Speed-walking through a Mile High City tunnel as proud and purposefully as only a two-time Super Bowl champion coach can, Mike Shanahan will have to swallow hard Sunday in a place he lorded over for 14 years.
But after maybe 20 seconds of soul-warming nostalgia on the video board, a cold reality: At 2-4, the team Shanahan returns with to Denver is nearly a two-touchdown underdog to the Peyton Manning-led Broncos.
Further, almost at the midway point of his fourth year in Washington, Shanahan is 23-31, eight games under .500. The truth is Shanahan’s current employer may be now scrutinizing him the way Denver scrutinized him before relieving him of his duties in 2008.
“Now you’re playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come,” Shanahan famously said last November when his beleaguered team fell to 3-6 before a memorable run to the playoffs. “Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at.”
Less than a year later, less than five years after the Broncos moved on, it’s time to evaluate the evaluator.
Even in the downtrodden NFC East, Shanahan very likely needs to go 7-3 over the remaining 10 games for Robert Griffin III and his teammates to get a second crack at the postseason.
Nothing pointed to playoffs after 3-6 a year ago, of course, but the schedule and the fan base were more forgiving.
The No. 1 question then — was Griffin a franchise-altering quarterback? — was answered. The No. 1 question in 2013 — will post-surgery Robert ever be explosive, old Robert again? — is gradually being answered in the affirmative as well.
But the next-most important issue for this franchise — whether Shanahan, in the fourth year of his five-year deal, has Washington clearly pointed in the right direction and is worth extending for at least two to three years — is still up for debate with 10 games and one season to go.
From the failed Donovan McNabb experiment in 2010, which included giving up draft picks, to the hard sell of John Beck that ended up producing 5-11 dividends in 2011, to his initial handling of Albert Haynesworth, Shanahan has had numerous questionable decisions in his executive role.
While he wasn’t responsible for signing Haynesworth or DeAngelo Hall, he was sitting in the room when the decision was made to try to beat the system in an uncapped year — a decision the NFL deemed was worth docking the team $36 million in salary cap room over two seasons. That organizational hubris may have come from other corners, but it nonetheless came under his watch as franchise architect.
There is no denying Shanahan, with his sense of structure and organizational skills, changed how the franchise was perceived locally and nationally after the Jim Zorn years. He also turned a relic of a roster into one of the NFL’s youngest.
There is Griffin, Trent Williams, Alfred Morris, Ryan Kerrigan and it appears Jordan Reed. There are also works in progress like Josh LeRibeus, Jarvis Jenkins or Leonard Hankerson, who have much to prove to show they belong here in five years.
Unless Washington catches fire again late, it’s downright frustrating watching Andy Reid manage games and win with a Kansas City team that had two victories last season, or seeing the Colts go from nothing to the playoffs in a year and watching their ascent with Andrew Luck continue under Chuck Pagano. Simply put, there are other teams with bad rosters that were turned around more quickly than Washington.
The energy inside team headquarters in Ashburn seems unchanged by the 2-4 start. In point of fact, a person with peripheral knowledge of owner Daniel Snyder’s thinking said, on condition of anonymity, that he wouldn’t be surprised if Shanahan were given a three-year extension before the season ended, provided Washington was playing meaningful football games in December.
But that scenario is very much up for grabs now, just as Shanahan being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is up for grabs. Winning two Super Bowls is a sketchy line of demarcation for induction.
Of the 10 former coaches eligible for Canton who have won at least two Super Bowls, Jimmy Johnson, Tom Flores and George Seifert are not enshrined, though there is a belief among some voters that Johnson may eventually get in. In speaking confidentially with four veteran Hall of Fame voters last week, Shanahan is by no means a shoo-in.
Here’s hoping he makes it based on one of the great, if still unappreciated, gambles in league history. Lost in the tribute Sunday will be Shanahan’s gutsiest call ever: to keep and not release or trade a 14-year veteran quarterback in 1996.
After Jacksonville upset the No. 1-seeded Broncos at home in the AFC playoffs, Denver fans were probably 70-30 percent in favor of moving on without John Elway. The thought was he simply couldn’t win the big one. It’s hard to imagine now, but think Tony Romo multiplied exponentially.
Twenty-one months after Shanahan gambled on an aging, perennial runner-up, he walked out of Miami with a second straight Lombardi Trophy.
Then, like now, Shanahan had the fortitude, the certainty of self-confidence, to make decisions extremely unpopular in the short term in order to one day arrive at his goal.
If Shanahan returns to his Mile High glory years Sunday for the first time since the Broncos fired him, he also returns to a familiar fork in the road: He needs to win now or else his days as coach and franchise architect could very likely be numbered.
Too often in Washington, most notably last January, the need-to-win-now coach in Shanahan has undermined the long-term organization builder.
Still, if Griffin remains healthy and keeps developing, if this team can at least finish .500 and remain in the playoff hunt late, Shanahan is worth extending at least two years beyond 2014.
If not, if the wheels fall off in any way these last 10 games, it’s time to part with the gold standard Snyder believed he was getting in 2010.
After three of four losing seasons, no one would call the owner impulsive for pulling the plug on Shanahan’s final year.
Forget the players. Mike Shanahan has 10 games left to show he deserves to stay. And Elway can’t help him this time.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.