By Barry Svrluga
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; D01
This was the season, with a new coach and a new quarterback, that the Washington Redskins were to make palpable progress. Last year's disaster - a 4-12 record, another last-place finish in the NFC East - resulted in the dismissal of Jim Zorn as head coach and Vinny Cerrato as executive vice president of football operations, The hiring of Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen to replace them was supposed to push the entire organization forward, because as Allen said upon Zorn's firing, "The status quo is not acceptable."
But following Sunday's 33-30 loss at Dallas, it's even more apparent how difficult the status quo is to expunge. The Redskins enter the final two games of their season with no hope of making the playoffs, merely trying to stave off a third straight last-place finish - which would be the longest string in franchise history - and find whatever form of motivation they can.
"Ultimately, we haven't found a way to win all year," tight end Chris Cooley said. "To be a good football team, to be a team that makes the playoffs, you have to find a way to win. We've been the kings of finding a way to lose."
This is not, however, a new trend; 2010 is the 10th straight season the Redskins will go without a division title, their longest stretch without a championship since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The more disturbing trend, though, is how frequently they finish last or next to last. They were last in the NFC East in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
Even if they win out this year, the Redskins, who currently tied for last with the Dallas Cowboys, can finish no higher than third, meaning they will have been third or worse six times in the last eight seasons. A division the Redskins once owned - they took five titles between 1982 and 1991 - is now the territory of others.
"I think everybody's, through the years, said the NFC East is the division," Shanahan said. "You take a look at Dallas, you take a look at Philly, the Giants, you take a look at Washington, and say, 'Hey, each team is committed to win.' "
But since the Redskins' last division title in 1999, commitment hasn't equaled results. Philadelphia has won five NFC East championships since then, the Giants three and the Cowboys two.
Shanahan, too, is in danger of having the worst full season of his career. In 1999 - the same year the Redskins last won a division title - Shanahan's Denver Broncos finished 6-10, not only his lowest win total in any of his 16 years as a head coach, but the only time he has ever finished alone in last place in his division. Each time he took over a franchise previously, he managed to avoid disaster, going 7-9 in 1988 with the Los Angeles Raiders and 8-8 with the Broncos in 1995. Indeed, in 15 full seasons as a head coach - he was fired by the Raiders after starting 1-3 in 1989 - Shanahan has endured just three losing seasons.
Now, he is coming to the conclusion of his first year in Washington, and he must win one of the next two games - either Sunday at Jacksonville or Jan. 2 against the New York Giants - to avoid the first 5-11 season of his career, and an almost certain last-place finish. There is an argument that losing the last two games would benefit the Redskins, because the worse their record, the higher the draft choice they will receive. Shanahan said that is not his approach at all.
"You want to win every game," Shanahan said. "I've always been that way, and that will never change. If somebody loses that perspective, then they're not in the right business. You work awful hard to . . . win. I was very disappointed yesterday when we had a chance to put it away, once we tied it, not to finish it the right way. So yeah, you always want to win."
That leads to Shanahan's philosophy with his quarterbacks over the final two games. He inserted backup Rex Grossman over Donovan McNabb against Dallas because, with the team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, he wanted to evaluate not only the backup, but the rest of the offensive players with a different quarterback.
Shanahan is curious, too, about what third-stringer John Beck would be able to do. But does that mean Beck will automatically play against either Jacksonville or the Giants?
"As I mentioned before, we play these games to win," Shanahan said. "Rex is going to be our quarterback. Unless something happens, [Beck] won't get an opportunity."
Beck will get some practice time as the second quarterback, and Shanahan will continue his process of evaluating each and every position on the roster, a process he refers to nearly every day. But he will do it not as the team finishes off an encouraging season, but as it tries to avoid last place once again.
"I'm excited about where I'm at right now, because we're putting a football team together, an organization together, and trying to do it the right way," Shanahan said. "And I've been given at least the chance to do it the right way, and I think that's very important. You make decisions that you think are in the best interests of the organization. They may not be very popular, but you got to do something that you think's right in the long run."
As in so many recent Decembers, the long run is the only thing that truly matters for the Redskins now.