Shanahan made the biggest gamble of his career in trading four high-round picks — the steepest price in NFL draft history — to move up and select the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor. Snyder backed the risky move and, in doing so, mortgaged the franchise’s future based on the judgment of a coach who hasn’t led a team to the playoffs since the 2005 season.
Because of what they’ve risked together, Shanahan and Snyder are linked more closely than any other owner and coach in the league. If Griffin becomes a superstar during the next three seasons (the remaining length of Shanahan’s contract), Snyder and Shanahan will split the jackpot. The Redskins finally would have a franchise quarterback to direct their long-awaited turnaround and Shanahan could restore, at least in part, his once-strong reputation for developing quarterbacks.
If Griffin fails to reach elite status, however, and the Redskins remain mediocre, it’s highly likely that someone else would occupy the head coach’s office at Redskins Park once Shanahan’s deal expires. For Snyder, being proven wrong about Shanahan and, in turn, Griffin, would mark the biggest setback in a long list of failures.
Regardless of how the Redskins fare this season (from the looks of things in the preseason, they’ll probably struggle again), Snyder should stick with Shanahan because of their common interest in Griffin’s progress. Their relationship is much like a lot of marriages: For the sake of the kid, it’s best if Shanahan and Snyder stay together.
Throughout professional sports, owners and coaches share, or should share, the goal of achieving team success. A coach’s vision for a roster can’t take shape unless the person at the top of the organizational chart supports the plan on the field. Conversely, owners, many of whom attained their wealth as captains of industry, need coaches to guide them in an unfamiliar business in which a great year or a disappointing one can turn on the bounce of a ball.
With annual revenues reportedly in excess of $9.5 billion, the NFL is the lion of the professional sports jungle. Owners have so much invested in their franchises, it figures they would rely on the people they hire to lead the most important part of them: the team. And the best owner-coach partnerships result in season-ending trophy presentations.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has supported Coach Bill Belichick all the way to five AFC titles and three Super Bowl championships since the 2001 season. New York Giants co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch have followed Coach Tom Coughlin’s lead to two Super Bowl wins in the past five seasons.
Belichick and Coughlin aren’t solely responsible for what the Patriots and Giants have achieved. No coach is. The Patriots and Giants have many talented people in their football operations (they’re better at scouting than most). But Belichick and Coughlin have clout with their bosses because they’ve produced at the highest level. If they ask for something — to acquire a player, change a team policy, whatever — they’re more likely to get it than coaches who regularly finish under .500.
Based on his first two seasons with the Redskins, Shanahan, it would appear, hasn’t given Snyder many reasons to bankroll his big ideas. Hired to rebuild the Redskins, Shanahan has gone 6-10 and 5-11. The Redskins haven’t reached the postseason since 2007 and Shanahan’s playoff drought stands at five seasons (he was out of football during the 2009 season).
It’s not just that the Redskins’ record under Shanahan has been poor. His high-profile misses on quarterbacks — Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman, John Beck — prompted some Redskins opponents to ask, “What’s he thinking?”
Snyder’s decision to send so many picks to the St. Louis Rams to get the chance at Griffin, Redskins people say, is proof of his continued belief that Shanahan still has what it takes to fix the team. Snyder, who declined an interview request, understood that the exorbitant cost for Griffin would hamper the Redskins’ ability to improve the team through the draft. Correctly, though, Snyder realized it was way past time for the Redskins to acquire a difference-maker at the game’s most important position. Shanahan made the right call. Wisely, Snyder approved it.
Shanahan and Snyder saw an opportunity and “went for it,” inside linebacker and team leader London Fletcher, who is beginning his 15th season said. “In this league, the quarterback is so important. Guys who have Robert’s ability, Robert’s potential, just don’t come around often.”
Snyder’s support of Shanahan, Fletcher added, was not lost on the locker room. “Guys definitely understand the significance of the owner believing in your coach,” he said. “For Mr. Snyder to do what he did, you know he definitely understands what Coach [Shanahan] is trying to accomplish. That’s what you want to see from your owner and your coach.”
Despite his struggles in Washington, Shanahan is still considered one of the game’s best tacticians. There’s nothing wrong with Shanahan’s playbook; the problem has been the people trying to execute the plays — especially at quarterback. Although Shanahan would probably never admit it, I wouldn’t be surprised if he underestimated the dearth of talent on the Redskins’ roster when he arrived. A decade worth of mismanagement (remember the horrendous 2008 draft?) can’t be overcome overnight.
In addition to lacking first-round picks the next two seasons, the Redskins are dealing with the effects of the NFL’s $36 million salary cap penalty. They will have $18 million less to spend in free agency before next season, which makes it even more difficult to strengthen the team around Griffin.
During the preseason, Griffin made typical rookie mistakes and probably will experience growing pains. The Redskins have concerns along the offensive line, at running back and in the secondary. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Redskins’ win-loss record was worse than last season, “but I don’t think anyone is looking at it like it’s all on Robert” to improve the team, Fletcher said.
“Robert is a rookie, so he needs time to go out there and learn. He’ll be fine [in time] and we’ll be better as he grows. I’ll know this, Mr. Snyder and Coach Shanahan wouldn’t have done everything it took to get him if they thought he would [fail].”
Shanahan and Snyder have pushed in all their chips. They’re about to play their hand.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.