Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has a lot riding on Coach Mike Shanahan

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 12:19 AM

Imagine a high-stakes poker game with Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan bankrolled by team owner Daniel Snyder.

Last week, Shanahan, Washington's top football official, essentially raised the ante on his belief in the direction the franchise must take when he suspended defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth for the remainder of the season. Snyder backed Shanahan's costly move - which could result in little return for Snyder on his almost $36 million investment - in part because it appears Snyder has no choice.

Snyder has a lot riding on Shanahan. He believes the two-time Super Bowl winner, despite his poor start, is the right man to return the once-successful franchise to prominence. If Shanahan succeeds, the Redskins will again achieve elite status, which they haven't experienced for the better part of two decades. If Shanahan fails, however, the Redskins could slip further into irrelevance, continuing to alienate a frustrated fan base and risking more damage to their still-strong brand.

"Coach Shanahan definitely is trying to" accomplish a lot, said cornerback and defensive co-captain DeAngelo Hall. "Because of what Coach Shanahan has done [in his career], you had that hope that maybe it could happen really fast, but no one said it was gonna be easy."

After 13 games under Shanahan, the 2010 Redskins resemble the last-place teams former coach Jim Zorn guided the previous two seasons. Losers of three in a row, the Redskins (5-8) have been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.

With a 1-4 mark thus far in the second half of its schedule, Washington is in its third late-season slide in as many seasons. The team has a second-half record of 5-16 during that span.

In the NFC East this season, the Redskins are a game ahead of the Dallas Cowboys (4-9), whom they face on the road Sunday. If the Redskins were to finish last, it would be their third consecutive season in the division basement.

"Changing the culture of a team takes a long time," said punter Hunter Smith, a 12-year veteran who was released Tuesday during his second season with Washington. "I played in Indianapolis. Indianapolis had a culture of losing and befuddling calamity and things like that. It took a few good players, it took a coaching change and building a culture of winning.

"That's just what has to happen here. Coach Shanahan is a winner. He's a proven winner. There's some great character on this team. But it is a microwave culture, and this is gonna take a little bit more of a crockpot approach."

Snyder gave Shanahan player personnel control and a five-year contract, believed to be for $7 million per season, to put the Redskins on top again. Joe Gibbs went to four Super Bowls, winning three, during his first stint as coach of the team.

If Shanahan produces a couple of wild-card berths and one playoff victory, the level of success attained during Gibbs 2.0, that probably won't sit well with fans who "ain't really had a lot to be happy about for a long time," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "With Coach Shanahan here, now they expect it."

And it is all on Shanahan.

Both Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen have the title of executive vice president, but Shanahan takes orders from no one at Redskins Park. Because Shanahan has the final word, he is responsible - and will be held accountable - for the team's future.

That could be a problem in terms of player personnel, which ultimately was among the main factors in Shanahan's undoing in Denver. If Shanahan had at least an equal in the general manager's office, perhaps the Redskins would benefit from another strong voice in such a key area.

Eric Schaffer, vice president of football administration, is considered an astute cap manager, but he doesn't have a player personnel background. Scott Campbell, director of player personnel, and rising young official Morocco Brown, director of pro personnel, should receive high marks for finding players such as rookie return specialist Brandon Banks and wide receiver Anthony Armstrong. But neither is in a position to challenge Shanahan on major moves.

It seems no one in the organization is, so the Redskins are all in behind Shanahan.

"Coach Shanahan definitely is the right guy for the job. I'm sure of it," said center Casey Rabach. "He's already made a lot of positive changes, and I think the fans will see a lot of good things from this team in the future."

The fourth-smallest crowd in FedEx Field's 14-year history - it was announced at only 66,124 - watched Washington's 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay. On Internet message boards and sports-talk radio, fans have expressed anger about the team's apparent lack of progress. Sooner or later, years of dissatisfaction could affect the bottom line.

In fairness to Shanahan, he inherited a mess.

This season marks the ninth non-winning season in Snyder's 12 years at the helm, and the 13th since the team last won a Super Bowl. In the past 11 seasons, the Redskins have earned only two postseason berths.

The expectation in the NFL is that a high draft pick should be a major contributor, if not a starter, by his third season in the league. But free safety Kareem Moore is the only starter from the Redskins' 2008 draft class - and he was a sixth-round selection. Five players from the 10-member class are no longer with the organization.

Washington also has made many big mistakes in free agency, so receiving little from such a large, recent draft class affects the roster for years. There weren't as many options in free agency during the past offseason because players who would have been unrestricted during a capped season were restricted and did not change teams under the collective bargaining agreement's terms for the uncapped 2010 campaign.

Shanahan, however, also has made mistakes.

He traded multiple draft picks, including a second-round choice, to acquire quarterback Donovan McNabb and right tackle Jammal Brown, both of whom have struggled. McNabb had his second-highest passer rating of the season (100.7) in the Week 14 loss to the Buccaneers but often has been ineffective in Shanahan's West Coast offense.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan does not believe McNabb, 34, is a good fit for the vision he has for Washington's offense, according to people familiar with the situation, and the elder Shanahan mishandled McNabb's late-game benching in Week 8, stirring concern in the locker room.

But at the same time, everyone at Redskins Park knows Shanahan has the future of the franchise in his hands.

"I think everyone just kinda lookin' at it now like, 'Hey, Coach Shanahan holding the cards,' " Rogers said. "We just all waiting to see what he gonna do with 'em."

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