After Coach Mike Shanahan was hired to lead the Washington Redskins, he quickly realized what he needed to do to rebuild the team’s roster: The opposite of everything the previous people in charge did to ruin it.
Wasted draft picks, awful free-agent signings, a short-sighted approach to roster building — Redskins management couldn’t have planned more poorly if it had tried. “Sometimes you come into an older team, sometimes you come into a team without a lot of draft choices and sometimes you come into a team without a lot of cap space — we were all of the above,” Shanahan said last week, recalling the mess he inherited in January of 2010. “You knew two things: We had a lot of work to do and we had to bring in the right people.”
As Shanahan enters his fourth season, his vision for the team has taken shape. The Redskins are better and younger at most positions than they were before Shanahan arrived. A franchise that made only two postseason appearances in the previous decade now has the pieces in place to become a perennial playoff contender. There have been some big mistakes along the way (John Beck comes to mind), but Shanahan has succeeded in picking players more often than he has failed. And, he has accomplished all of this despite the NFL’s decision to cut the Redskins’ salary cap by a total of $36 million over two seasons for their approach to restructuring contracts during the 2010 season, when there was no salary cap.
This season, the defending NFC East champion possesses the talent to have the league’s best offense and is built to play well into the playoffs. There’s no secret in the Redskins’ turnaround — it’s all about how Shanahan finally fixed the roster.
Of the players on the opening 53-man roster, only nine are holdovers from previous coaching regimes (linebacker Rob Jackson, who has been with the team since 2008 but is suspended for the season’s first four games, makes 10). Generally, NFL rosters undergo significant turnover each offseason. It’s not shocking that most of the players from the 2009 team, which finished 4-12, are gone, though 10 is a low number even considering how fast things change in professional sports’ most dangerous workplace. What is significant, however, is that Shanahan has made so many correct decisions on replacements.
A winning team’s player-personnel performance can best be judged by the number of starters it has drafted or signed in free agency. That tells you whether scouts have assembled a good list for the person picking the players. The people who work for Shanahan have helped him become a smart shopper.
Sixteen of Washington’s 22 starters — eight each on offense and defense — were acquired under Shanahan. He has used the draft to bolster the offense, which went from 22nd overall during former coach Jim Zorn’s final season to fifth in the NFL in 2012.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III — the 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year — cost the Redskins four high-round draft picks. But if Griffin makes a strong return from knee surgery and performs at a superstar level for the rest of his career, he would be well worth the price.
Trent Williams has become the dominant performer Shanahan envisioned when he used the first pick after taking over — fourth overall in 2010 — to select the uniquely athletic left tackle. Record-setting running back Alfred Morris was a sixth-round gem in the same draft that brought Griffin to the District.
Through free agency, Shanahan remade the team’s defensive front. He hit home runs on nose tackle Barry Cofield and defensive end Stephen Bowen. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan — the team’s first-round pick in 2011 — is a rising star and inside linebacker Perry Riley — a fourth-rounder in 2010 — was productive as a first-year starter last season. After last season, the Redskins had to improve their ineffective secondary. Don’t be surprised if rookie free safety Bacarri Rambo and rookie cornerback David Amerson become longtime starters.
The Redskins have made so many right moves that it’s hard not to notice. In a recent conference call with reporters, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden gushed about how Shanahan has put together the Redskins.
“Trent Williams is a Pro Bowl left tackle. Griffin was the rookie of the year. Who thought Alfred Morris was going to run for 1,600 yards? I didn’t,” the former Super Bowl-winning coach said. “They’ve done a nice job assembling a receiving corps that’s very good. . . . I like the way [they signed] Pierre Garcon via free agency. It’s really a well-constructed roster.”
And it’s one that some Redskins observers believed Shanahan, based on his mixed results in Denver, was incapable of building.
Shanahan’s 2006 Broncos draft was about as good as it gets: quarterback Jay Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, linebacker-defensive end Elvis Dumervil and guard Chris Kuper have all been selected for the Pro Bowl. Tight end Tony Scheffler and wide receiver Domenik Hixon have been solid contributors to teams throughout their careers.
Shanahan, however, also had several high-round draft busts and made many questionable moves in free agency, especially on defense, when he had roster control in Denver. It was said that Mike Shanahan the general manager got Mike Shanahan the coach fired. Although Shanahan’s first two seasons in Washington were 11-21 bad, he slowly made positive additions. The arrival of Griffin greatly accelerated the roster revival.
For Redskins player-personnel staff, the biggest difference in how business is done under Shanahan is that Shanahan actually listens to the people paid to give him advice about players. It used to be that scouts would spend the whole year compiling information in preparation for the draft and free agency, and then the people at the top of the franchise often ignored their suggestions in favor of chasing high-profile players incapable of providing a championship foundation.
Scott Campbell, director of player personnel, and Morocco Brown, director of pro personnel, have earned Shanahan’s confidence through the results they produce. Brown could run his own shop someday soon. Campbell and Brown understand Shanahan expects a no-stone-left-unturned approach in finding players, “and Scott, Morroco, every one of our assistant coaches, college scouts and our pro scouts know that that’s how you eliminate mistakes,” Shanahan said. “When you bring in guys like Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, and they become your captains, and you get a guy like Pierre [Garcon] . . . it’s just not by luck. You draft a guy like Kerrigan . . . it’s because everyone in your organization understands what you need.”
Shanahan is getting what he wants. And that’s why the Redskins’ roster is a whole lot better than it has been in a long time.
For more columns by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid
More from The Post’s NFL preview section: