Mike Shanahan needs to play to Redskins' strengths

The Washington Post's panel of football insiders preview the upcoming Redskins game at Tennessee.
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 12:36 AM

It's time for Mike Shanahan to start adapting his offensive and defensive systems to the actual talents of his current Redskins players, as well as to the rugged realities of the NFC East. You're not in mile-high Denver anymore, Mike.

In sports, one of the classic conflicts is between the system devised by a successful coach and the actual talents of his current players. At the professional level in football, the problem can be even worse because it takes years of drafts, trades and signings to switch to new systems on both offense and defense.

From their attempts to remake six-time pro bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb so that he fits the Shanahan Way to their so-far disastrous switch from a successful 4-3 defense to an ineffective 3-4, the Redskins find themselves caught in this dilemma.

The problem goes back to Denver.

Shanahan's great insight in Colorado was that football is fundamentally different when played at high altitude. Studies have shown the huge Denver home-field advantage in all sports. But nobody maximized the edge better than Shanahan. His Broncos record at home was 87-30. On the road it was 58-61.

In Denver, Shanahan deduced that you need smaller, quicker offensive linemen who can wear down and exhaust bigger defenders. What offense works best in those conditions? The zone-blocking, stretch-play run game, combined with play-action passing, that forces defenders to run from sideline-to-sideline or to reverse direction.

The debate about the merits of the 4-3 vs. the 3-4 defense goes more directly to personnel. In the NFL, either system works. This season, for example, 15 teams play the 4-3 and nine have winning records. The trick is to figure out which defense suits your players better.

Shanahan is known as a brilliant X's and O's man, especially on offense. However, in Denver, his 4-3 defenses were the definition of average. In 17 seasons, his teams have given up 330 points a year. Not bad, not good.

The biggest reason he finally got fired was that his last two defenses were awful. His final two Denver teams gave up 857 points. That's more than the two worst Redskins defenses in history.

That mediocre track record may suggest why Shanahan brought Jim Haslett in as his defensive coordinator and asked him to install a 3-4 defense in Washington. But why switch your entire defensive scheme when it's your offense that's been in shambles for a decade? Probably it was a well-intentioned mistake that looked like a good idea at the time. Now, it doesn't. It looks like over-coaching.

On Monday, that defense gave up 59 points and 592 yards to the Eagles and fell behind further and faster (35-0, one minute into the second quarter) than any home team in NFL history.

That should never happen. The Redskins have one of the NFL's most physically gifted group of defenders, including a ridiculous eight players who were taken in the top 17 picks in their drafts: LaRon Landry (No. 6 overall), Andre Carter (No. 7), DeAngelo Hall (No. 8), Carlos Rogers (No. 9), Brian Orakpo (No. 13), Adam Carriker (No. 13), Albert Haynesworth (No. 15) and Phillip Buchanon (No. 17).

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