For the first time, Mike Shanahan blinked. The great general was defeated. Albert Haynesworth stared him down and won.
That’s probably how some will view Thursday’s trade that sent Haynesworth, the most costly mistake in Washington Redskins history, to the New England Patriots. Some will suggest Shanahan is getting soft in his old age. They’ll criticize him for accepting a fifth-round draft pick in 2013 for a two-time all-pro defensive tackle who made almost $35 million in just 20 games for Washington.
Not me. Not after what I’ve seen covering this franchise.
Shanahan did not lose. Approving the Haynesworth trade was actually Shanahan’s finest hour with Washington. In fact, in choosing to dump Haynesworth, he did something even more important than winning: He provided sound leadership.
On the day players reported for training camp, the person in charge of Washington’s football operation made the best football move of his tenure.
Beginning his second season with the Redskins and hoping to rebound after a bad first one, Shanahan did what he needed to do on successive days: He traded quarterback Donovan McNabb to Minnesota on Wednesday and then put needed distance between the Redskins and Haynesworth. Those two subtractions are actually investments that may yield big dividends for Shanahan in the locker room.
Haynesworth was not welcome at Redskins Park. Coaches and players were united in the belief that having Haynesworth on the roster, even during the preseason, would be a very bad thing. Long-term team chemistry was at risk.
And with his assistants and veterans watching, Shanahan scored big.
He showed them he could put aside his ego if that’s what a bad situation requires. He conceded that his presence alone no longer may be enough to make everyone conform. Shanahan again stirred confidence, much of which was lost during last season’s 6-10 debacle, that the overall good of the franchise is his primary focus.
After joining the Redskins, Shanahan often waxed nostalgic about his days with the Denver Broncos, sharing anecdotes illustrating his ability to persuade players to commit to his program. He clearly took pride in his reputation for being a no-nonsense coach who gets the most out of players.
But that was a different time in a far different organization.
The stern approach Shanahan once used so well in pushing some players to become Pro Bowlers had no chance of succeeding with Haynesworth. Not after Haynesworth had become the game’s best player at his position and pocketed millions before ever encountering Shanahan.
During the Haynesworth drama last season, Shanahan seemed to ignore voices of frustration throughout the Redskins’ training complex. He was so consumed with beating Haynesworth, some Redskins employees feared he would keep the disgruntled 10-year veteran on the roster the entire 2011 season and list him as inactive for each game.
That was a potential doomsday scenario, they say, because it would have been foolish to commit a $5.4 million salary cap number to Haynesworth with the entire cap at just $120 million. Coaches would rather put that money to better use. Haynesworth’s roster spot, players said, should be used on someone who wanted to help the Redskins.
Washington had $22 million in cap room before its flurry of moves Thursday, a person familiar with the situation said. The figure increased after several veterans were released. Shanahan obviously plans to do something with all that cap space.
That’s another reason why sanity needed to prevail with regard to Haynesworth. Shanahan is trying to remake a roster that has finished last or tied for last four of the past five seasons.
He’s attempting to acquire quality offensive linemen, hoping to ease quarterback John Beck’s transition in an unfamiliar starting role. Shanahan is pursuing defensive playmakers, acknowledging coordinator Jim Haslett needs better tools to effectively run the 3-4 defense essential to Shanahan’s plan to restore Washington to prominence.
Hoping to accomplish so much in such a small window, Shanahan has no more time to waste on making a point about who’s in charge. After more than a year, everyone gets it now. This is Shanahan’s show.
Removing the Haynesworth distraction enables the workaholic Shanahan to work even harder — and smarter. Even a second of Shanahan’s day being wasted on Haynesworth was too much facing the task he has undertaken.
Redskins people will tell you Shanahan underestimated the rebuilding job he inherited. Sure, Shanahan realized Washington didn’t have a proven franchise quarterback — the most important ingredient to long-term success — and that owner Daniel M. Snyder had performed poorly for more than a decade overseeing football plans.
What he didn’t understand, however, was the extent of the problems resulting from the Redskins’ former star-system culture. In many ways, Shanahan’s battle with Haynesworth was symbolic of a fight for the soul of the franchise. Trading Haynesworth shuts the door on an era that usually produced big headlines during free agency but little progress on the field.
No one has been more critical of Shanahan than I, and I still have doubts about his three-year vision to get the team rolling again, but he has shown a lot this week while putting the future of the franchise first. And for that, Shanahan deserves no criticism.