On the last day of 2008, Mike Shanahan entered a crowded room and began saying his piece. He issued thanks. He told stories.
“I can go on and on,” he said, and before long, he paused to hold off tears.
Wearing a tan blazer and white shirt, Shanahan had been fired a day earlier after 14 seasons and two Super Bowl championships with the Denver Broncos. The man who had made the decision, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, called the move “historic” but necessary. Shanahan’s team, nearly a decade since its last championship, had been the picture of consistency and success — until suddenly it wasn’t anymore. A late-season collapse had ruined a season that once held high hopes. Shanahan’s decisions had failed.
Through the dark days, players insisted their locker room was strong, and Shanahan vowed to stay the course, refusing to show panic or a willingness to dramatically change the team’s routine. His approach had worked before, and it would again.
But now here he stood, saying goodbye.
This past week, Shanahan wore sweats and cracked jokes with the Washington media. He looked relaxed, even as questions percolated about an unraveling locker room, a much discussed rift between coaches and quarterback Robert Griffin III and whether Shanahan will return for a fifth season as Redskins coach.
“You don’t think about a run,” Shanahan said a day after his team fell to 3-7, far from the record the defending NFC East champions expected after 10 games. “You think about winning a football game.”
Indeed, one of the most important games of Shanahan’s tenure in Washington will happen Monday night at FedEx Field. Almost as much as the final five contests — which will definitively reveal growth or regression and whether team chemistry is crumbling — the national conversation will tip one way or the other Monday. A win against the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers would quiet the turmoil, showing that the 61-year-old coach can succeed under fire.
Another nationally televised loss, though, would amplify speculation about a last-place team falling apart, Shanahan’s relationship with Griffin and whether a different coach is better equipped to lead the Redskins to the Super Bowl.
As Shanahan showed confidence and composure, players insisted that, other than the record, all was well. The chaotic locker-room scene after the 24-16 loss in Philadelphia last Sunday was isolated, they said; cutting comments about players — notably questioning Griffin’s leadership — had been misunderstood and overblown. No one has given up on the 2013 season, several said. Griffin himself downplayed what had been perceived as a shot at his coaches, including offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, when he said the Eagles “knew what was coming from the Redskins’ offense.
“The only way to stop the madness is for us to win,” he said.
Fullback Darrel Young was among those who tried to quiet rumors of internal discord, adding that Shanahan’s best possible response during worrisome times is to show no visible response — to players or outsiders.
“Continue to coach us the way he’s been doing since day one,” Young said, “and still believe in this team.”
The day after Denver’s 30-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills nearly five years ago, Shanahan was eager to move on to the regular season finale. Two weeks earlier, the Broncos were 8-5 and held a three-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West, needing one victory in three games to clinch. But two consecutive Denver losses and three straight Chargers wins set up a one-game showdown.
“You come home and you can’t eat because you are disappointed considering everything you have worked for,” Shanahan said on Dec. 22, 2008. “There is only one thing to do, and that is get on to San Diego and get the job done.”
Two young Broncos offensive linemen, Kory Lichtensteiger and Tyler Polumbus, practiced and sat in meetings that week. Players faced increasing questions about the team’s chemistry and whether there was strife or resentment. The stakes were high, sure, but Shanahan seemed relaxed, showing only confidence and composure in meetings with players and media. That much wouldn’t change five years later.
“The whole time, it was positive and hopeful,” said Lichtensteiger, who is now the Redskins’ starting left guard.
No one then believed the Broncos lost optimism, Polumbus said. After all, no NFL team had ever surrendered a three-game division lead with three games to play.
“I’ve never been on a Mike Shanahan team that has felt defeated,” said Polumbus, now Washington’s right tackle.
Needing a win, the Broncos hosted the Chargers, who scored double-digit points in each quarter, leaving town with a 52-21 blowout win and the division title. Denver dealt with a historic collapse.
“Something you’d like to forget,” Lichtensteiger said.
Two days later, Lichtensteiger saw the news on television. Polumbus took a call from a friend. With the season finished, Shanahan had been fired.
With six weeks left this season, Shanahan will have chances to regain control over the franchise’s direction and quiet early-season whispers, which have grown louder with each loss.
“I have to learn to answer these type of questions: Is your team divided? Do they like each other? Do they still go out for pizzas on Thursday night? Do they go out for pizzas anymore?” the Redskins coach said. “Any time you have a little adversity, people are going to look to see if there is a locker room that’s divided.
“That’s part of it. Sometimes it does happen, but I understand what goes with losing.”
Disappointing seasons often lead to drama, contrived or not, but the story line of Shanahan’s job security was both real and unavoidable this past week. Players sidestepped other topics, but several veterans publicly backed their coach.
“If you fire him, that’s step one, and then we’re rebuilding again,” Young said. “I trust that he will put this team in the right direction. He has; we just haven’t come out on top for him.”
Linebacker London Fletcher pointed out that Shanahan changed the Redskins’ culture and expectations since joining the team in 2010, adding that that much should be taken into account when examining the coach’s four seasons in Washington.
But the best argument for extending or terminating Shanahan’s contract — it expires after the 2014 season, and NFL coaches rarely coach the final year without a new deal — will gain strength, one way or the other, from how he manages his team’s stretch run. The Broncos faltered five years ago when Shanahan needed one win. How will it play out in Washington as it faces its latest crossroads game?
“My hope is we go out here and beat the 49ers,” Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. “Winning is a cure-all in this business.”
For now, Golston said, Shanahan has avoided the temptation to change his approach. Practices and meetings are the same, and there has been no noticeable sense of urgency shown by the coaching staff.
“I’d be worried if things were changing,” Polumbus said, “because that would mean that people didn’t think we were doing things right before.”
Shanahan leaned on consistency in 2008, too, and again in 2012, when Washington won seven consecutive games after starting 3-6 and stole the division crown. A year later, the result this time could go a long way in determining the topic of Shanahan’s next season-ending news conference: a look toward the 2014 season or another emotional farewell.