Washington Redskins offseason: With Mike Shanahan at helm, coaches and players believe culture has changed

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:12 AM

On the day Mike Shanahan was introduced as the new head coach of the Washington Redskins, he met with the players he inherited as a group. He had watched the team from afar, but knew most of them by reputation only. Some of those reputations weren't good, and Shanahan wanted them to know he had arrived to rid the franchise of those who didn't work and prepare professionally.

After the meeting, Shanahan grabbed defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, perhaps the most gifted player on the team. Shanahan's arrival one year and two days ago altered countless personal situations on both sides of the ball: Quarterback Jason Campbell would be traded, defensive end Andre Carter would become an outside linebacker, to name just a couple.

No player, though, had to prepare for as fundamental a change as did Haynesworth. As the Redskins shifted to a new defense, Haynesworth had to learn a new position. But on that first day, Shanahan wanted Haynesworth to know: His work habits would have to change, too. Shanahan flipped on some film, and the two men watched each of Haynesworth's plays from the 2009 season.

"I talked about every one of the lows," Shanahan said. "And I said, 'Hey, I got to get you in shape. There's no way you can be in shape if you're playing like this. There's no possible way.' "

Thus Shanahan began his tenure at the helm of the Redskins by challenging the team's most expensive player on his first day on the job. The narrow view of such a meeting would be that the coach needed to get more out of one of his most talented players, and that much was true. "It was just about getting him into football shape," Shanahan said, sitting in his office late in the season.

But the way Shanahan handled Haynesworth - both early on, and over the course of the season - had ramifications throughout the organization. At the conclusion of a year in which Shanahan suspended Haynesworth without pay for the final four games of the season and benched quarterback Donovan McNabb for the final three games, there may be questions about the wisdom of such moves. But there is little question about who is pulling the levers and pushing the buttons at Redskins Park.

For more than a decade, Washington fans have wondered and worried about how much input owner Daniel Snyder had on football decisions. Now, Shanahan has at least created the impression - particularly among his players - that his word matters above all others.

"To be able to shelf a guy and say, 'Okay, I'm in control, I'm going to get things right around here,' " said running back Clinton Portis, who played under Shanahan for two years in Denver. "I think it's more [a case] of him coming in, cleaning out and trying to filter and get his guys in, and showing that he's running the show and what he say goes. It's either get with the program, or get out."

The program, in terms of wins and losses, didn't produce results in 2010 - a 6-10 record, a third straight last-place finish in the NFC East, a postseason without the Redskins for the ninth time in 11 years. But Shanahan is convinced that, through the turmoil, he and his coaching staff have begun to fundamentally shift how the organization works. Shanahan said he fined more players for minor infractions such as lateness for meetings than he ever had during his 14 years in Denver.

"Next year, it'll go down by 90 percent," he said. "The second year, they get used to, 'Okay, this is how we operate.' You have to be accountable or else you won't be here. People get used to that mentality, that mind-set."

But that is an elaborate process, particularly for a franchise such as Washington, which joins only some of the league's youngest and traditionally moribund franchises - Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville - as the only teams to go without a division championship from 2000 to 2010.

"You got to turn the whole organization around," said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who overhauled the New Orleans franchise when he became head coach there in 2000. "There's a lot of people in that organization - including secretaries, administrative people, people in the building - that are negative because you've been losing so many years. . . You got to start over and bring people in that want to build a winner, or you got to change people. It's not just the players."

In Washington's case, there was a protocol issue, too. Each week, for most of his two seasons as the Redskins' head coach, Jim Zorn met for lunch on Fridays with Snyder in the owner's office. Vinny Cerrato, then the organization's top football executive, frequently joined them. The discussion was almost always simple: What was the game plan for that week? How could they attack a specific opponent? Who might be featured on offense?

In December 2009, when Snyder hired Bruce Allen as the general manager - replacing Cerrato - those lunches ended, at Allen's behest. The thinking, Snyder said last year, was that Allen believed the proper line of communication was from head coach to general manager to owner. Though Shanahan, Zorn's replacement as coach, is effectively the top football executive in the organization - he carries the title of executive vice president as well - the flow of communication remains the same. Snyder, Shanahan said, isn't consulted on personnel decisions, much less game plans.

"He told me when I got the job that, hey, he wanted to hire a guy that would go out there and make decisions that are in the best interests of the organization," Shanahan said, "and that we will make some mistakes, but don't be afraid. And if you do make a mistake, hey, don't be afraid to admit it and move on. Don't try to cover it. That's the way I told him I've been, and he said, 'Hey, that's the way I want it.' "

There is little debate that the signature mistake of the Redskins' 2010 season involved McNabb - whether it was trading two draft picks to Philadelphia for him, or declining to tailor the offense to better suit his skills, or somehow failing to get him to perform to the level that made him a six-time Pro Bowler with the Eagles. Shanahan considered the decision to bench the 12-year veteran for weeks. He did not, he said, seek the owner's input.

"You know what?" Shanahan said in his office on Dec. 17, the day he announced Rex Grossman would replace McNabb. "I haven't talked to him about this. I've talked to Bruce, and Bruce has communication, but you're so busy during the week getting ready for football that unless he's walking by or out at practice, you don't get a chance."

Haynesworth, though, was an exception. Because Snyder and Cerrato had pursued Haynesworth prior to the 2009 season - signing him to a contract that included $41 million in guaranteed money - Shanahan said he felt a "responsibility" to speak with Snyder about how he handled the defensive tackle.

But the driving force behind Haynesworth's rift with the organization was undoubtedly Shanahan. During that initial meeting, Haynesworth told Shanahan that some of his lackluster play came because he was banged-up or sore.

"You can recover quicker," Shanahan said he told him. "You can play a complete game. If you're in shape, you'll be the best player at your position in the league. But you've gotten away with not being in great shape."

From Haynesworth's chafing against the Redskins' move to a 3-4 base defense - which led him to skip all of the team's offseason workouts - to Shanahan's refusal to allow Haynesworth to practice until he passed a conditioning test, to, eventually, the suspension, the marriage between coach and player did not work. But even as the season slipped away with four straight losses in November and December, several prominent Redskins said they believed in the direction of the organization - something they hadn't been able to say in the past.

"It's totally different this year," tight end Chris Cooley said following a Dec. 5 drubbing against the Giants. "We're absolutely in the right direction. I have no question in our coaching staff and their ability to lead this team."

"It's a no-nonsense kind of ship," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said as the season ended. "I don't think a lot of us was out to dinner and hanging out with him, so we didn't really learn a lot about him personally. But just the way he is as a coach, man. It's a performance business. . . You got to warrant either that money you're getting or whatever, or you're gone. That's the bottom line. I think a lot of guys' eyes were opened."

Headed into next season, the Redskins will almost certainly need a new quarterback to replace McNabb. They must find a solution along the defensive line - either by getting Haynesworth to perform or finding a willing trading partner. They have several other personnel holes on both sides of the ball, and only one draft and one free agency period to fill them if they are to make the playoffs in 2011.

But as the season wound down, Shanahan sat behind his desk, from which he can see a whiteboard that reflects the constantly churning depth chart of the entire Washington organization. He was asked if he is closer to winning a championship than on the day he arrived, on the day he sat down his most expensive player and told him things would be different.

"Oh, there's no question," Shanahan said quickly. "I've got an owner - that's his goal. And he's given me the opportunity to do it the right way. . .

"The organizations that I've been in that have been in trouble over the years is when they don't admit their mistakes. They make a mistake, and they keep on trying to cover for it for three or four years, telling people how smart they were for doing it. Well, if it's not working out, it's not working out."

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