Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that quarterback Jay Cutler led the Denver Broncos to the AFC championship game in 2008. The Broncos did not reach the title game. This version has been updated.
With the NFL draft promising to be a shockless affair, commentators are trying desperately to gin up some drama by suggesting Robert Griffin III might not be a Washington Redskin after all. Donovan McNabb, in an ESPN audition that veered between personal gripe and gibberish, even tried to foil the deal by saying Griffin is a bad fit and should beware of Coach Mike Shanahan’s lousy record with quarterbacks. Personally, I’m strangely confident that RGIII will be the Redskins’ draft pick, and will thrive under Shanahan. What explains my mysterious sense of well-being? Facts. Oh, those.
In less than three weeks RGIII will be wearing a Redskins cap, despite the chatter from talking heads and posturing by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. The fact is, Irsay has peddled Stanford’s Andrew Luck to his fan base since November as the next Peyton Manning, and he isn’t going to disappoint them now. The fact is, the Colts had a private workout with Luck on Tuesday. The fact is, RGIII declined to work out for the Colts, because it’s a waste of his time and he prefers to play for the Redskins.
That’s right: Griffin is so comfortable with the Redskins that he is willing to forgo being discussed as a No.1 pick. Apparently, Griffin believes that he is in the right hands with Shanahan. What accounts for this confidence?
It’s apparently McNabb’s contention that no one is a good fit as Redskins quarterback under Shanahan, not Griffin, nor Luck, nor Bart Starr. Asked to respond, Shanahan said: “I’d like to let the statistics speak for themselves. I think I can take the high road.”
When Manning hit the open market, McNabb publicly insisted Shanahan’s ego couldn’t coexist with a mature pocket passer who makes his own decisions. “Peyton’s not gonna go there,” he announced. Turns out the Redskins were on Manning’s list, and he met at length with Shanahan. Now it’s RGIII’s turn. According to McNabb, Shanahan doesn’t know how to deal with a piston-legged, rope-armed improvisational rookie quarterback, either. McNabb also ripped Shanahan’s work with Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler, as if they were all failures.
“We talk so much about Mike Shanahan and the things he was able to do in Denver,” McNabb said. “Well, I have a couple of names for you that Mike Shanahan — quarterbacks he’s coached — and the lack of success he’s had.”
But what does the record really say?
Let’s start by asking what the gauge of a successful relationship with a quarterback should be. “You can go by so many different stats,” Shanahan said. “The perception, the most basic one people look at is, ‘Did you win a Super Bowl at the end of the day?’ ”
Shanahan can claim two Super Bowl collaborations with John Elway, but that’s a statistical sample from a long time ago, and deceptive. Super Bowl teams tend to have great supporting casts that make a quarterback look better.
How did Shanahan’s quarterbacks perform more generally, when they didn’t necessarily have Super Bowl-quality seasons and supporting casts? The answer is surprising. Every quarterback who started for two years or more under Shanahan has been to the Pro Bowl. Every one.
Griese, a third-round draft pick in 1998 who backed up Elway, went from getting booed off the field in 1999 to the Pro Bowl in 2000, the only time in his career he made it. He threw the fewest interceptions per attempt of any quarterback in the NFL, and his passer rating soared from 75.6 to 102.9 before they lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Everybody thought Shanahan made a mistake by signing Plummer as a free agent in 2003; the guy was a loser with a 30-52 record in five years with the Arizona Cardinals.
Under Shanahan, Plummer went 39-15, and had the three best years of his career before he fell out with the coach. He set a club record for passing in 2004, made the Pro Bowl in 2005 for the only time in his career, throwing 229 passes without an interception, and reached the AFC title game.
In 2008, it was Cutler who set the new club record and made the Pro Bowl for the only time his career.
Lesser names succeeded with Shanahan, too. Gus Frerotte, the former Redskin, played for the Broncos in 2000-01, replacing Griese when he was hurt. His QB rating rose by 12 points as he went from completing 54 percent of his passes to 60 percent. Bubby Brister subbed for an injured Elway for four games in 1998, and his quarterback rating rose by 15 points.
The best numbers of Steve Young’s career, from wins to completion percentage, came when Shanahan was his offensive coordinator in San Francisco. In that context, Elway’s numbers under Shanahan aren’t anomalies.
He won 11 or more games a half-dozen seasons in his career — all of them with Shanahan as his coordinator or head coach. It’s often said Shanahan never won a Super Bowl without Elway. It’s seldom noted that Elway never even won so much as a playoff game without Shanahan on staff as an assistant or head coach.
Shanahan’s performance in Washington is, of course, equivocal. Yet even McNabb, who had just a 5-8 record, was on pace to throw for a career high in yards in 2010 when Shanahan benched him with three games to go. Rex Grossman, too, was on a career-high pace and went from a 54 percent completion rate to 57 percent in 2011 before he was benched.
None of this is to say that Shanahan is without flaws, or that he handles quarterbacks perfectly. Just that if there is an outlier in his career, it’s failure. McNabb is a nice man who is no longer employed in the NFL because he was inaccurate. It appears he’s off to the same start in TV.
It’s impossible to say whether RGIII will live up to his promise — drafting quarterbacks is a highly inexact practice. But the facts suggest that he will have every chance to.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.