Coach Mike Shanahan must avoid being latest to think Washington Redskins are close to contention in NFL

The Post Sports Live panel previews Sunday's conference championship games and debates which quarterback they'd rather have starting for their team, Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 1:01 AM

For the 19th consecutive season, the right to play in pro football's biggest game is being contested in other cities by other teams this weekend.

This has led to the annual rite in Washington each January, where serious delusions of Redskins grandeur begin to embed themselves and sprout. From the start of free agency until April's draft, these distorted thoughts always grow into hard-to-exterminate weeds, muscling up through the cracked concrete of a desperate fan's exhausted imagination.

We're thisclose to being a bona fide playoff team.

The fact that there's an Auburn quarterback coming off an undefeated season just waiting to be picked in the first round should trigger bad memories, not hope. By pinning expectations to Jason Campbell without fortifying either side of the line, those Super Bowl dreams never materialized.

For fans of the reigning, 11-time offseason champions, false hope is to be expected. This offseason, it's the coach I'm worried about.

Memo to Mr. Culture Changer: The Redskins are NOT one or two players away. Even a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback couldn't help this team win now.

I understand this advice is going to be incredibly hard for Mike Shanahan to heed, especially when this postseason makes it easy to feed delusional thoughts.

After all, in an overall disappointing season, Shanahan's Redskins still managed to beat both the Packers and the Bears, the teams competing in Sunday's NFC championship game. In Week 7, Washington won at Soldier Field, and both teams left at 4-3.

The last time the Bears made it this far in the playoffs, in 2006, Rex Grossman was the starting quarterback. Grossman is, for the moment at least, Shanahan's starting quarterback. One of the reasons Chicago is hosting Green Bay is because of Jay Cutler, the quarterback whom Shanahan drafted and groomed in Denver.

There are additional reasons to believe it wouldn't take much. So many reasons the coach could cull to believe the Redskins are on the doorstep.

Look how quickly Kansas City, Tampa Bay and St. Louis turned their fortunes around. Throw in Arizona making an improbable run to the Super Bowl in the 2008 season and the Giants pulling off the unthinkable the previous year, the NFC in particular feels like a 1-in-16 chance to win Powerball.

Like misguided fans, Shanahan could even play with the statistics to keep himself in denial. Yes, the Redskins gave up 46 sacks this past season. But the Bears gave up an NFL-leading 56.

Shanahan could write off being second-to-last in team defense as merely growing pains, an expected transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense under Jim Haslett. Besides, he could say, the Patriots were only marginally better at No. 25 - and they won 14 games.

Looking purely at results, Shanahan could take heart in the Redskins having been close in eight of their 10 losses.

Like so many of the disillusioned, he could keep playing up the "We Were Competitive" angle.

In solidarity with a fan base deprived of a conference championship game for almost two decades, Shanahan could keep convincing himself that he's a Cam Newton away from the Super Bowl - one pick, a couple of signings, a couple of challenges, a couple of breaks.

Here's hoping he understands the truth: The Redskins need to continue building the foundation and worry about the color of the draperies later. They need to draft a lineman with their first pick and not trade away another pick to anyone to procure someone else's star.

Let me make this clear: I don't want Newton to be the starting quarterback for the Redskins. Not now. Not next year. Not in seven years, provided Donovan McNabb's incentive-laden contract expires. Newton is Vince Young in training: a big, rangy kid with a national championship - and more baggage than will fit in the overhead compartment. Let him be somebody else's project.

With major needs up front and on the edges, the Redskins are not close.

They are what they are: 6-10, one game behind St. Louis and four games behind Tampa Bay in the NFC, still bringing up the rear of the NFC East, three years running.

If that's not enough to make Shanahan finally say the word "rebuild" with conviction, consider this: Finishing 2-7 down the stretch as the Redskins did in 2010, being in five of those seven games, including one in Detroit, were the exact same numbers of another coach who once worked in Ashburn.

His name was Jim Zorn and he wanted to change the culture, too.

Don't believe the lie about being close. It's gone on too long. Start over. Now.

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