Mike Shanahan needs to play to Redskins' strengths

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).

Few teams have so much raw speed, strength and skill. That doesn't include undrafted London Fletcher, the team's best player.

The Redskins' defense has enough talent, as it has shown the last three years. It's just not being used properly, starting with Haynesworth. You can cut him, you can trade him or you can play him. What you can't do is keep him, and his huge personality, on your team, then deliberately thwart and embarrass him every week.

Right now, the Redskins defender who is being shown to the most advantage by the 3-4 is Landry. Is his big-hit potential worth changing your whole defense for? Especially when his leadership manifests itself in such dubious ways - such as taunting DeSean Jackson about his two concussions before Monday's kickoff. Both teams ended up in a ruckus and, on their first play, the Eagles threw deep to Jackson - over Landry - for an 88-yard score.

Who besides Landry, whom Shanahan now praises as one of the greatest athletes he's ever seen, is clearly better in the 3-4?

Fletcher is going to make his impact in either defense. Nobody's yet blocked Orakpo, whether he's standing up or has his hand in the dirt. Out on his island, Hall, who leads NFL cornerbacks in interceptions and tackles, is only marginally affected by the change.

But Haynesworth is erased and Carter, who had 11 sacks last year, has no true position. Though the Redskins have doubled their takeaway rate, they're on pace for only 34 sacks after totaling 40 last year.

The Eagles' eruption was part of an ugly trend. That was the fourth time in nine games the Redskins have allowed 30 or more points. In their previous 48 regular season games, that only happened five times.

No team switches its basic scheme quickly in midseason. But you can play more 4-3. You can evolve.

On offense, Shanahan keeps bemoaning the awful third-down conversion rate as if somebody else's team was screwing up. Hey, who's calling the lousy plays? Maybe Kyle Shanahan should ask, "What do you think'll work here, Mr. Semi-Hall-of-Fame QB?" instead of just dialing up the Shanahan Family Rosetta Stone.

Anyway, if your name is Mike, and you proved you were mighty smart in Denver, there's a lot to think about the next seven weeks. You're 4-5 and that's a lot better than 4-12. But you only beat the Bears because you recovered five of your own fumbles; the Lions loss was ugly and Monday was Redskins anti-history. Your defense is playing like you tied their ankles together the day you first said "3-4." And your offense is oblivious to the long-proven skill set of the quarterback who's actually running it.

Here's an idea. Now that you've shown you're a fine disciplinarian, ask your veteran leaders for their ideas. Since McNabb is probably your best option at quarterback for the next season or two, maybe a real smart guy would ask him, "Donovan, how can we modify our brilliant system to help you?"

Oh, and tell him his throwing motion looks great. Don't change a thing.

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