The barometer for progress in the NFL is sometimes very simple.
“You always look at the overall record to see if you get better,” said Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan.
Washington’s season finale at Philadelphia is devoid of playoff implications, but by Shanahan’s standard for growth, Sunday’s game still carries a lot of meaning: A win means the Redskins will equal last year’s 6-10 mark; a loss means they’ll not only finish one game worse, but Shanahan will have to swallow the worst single-season record of his coaching career.
Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, Shanahan acknowledged for the first time that the task he faced in returning the Redskins to competitive form was bigger than he expected when he accepted the job — and a lucrative five-year contract — in January 2010. The Redskins haven’t reached the playoffs since 2007 and getting back there is taking longer than many in the organization expected.
“Oh, yeah, a lot longer than I first anticipated,“ Shanahan said.
Shanahan has been careful in the past when discussing the state of the organization he inherited, but on Monday the veteran coach said the job required a bigger roster overhaul than he initially realized.
“We had less depth than I thought,” he said. “We were a little bit older at a few different positions, and I thought we might keep those players a little bit longer than we did.”
“But that’s not a negative,” he continued. “You’ve just got to evaluate your squad on a day-to-day basis, a year-to-year basis, and put the best football team together. And I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Of the squad Shanahan will take into Sunday’s game against the Eagles, only 13 players were on the Redskins’ 53-man roster prior to Shanahan’s arrival. And only six from that group will start on either side of the ball. That means the majority of the Redskins’ contributors each weekend this season were brought to town in the past 24 months via draft, trade or free agency.
“We’ve brought a lot of people in that I think will help us down the road,” Shanahan said.
The result has been a string of inconsistent performances this season. With Saturday’s 33-26 loss to the Vikings, the team has now suffered a third straight 10-loss season — only the second instance in franchise history the Redskins have suffered through such a stretch.
Regardless of the final record, Shanahan has seen some progress as this season has slowly crawled toward the finish line. The defense was ranked No. 31 in the NFL in 2010 but is now 13th heading into the season’s final week. The front seven are strong, the team has found several young players to contribute and the offensive line seems to grasp Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme.
One of the most important differences in the season’s final month has been the emergence of the team’s running game.
During their six-game losing streak — the longest such drought of Shanahan’s coaching career — the Redskins had fewer rushing yards than any other NFL team, averaging only 55.5 yards per game. No other team averaged fewer than 80 during the stretch.
But in the five games since then — a period in which Washington won only twice — the Redskins averaged 128.8 yards an outing, tied for 10th best in the league.
“You can see we have some depth,” Shanahan said.
A strong ground game is a staple of Shanahan’s offense. From 1995 to 2008, Shanahan’s entire tenure as head coach in Denver, no team ran for more yards than the Broncos. Those Denver squads boasted a 1,000-yard rusher 11 times in 1995-2006, and six different running backs broke the barrier.
Despite the late-season ground surge, the Redskins still enter the finale ranked 26th in rushing yards per game (98.9 yards per game). Helu started only five of the Redskins’ 15 games this season. He leads the team’s other backs by a wide margin, but he’s still a long way from the top of the NFL leader board. Helu has 635 yards, ranked 29th in the league — behind 26 running backs and two quarterbacks.
While the task of returning Washington to a position of prominence might be tougher than Shanahan anticipated, he knows more changes are on the horizon.
“Eventually, what we want to do is put a football team together where you can win a Super Bowl,” he said. “Not just get to the playoffs or win nine or 10 games, but be there consistently where you have the depth to do what some of these teams have been doing year-in, year-out for a long period of time.”