistically, how long will Redskin fans have to wait for the Shanahan regime to produce a winning program?

You want me to tell you that the history book says that everything will be dandy by 2011. Sorry, another wrong answer.

Let's go back to those 115 coaching changes since '90. How many of those franchises had improved by five wins - which it would take to get the Redskins to 9-7 - by the end of Year Two?

Only 22 teams - or 19 percent - met that high standard.

Against the odds, I actually think the Redkins will be one of those teams by '11. Why? Because Shanahan has done it before.

When he first became Denver's head coach, he inherited a respectable 7-9 team, then improved to 8-8 and 13-3. With John Elway at quarterback - between the age of 36 and 38 - Shanahan went 39-9.

McNabb is 33. Right now, he has a sprained ankle, and he probably won't take another game snap until opening night against Dallas. But before he came up hobbling, he looked as quick and strong-armed as he was last year when he threw 22 touchdown passes, had just 10 interceptions and a 92.9 quarterback rating.

Believe it or not, another one of those coaches who performed a five-win transformation on a losing team within two years was Joe Gibbs. Not Gibbs I, but Gibbs II. He took the Redskins from 5-11 - the year before he arrived - to a 10-6 playoff team in '05 and another playoff visit in '07.

Maybe it didn't seem like a big deal at the time. But if you waste as much time (sorry, do as much research) as I have on this stuff, you'll realize how miserably hard it is to take a team that's lost more than two thirds of its games and take it to the playoffs.

If Jim Zorn, Vinny Cerrato and Jason Campbell were still in the same roles as last year, I'd say they'd go 4-12 again. But they aren't. Coaching changes help. Getting Shanahan helps even more. Upgrading at quarterback matters, and the Redskins did it.

Redskins, don't read the rest of this paragraph. You're paid to think, "Win this week." This is for Redskins fans who've been kicked in the gut by their own high hopes for nearly 20 years. Tell yourself, "6-10 isn't so bad, 7-9 is okay and 8-8 would be good."

If such thoughts help fight off the blues, imagine how you'll feel if that 7-to-1 shot comes in and the Redskins are winners this year.

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