The Washington Post

The 10 worst moments of the Shanahan Era

So now Mike Shanahan is gone, joining Jim Zorn, Joe Gibbs (who left voluntarily), Steve Spurrier and Marty Schottenheimer as 21st century Redskins coaches who failed to make it to year five.

And despite winning a division title — which none of the others did — Shanahan leaves town with plenty of ugly, misshapen, unfragrant black marks on his resume. Three of his four seasons here were duds, and while 2012 was a joyride at the time, even that season had its share of blemishes. If you’re winning, four seasons filled with drama and nonsense are fine. If you’re losing, that’s just more chum for the laptop sharks.

Thus, here’s one man’s take on the 10 worst moments of the Mike Shanahan Era. Let’s start from the best of the worst, so the misery can slowly build.


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

10) Hiring Kyle Shanahan

You can’t fire your own son. Players can’t use the offensive coordinator as a buffer between the locker room and the head coach when those two men are related. And you will never, ever avoid stories of nepotism, and awkward dynamics, and “untenable situations” when two of the three most important men on the field once shared a living room couch. Why mess around with accusations of favoritism and discomfort when there are so many football coach people who aren’t related to each other?

Jason Reid wrote about that thorny issue as this season unraveled, like so:

The friction between the team’s top assistant on offense and its most important player — and the fact that the head coach is stuck in the middle — is proof that hiring your children can be risky….Whenever Griffin disagrees with Kyle about the direction of the offense — it has happened often — he isn’t merely at odds with a high-ranking assistant coach. He is challenging the person whose father ultimately determines how the Redskins play. From Griffin’s perspective, it’s always two against one.

If that wasn’t enough, recall Jason La Canfora’s epic piece earlier this month, which alleged a perception of the younger Shanahan “as someone who was empowered and enabled by his father, spending an abundance of time in his father’s office, given a wide swath of power, and rubbing many people — players, fellow coaches and members of football operations — the wrong way.”

Sure, that can read like after-the-fact 20-20 vision right now. But check out this column from my buddy Dave McKenna, written before Shanahan was even hired. McKenna listed five Redskins head coaches or coordinators under Dan Snyder who brought along their sons to Ashburn, including Schottenheimer, Gibbs and Spurrier.

I’m no Mike Leach, but if I’ve learned one thing about football, it’s this:  If you want to work with your dad, get him to coach for Dan Snyder. Ever since Snyder took over the Redskins, coach after coach has hired his son shortly after taking the job….The nepotism binge hasn’t paid any dividends for Snyder: None of the coaches on the family plan left here as winners. It hasn’t worked for anybody else, either. For folks who think the Shanahans’ arrival means another Lombardi is coming to Ashburn: I looked at the coaching staffs of all Super Bowl winners and couldn’t find a single father–son duo.


(Via TV)
(Via TV)

9) The Monday Night Massacre

On the field, one of the lowest moments of the past four years came during the Monday Night Massacre, a 59-28 mauling applied by the Eagles and Michael Vick at FedEx Field. This signified so many touchstones of the Shanahan era: a helpless defense, an embarrassment at home (the Redskins were 2-6 at FedEx Field in three of Shanahan’s four seasons), a disaster in primetime (the Redskins went 0-5 in primetime this season), and a bunch of records set, of the wrong sort.

The Redskins allowed 592 yards, the most Philadelphia had ever gained. They allowed 59 points, the most in Monday Night Football history. They gave up 45 points in the first half, tying a franchise record for defensive ineptitude. They gave up 280 yards in the first quarter, the most in NFL history.

“The humiliation for the Redskins’ defense was nearly as thorough and complete as any in the 79-year history of the franchise,” Barry Svrluga wrote then.

And making it all the more perfect: before the game, the Redskins announced a lengthy and pricey contract extension for Donovan McNabb, whose tenure in D.C. was already nearing its end. “This is what Donovan wanted: to have a long career in Washington and end his career here,” his agent said before the blowout.

McNabb would go on to throw three interceptions in the humiliating loss to his former team.


(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

8) “A Chance to Evaluate Players”

It’s easy to forget, after the Redskins won seven straight to storm into the 2012 playoffs, that Shanahan seemed to throw in the towel after an ugly home loss to the Panthers before his team’s bye week. But that strange post-game press conference now seems like a harbinger of things to come: his unhinged 2013 press conferences, his reliance on national media members to shore up his flanks, his decision to bench Robert Griffin III for almost 20 percent of this season to protect the quarterback for the future, the suggestion Shanahan was ready to quit after the 2012 campaign.

It’s a willing suspension of disbelief, but you sometimes want a coach who can make you believe that winning every NFL game is decently important. Something seemed off in that regard.

From Maske:

After losing a game that he’d called a must-win for his team to make a playoff push,Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Sunday that the club will be playing the rest of its season to see who “is going to be on your football team for years to come.”

From Wise:

You know what the real kick in the gut was Sunday? Not a one-win Carolina team handling the Redskins on their home field. Not fans high-stepping out in the fourth quarter as if they had been told to evacuate. Not almost 200 of the team’s most distinguished alumni — Super Bowl winners and Hall of Famers alike — witnessing their successors disgrace their memory.

No, the real blow came afterward, from the head coach. Of all the people to give up on the season, really, who knew Mike Shanahan would be the first?

“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,” Shanahan said after his team’s third straight loss and ninth in the past 10 games at FedEx Field. “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.”

Hear that, men? Seven games left to shore up job security. You’re not playing for the postseason anymore. You’re playing for the film room.

“I would never tell my team that,” Tony Dungy said a few hours later, taking the obvious interpretation of Shanahan’s words.

Shanahan ‘s first clarification came not to the local media but in a phone interview with’s Dan Graziano, in which he said “To insinuate that I was giving up on the season is completely ridiculous.” He continued to claim that media members had misinterpreted him, leading to a bizarre Monday press conference in which one longtime Redskins reporter said he had never heard a coach suggest using the final seven games as an evaluation period.

“I never said that,” Shanahan replied. “I never said that, never even close to said that.”

Didn’t he though?


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

7) The 3-4 defense

A few months after Mike Shanahan (and Jim Haslett) were hired, Shanahan still hadn’t committed to a defensive scheme.

“Until you actually know what your personnel is, I think it’s a little premature,” he said then. “What I’ve said is, we’re going to run the Redskins Defense, which could be a combination of both.”

Sure, nothing is ever as simple as two numbers and a hyphen, and defenders (ha) of this defense would argue it was always shortchanged on personnel. Whatever the case, Shanahan’s defense didn’t work, and it didn’t work for years.

“Why switch your entire defensive scheme when it’s your offense that’s been in shambles for a decade?” Boz asked during the first bad season. “Probably it was a well-intentioned mistake that looked like a good idea at the time. Now, it doesn’t. It looks like over-coaching.”

Yards-per-game is an overly simplistic way to judge defenses, but it’s something. In four seasons of Shanahan and Haslett and the 3-4, the Redskins ranked 31st, 13th, 28th and 21st (entering week 17) in that category. If you prefer advanced stats, according to Football Outsiders’s DVOA, the Redskins ranked 26th, 14th, 17th and 22nd. That’s middling to below average, every season.



6) The Leaks

Lots of NFL teams have bad seasons. Many even have abysmal seasons. But not every abysmal season becomes a farce. Look, for example, at this year’s Falcons and Vikings, poor teams that quietly took their medicine and stayed out of the spotlight.

This Redskins season, on the other hand, became a jolly old circus complete with jesters and animal dung, thanks largely to the torrent of leaks coming out of Redskins Park.

RGIII didn’t want his bad film shown. Mike Shanahan nearly quit in 2012. Kyle Shanahan had too much power. Dan Snyder was too close to Robert Griffin III. RGIII brushed off in-game criticism. RGII was around too much. The Griffins wanted the Briles. The Griffins didn’t like the Shanahans. Donna told Suzy that Max told Stacey about how Izzy and Sam were whispering in the corner behind Matt’s locker omg! And on and on and on. For a solid month, the Redskins — a last-place team that should have been left to suffer in silence — instead dominated NFL pre-game shows and talk-radio segments.

Shanahan refused to answer certain questions, which often made matters worse. He also said absurd things, insisting repeatedly that he only had three items in his entire office. And when the coach — himself widely suspected of contributing to the leaks — was asked if there was anything he could to to stop the anonymous flow of damaging information, he walked out of a press conference.

Without knowing who was doing the leaking, it’s hard to say exactly what Shanahan should have done over these last few weeks. But whatever he was doing, it didn’t work. And the Redskins — a franchise he was hired to refurbish, by putting the responsible adults back in charge — again became a laughingstock and a punchline.


(AP photo)
(AP photo)

5) “I Put My Reputation on These Guys”

In late July of 2011, Shanahan met with reporters for the first time since the NFL lockout ended. At that point, the Redskins seemed set to enter his second season with Rex Grossman and John Beck as their quarterbacks. That duo had combined for four starts over the previous three seasons, with Beck not having played in a regular season game since 2007.

“You talk about a guy not being experienced — I believe in the guys,” Shanahan said that day, via the AP’s Joseph White. “I believe in ‘em. And I’ve been doing this for a long time. And I put my reputation on these guys that they can play.”

Grossman started most of the season, throwing 16 touchdowns against 20 interceptions and losing five fumbles, before resuming his spot as a backup. Beck played in four games that season, the last four games of his NFL career. He threw for two touchdowns and four interceptions, while also losing a fumble and being sacked 16 times. The duo thus combined for 30 turnovers in 16 games. It was not a winning season.


(AP photo)

4) Benching McNabb

Did Mike Shanahan not want Donovan McNabb? Did Kyle Shanahan not want Donovan McNabb? Did McNabb refuse to wear a wristband? None of that matters. Because the Redskins traded for him. The Redskins told fans The Future is Now, and put McNabb’s face on billboards, and then watched the coach’s relationship with the longtime star dissolve in a matter of months.

The nadir came when Shanahan attempted to explain why the guy he had recently called “a proven winner in the National Football League” and compared to John Elway was yanked out of a one-possession game in Detroit with two minutes remaining. Rex Grossman replaced McNabb and fumbled, which the Lions returned for a touchdown, and the circus music began.

“Just knowing the terminology of what we’ve done, how we run it, puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback that hasn’t been used to that terminology. I thought that was the best scenario for us to have a chance to win,” Shanahan said after that loss.

“When you deal with a two-minute offense, and you don’t have any timeouts, and you haven’t done it in five weeks, and you’re calling sometimes two plays [simultaneously] – you’ve got to hustle to the line of scrimmage, and you’re calling plays that you haven’t called in the two-minute attack – and you’re actually working on cardiovascular endurance at the same time [you’re] working on the clock, it’s really hard to do that when you haven’t practiced it and you haven’t really put yourself in any strenuous activities because of your hamstrings,” Shanahan said the next day. “So I thought it would be in our best interest to go in a different direction.”

“I really didn’t feel Donovan, relative to not being able to get any cardiovascular endurance and run the two-minute offense for the last four or five weeks, that I’d put him in a situation that would just injure him,” Shanahan also said.

I mean, really? Just say you’re benching the guy because he isn’t playing well. It doesn’t have to be about terminology and cardiovascular endurance and hamstrings and trying not to injure someone and insane semantics. Just stand up, own your decision and move on.


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

3) Haynesworth and the Conditioning Test

* Albert Haynesworth fails conditioning test, sits out team workout as Washington Redskins hold first practice. (Here)

* Albert Haynesworth again fails to pass Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan’s conditioning test. (Here)

* Haynesworth failed Thursday’s test because he did not complete the runs in the allotted time after being forced to restart due to a long bathroom break. (Here)

* Restaurant offers free ice cream if Haynesworth passes conditiong test. (Here)

* Reporters attempt Haynesworth’s conditioning test. (Here)

* “Enough about Albert,” Shanahan said, as similar-sounding queries about defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth began producing similar-sounding answers. (Here)

* Golic, Smith sort-of pass Haynesworth test. (Here)

* 61-year old journalist passes Haynesworth test. (Here)

* Dexter Manley says he could pass the Haynesworth test. (Here)

* Minor league team schedules Haynesworth conditioning night. (Here)

* “On Day 10 of the Haynesworth Watch, the two-time All-Pro on his fourth attempt completed the two, timed 300-yard shuttle runs required by Coach Mike Shanahan in order for him to join in all team activities.” (Here)

I mean, any time you can completely paralyze the first two weeks of your first training camp thanks to a protracted stand-off with your highest paid player over who has the bigger ID badge, in the process inviting a media hailstorm and subjecting the rest of the locker room to non-stop questions about a guy who isn’t practicing, setting the stage for four years of ego-based battles with one star player after another, you sort of have to take that opportunity, right?


(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

2) “What I’m trying to do is be as honest as I can”

This is one all-purpose entry to encompass everything that happened in the moments before and after the Redskins were routed by the Chiefs earlier this month: the geyser of leaks, the Redskins being crushed in an empty stadium, some players appearing to give up on the field, Robert Griffin III getting benched, Shanahan raising the possibility of shelving the franchise quarterback for the rest of the season, the coach delivering one strange press conference after another (highlighted by his admission that he usually attempts to deceive to the press — “What I’m trying to do is be as honest as I can, and I don’t normally do that”), and then finally the benching of a still healthy Griffin because his offensive line (which was similarly healthy) was not able to protect him.

Veteran Redskins reporters, who’ve seen everything, said they had never seen anything like that week.

“We have to do…what is in the best interests of Robert,” Shanahan said, by way of explanation. “What is the best thing going forward for him — to have those next three games, the experience of going through those reps, or having him healthy in the offseason?”

Depends who’s answering: the guy who’s trying to be as honest as he can, or the guy who doesn’t normally do that.


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

1) RGKnee

I was talking with veteran D.C. columnist and radio host Thom Loverro the other day. Loverro made an interesting point: the playoff game against the Seahawks — which unleashed much of what happened over the following 12 months — might have been one of the half-dozen most significant D.C. sporting events of the past two decades.

That game — the decision to stick with an obviously limping Griffin, his subsequent injury and surgery, and a dispiriting loss — set the stage for the dissolution of the Shanahan Era. Griffin and the people around him lost their faith and trust in Shanahan, according to later reports, and thus the offseason of petty back-and-forth sniping, at times involving Dr. James Andrews. The surgery and rehab led to many of Griffin’s ill-fated promotional campaigns — the Gatorade rehab documentary, the Adidas “All in for Week 1″ campaign. The quarterback insisted through the press that he would play in the 2013 season opener, almost regardless of what his coaches wanted. And when the losses mounted, the relationship further devolved.

As for the key question — should Shanahan have sided with the thousands of fans who were screaming in real time for him to make a change, as Griffin hobbled around the messy FedEx Field playing surface — well, before he was for it, he was against it.

“You have to go with your gut and I did,” Shanahan said after the playoff loss. “I’m not saying my gut is always right, but I’ve been here before.”

“I could have kicked myself in the rear end,” Shanahan said this month. “Because my gut was even though the doctor said, hey, he was fine, it was all stable, you don’t have to worry. Robert said it was fine. I knew, in my gut. I watched him. I said, hey, that’s what I should have done, because I did see it. You have to go with your gut sometimes….I can go with my gut, and I should have went with my gut.”

So his gut told him to play Griffin, and his gut told him to take Griffin out. A gut that contradicts itself, with the cameras rolling: that’s the Mike Shanahan Era.

Washington Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan has been fired after four seasons with the team. The seventh head coach under owner Daniel Snyder departs with one division title and one playoff appearance, a loss. The Post's Redskins and NFL editor Keith McMillan offers the five best and worst moments of Shanahan's tenure. (Tom LeGro and Keith McMillan/The Washington Post)
Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.



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Dan Steinberg · December 30, 2013