The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Shanahan disagrees with media on meaning of his words

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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The over-parsing of every word and phrase and punctuation mark used by politicians is, in my opinion, fairly ridiculous. In sports, it’s far beyond ridiculous, way past absurd and zooming right by ludicrous.

I mean, what matters more than what Mike Shanahan said about the final seven games is what Mike Shanahan thinks about the final seven games. And that doesn’t even matter all that much, in the grand scheme of things, unless you believe that Shanahan will actually trot out Kirk Cousins after the bye week. It’s a fight over semantics and symbolism, and also a fight for web clicks and radio listeners, of which I’m an avid participant.

All that being said, I have a history of providing transcripts of testy exchanges between coaches and reporters, so I can hardly stop now. Or I could stop, but then I’d have to think up something else to write about, and I’m kind of watching CNN out of the corner of my eye just now, so I don’t have enough time to be creative.

(JOKING. I’m watching PBS.)

Anyhow, this all started with the first question of Shanahan’s postgame press conference on Sunday.

“Mike, you called it a must-win game on Monday,” a reporter (I believe it was Rich Campbell from the Washington Times) began. “To lose the way you did to a team with only one win, I mean, where does the season go from here at this point?”

“Well, obviously very disappointing,” Shanahan responded. “You know, must-win games give you a chance to play for a playoff spot. At the midway point when you’re 3-5, it’s got to be a must-win, obviously, to get in the hunt. When you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come. And now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at. Obviously we’re not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we’ve got, and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.”

Again, over-parsing this is probably dumb. If Shanahan didn’t mean he was throwing in the towel on this season, that’s fine. Or if he meant it at the time and later reconsidered, that’s fine too. But “when you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come” sure makes it sound like the future isn’t now. Which also is probably fine, if you just own it.

“Mike, to be in that mode the first week of November, after Week 9, before the bye, just how surprised are you and how disappointed are you?” 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen asked right away, showing that people in the room immediately thought Shanahan was lowering the curtain on this campaign.

“Well, disappointed, obviously,” Shanahan said, as part of a larger answer, not disputing Paulsen’s implication.

Then this became a big story, both nationally and locally, with the almost universal assumption that when Shanahan said “now we get a chance to evaluate players,” he meant over the remainder of the season. An alternate interpretation is as follows: he meant “now we get a chance to evaluate players” over the week-long bye, and his larger point was that useful information will be gained by examining players under stress.

Mike Wise, not wanting to leave such questions in the air, contacted the Redskins, seeking clarification from Shanahan.

“Shanahan was given an opportunity to explain his comments, but declined through a team spokesman, who said he would discuss them further Monday,” Wise wrote that night. Remember that line.

Anyhow, now we’re at Shanahan’s Monday press conference, which he opened by reading lines from his Sunday address and clarifying what he meant. Later, The AP’s Joseph White – with whom Shanahan sparred earlier this season – asked a follow-up.

“Mike, I’ve been doing this a while, and I guess probably too long,” White began. (Watch the whole thing here.) “But I’ve heard the speech you gave yesterday probably a dozen times in my covering this team, usually in December, not November….”

“Which speech?” Shanahan interrupted.

“The one that you just quoted yourself as you entered the room today,” White said. “And it’s usually in December, and not November. I’ve never known it to be mis-interpreted, either. I guess what I’m trying to say: Are you standing by your statement from yesterday, or are you changing or retracting it?”

“What was my statement yesterday?” Shanahan asked.

“About using the rest of the season as an evaluation period,” White explained.

“I never said that,” Shanahan replied. “I never said that, never even close to said that. I just told you what I said. I said what happens when you lose a game like we did yesterday, you’re gonna find which guys really step up now for the remaining seven games. You’ll find out if you’ve got guys that are gonna give everything. I don’t care if they’re a five-year player, 10-year player or first-year player. When your backs are against the wall, how do you stand up to adversity?

“I never said any time since I’ve been here we’re gonna play young players,” he continued, although no one accused him of saying that. “We’re always gonna play the people that give us the best chance to win. That’s what we’re gonna do. I’ve never changed, never have wavered. I’m not saying I gave the perfect quote….The only thing I was disappointed, that if I’ve got somewhat of a relationship with somebody, then at least give me the courtesy to say hey, what did you mean by this, instead of just going one direction. I was never contacted by anybody last evening.”

“Well, as I say, it’s a speech that we’ve heard before without problems of interpretation,” White said. “So this is the first time, I guess.”

“I’m not sure what that meant, but that’s fine,” Shanahan said.

It wasn’t a super-cozy scene, at least judging by the video. Now feel free to parse every word I wrote here. I’ll be watching CNN.