By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:25 AM
Mike Shanahan doesn't spend Sunday afternoons surrounded by subordinates, a cadre of advisers helping him form his opinion. Rather, he is something of a solitary figure as he paces the sideline of the Washington Redskins, one hand shoved into a coat pocket, the other holding a sheet of paper splattered with lists of football plays. He is connected to his assistants by a wireless headset, but he alone is the decision-maker, the head coach.
That, then, is how Shanahan ended his first season leading the Redskins on Sunday afternoon, alone as the dominant figure in the organization. The year included two major controversies: One involved quarterback Donovan McNabb; the other involved star defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. Both involved Shanahan. It included a roster that he began to overhaul to suit his needs. But it concluded with another loss - this one by 17-14 to the New York Giants at FedEx Field - and the realization that a coach who won Super Bowls elsewhere can't automatically arrive in Washington and turn around a franchise that has now finished last in its division for three straight seasons.
"Any first year is kind of tough," Shanahan said. "You want to run a system. You take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly. That's part of the evaluation process. But I was really pleased with the character of our guys, how they fought over the last couple weeks. . . .
"You find out a lot [about] people when you do have adversity, how they handle themselves, how they work. So I found out a lot about people the last couple weeks, and I liked what I saw. Now, do we need to make some improvements? Sure we do."
The 2010 season was supposed to be about Shanahan reshaping the Redskins into something that, for the better part of a decade, they have not been: a contender for the National Football Conference's East division championship on an annual basis, one that plays in - and wins - playoff games. But Sunday's loss, their fifth in their final six games, left them with a 6-10 record, only a two-win improvement over the 2009 team led by Jim Zorn, who was fired the day after that season concluded.
The questions now for the Redskins don't center on whether the coach will be back, because Shanahan will be. Rather, they center on whether the coach can turn this operation around - and if so, how quickly.
"I think the thing that was established was how Mike runs this team, what this team is all about now," said center Casey Rabach, one of the offensive captains. "We understand the way he runs things. We understand the way he likes things done. We understand the way things are going to be here in the future."
The future, though, is where this organization has been forced to look since it last won a division title, back in 1999. There were reasonable expectations that Shanahan's arrival would fix that. Only twice in his 14 years as the head coach of the Denver Broncos did he endure losing seasons, and one - his worst season as a head coach, in which he went 6-10 - came in 1999, a year after the Broncos won the second of back-to-back Super Bowl titles. His down years, a stretch from 2006 to 2008 that cost him his job there, ended with records of 9-7, 7-9 and 8-8, the only time he failed to make the playoffs for three straight years.
Redskins players understand the improvement in wins was only marginal. The improvement in environment, several said, makes them believe they will win in years to come.
"I think a lot of guys around here were used to kind of the status quo, just living off your name or your contract, things like that," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, one of the defensive co-captains. "With him, you got to produce. You got to perform."
Shanahan showed that is true almost irrespective of who is the most viable replacement. One of Shanahan's first public battles was to take on Haynesworth, who accepted a $21 million bonus check from the Redskins in April, but chafed about the coaching staff's shift to a new defensive system. Shanahan suspended Haynesworth without pay for the final four games of the year.
Shanahan also traded for McNabb, a highly regarded quarterback who had been to six Pro Bowls with Philadelphia. But when the Redskins were eliminated from playoff contention, Shanahan benched McNabb for the final three games. The Redskins' tradition of generating more news off the field than on it continued. The manner, players said, was different.
"Coach Shanahan, he won't let off of you," rookie offensive lineman Trent Williams said. "He wants things done his way, and if you don't do it his way, then you pay the consequences."
Sunday evening, when the Redskins' last chance to mount a comeback against the Giants passed, Shanahan pulled his headset from his head and handed it to an aide. After he shook the hand of New York Coach Tom Coughlin, he headed toward a tunnel that led to the locker room. He didn't say anything to any players. He was greeted by a team executive, and he continued to stride in silence. The questions, though, followed: Mike Shanahan did not transform the Redskins - at least their results - in a 16-game span. Will he - can he - in the future?
"Obviously, you're looking for the future to get it done as quickly as possible," Shanahan said. "But you're also realistic."