Here’s the difference between Mike Shanahan’s first year as the Washington Redskins head coach, and his second: He better be right. The guys he wants are in house, and the guys he doesn’t want are out. It’s time to start seeing results. Shanahan is reputed to be a pretty good gambler, but has he ever stacked the chips so high in a bet on himself and his own judgment?
Shanahan’s earned the nickname “My Way Mike” because he insists that everyone follow his prescribed program. But the truth is, there is only one way to win, and the good coaches all operate the same. They start by cleansing a locker room of complacency, double standards and compromises, and then restocking it.
The new and still evolving roster of players who reported to training camp Friday is very much a reflection of Shanahan’s personal eye. Whether the new cast can improve on a 6-10 record will be a referendum on his judgment. I’m willing to make a bet, too: Shanahan has made the Redskins better.
The mere absence of Albert Haynesworth is a gain; everyone can agree with Shanahan on that, and it’s a mercy that the Redskins were able to trade him to the New England Patriots. More problematic is Shanahan’s judgment in acquiring Donovan McNabb as his quarterback, only to deal him to the Vikings after one season. The opinion here is that McNabb was complacency personified, and that Shanahan was right to recognize his mistake and cut his losses rather than spend $15 million on McNabb over the next four years. However, Shanahan has put himself squarely on the spot, if McNabb plays well and the Redskins don’t. And he knows it.
“A lot of people are afraid of being second-guessed,” Shanahan said. “They make decisions based on what other people say, rather than what they see with their own eyes, on a general consensus. They don’t see it themselves; they ask other people’s opinions. And that’s what you have to do if you’re in charge: see it with your own eyes.”
If Shanahan is right, the Redskins will make a competitive jump. The last year was a fact-finding mission. Shanahan and his staff spent it studying the competitive makeup of various Redskins, and also scanning the potential free agent market. Now Shanahan has a roster he can call his own, handpicked and infused with youth, and he can no longer claim to be saddled with problems from the past. “We’re going young,” Casey Rabach was told when he was cut.
If there is a discernible pattern to the signings this week, it’s that Shanhan wants some clawers who play with a hint of professional desperation, who have something to prove.
For a clue as to his philosophy and whether it’s working, look carefully at Stephen Bowen, lured from the Cowboys with a $27.5 million deal. Shanahan is counting on the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Bowen to continue a surprising upward trajectory; Bowen was an undrafted free agent out of Hofstra in 2006, yet fought his way into a major role for the Cowboys by 2010. It’s interesting that Shanahan enlisted London Fletcher to help recruit Bowen with lobbying phone calls.
The real trend in Shanahan’s player decisions is that he wants a locker room full of guys like Fletcher: self-starters, overachievers, and clubhouse leaders. Not necessarily the most overtly talented guys in the league, but what some people call “character players.”
In the end, the only opinions of Shanahan’s moves that really count are in the locker room. Shanahan has been accused of alienating some in the locker room with his uncompromising ways, especially his handling of Haynesworth and McNabb, but if so, he doesn’t seem to care. He appears to be less concerned with alienation than commitment.
Example: By any normal standards, McNabb was a hard worker. But it seems that to Shanahan’s workaholic eye, he didn’t work quite hard enough. It’s worth noting how many Redskins have commented on the relentless work habits of John Beck. It’s unclear whether Shanahan is really serious about considering Beck as his starting quarterback, or simply using him as a rabbit, a pace-setter, while still looking to do something else at the position.
But those who consider Beck an absurd option should check his history: In addition to being dedicated he is smart, mobile, and accurate — he completed almost 70 percent of his passes as a senior at Brigham Young in 2006 — and among the other people who have seen something in him is Joe Theismann. The Dolphins liked him well enough to draft him, and the Ravens liked him well enough to pick him up.
In any case, through him Shanahan has sent an unmistakable message: He will swap out the alienated in favor of the committed, and he doesn’t give a damn about your name value.
None if this necessarily translates into success. The Redskins still have some gaping holes to fill. Arguably no other team is such an unknown quantity, especially at the skill positions: If the season opened this very moment, the Redskins would be going with either Beck or Rex Grossman at quarterback, Ryan Torain in the backfield and Santana Moss, Anthony Armstrong and Jabar Gaffney as their receivers.
The risk-reward factor is off the charts. Shanahan will either wind up looking ridiculous, or like one of the great success stories. Place your bets.