Mike Shanahan: Why the Best Is Yet to Come from the Washington Redskins Coach
Mike Shanahan needs good things to happen in 2012—that much is certain. However, the word “good” is a very loose term that conjures up different images for different people.
Given the pressure of the NFL, if we assume that Shanahan's contract allows him two of the remaining three years, then we are given a useful timeline by which to make an assessment.
The addition of Robert Griffin III has likely bought him that time, which means we now sit at the halfway point of his contract, with a record of 11-21 to show for it.
By itself, this record is not indicative of a successful coach, nor is it indicative of the development of the team during Shanahan’s tenure. The criticisms of both the Redskins under Dan Snyder and NFL teams under Mike Shanahan are based on myth and generalization—which doesn’t equate to fact, no matter how many times it gets published.
The generalizations of Snyder can be forgiven, as his approach to NFL ownership was to throw all his money at the wall just to see what would stick, firing and suing along the way.
The key word in the last paragraph is “was.” He has since handed over control of player personnel to Shanahan and Bruce Allen, who have spent the last two years undoing the damage inflicted by Snyder’s involvement.
This meant that the inflated contracts and egos of over-the-hill free agents were out, and treating the draft with the respect and care it deserves was in.
However, building a team from scratch takes time, and Shanahan indicated this to Snyder when he was appointed. He wanted the freedom to do things his way, which meant starting from the ground up.
When will the Redskins next post a winning record?
Of the 12 players drafted in 2011, all of them made the roster or the practice squad—with Roy Helu, Ryan Kerrigan, Maurice Hurt, Evan Royster, DeJon Gomes and Leonard Hankerson earning starts.
Youth doesn’t automatically bring victory, however—consistency does.
If I were to offer an explanation for the lack of consistency in 2011—or an excuse, if you’re feeling uncharitable—then I would point to the injuries that the team sustained over the course of the season.
When a team is rebuilding, it lacks depth and is more likely to be affected by injuries to its starters. With the Redskins, this is easily illustrated by taking a look at the Week 1 depth chart, followed by the 2011 injury report.
Only the Rams' injuries had more impact on their offense in 2011, and while this meant that the rookies could gain useful NFL experience, it also meant that proven performers like Chris Cooley and Santana Moss were unavailable.
Add to this two misfiring quarterbacks, a lockout and two drug-related suspensions, and it’s actually a testament to the defense and running backs that the Redskins won five games and were competitive in nearly all 16.
The draft and free agency helped to provide the depth that the Redskins lacked last year, and the emphasis on incentive-laden free-agent contracts to young players epitomized the difference between the Shanahan and Snyder eras.
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I still have some questions about the secondary, but now that there is some depth to go with the potential, it can only be of benefit to the team.
The foundations have been laid for the new season, but the detractors remain, whether to snipe that Shanahan won’t cater his offense to his new quarterback, or simply to remark that he hasn’t done anything of note since Elway.
The faces change, but the generalizations remain the same, spitting the words “offseason champions” before disappearing.
If these people were to actually look at Mike Shanahan’s record as a coach, they would see that every quarterback who started for him for two or more years went to the Pro Bowl.
Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler—all of them thrived within Shanahan’s supposedly rigid system, with some failing both before and after he coached them. The supporting evidence is there, but it’s easier to find the damnation when only looking at the win percentage post-Elway.
The reason for his success with quarterbacks is actually the opposite of the accepted stereotype—he finds the quarterback’s strengths and starts the offense from there.
Yes, the zone-blocking scheme remains a constant, as does his ability to pull running backs from the lower rounds and drop them into his system, but the quarterback's role is something that cannot be so prescribed, and he accepts that.
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In an interview with Dan Graziano at ESPN.com, Shanahan was asked about the inflexibility of his system, and his response was to point to the quarterbacks he had coached:
"And then [John] Elway—Elway didn't want to run the five-step drop. We were in a shotgun formation all the time. He hated the West Coast offense of three- and five-step drops, so with John it was a seven-step drop and a lot of shotgun.
"And then we wind up getting a guy like Jake Plummer, and of course Jake...totally different. He had to be outside the pocket, all those quarterback keeps, boots, none of the drop-back, none of the seven-step drop. He was good on the run, good on the play action, but the drop-back wasn't his game.
"So what you've always got to do is, whatever quarterback you have, you adjust your system to your players."
Of course, every system has the capacity to break down, and this has been the case since Shanahan took over at the Redskins—Donovan McNabb wasn't willing to work, and Rex Grossman's turnovers negated anything he did in between.
The selection of Robert Griffin III allowed Shanahan to retain his well-defined zone-blocking system, as well as providing him with options similar to when Steve Young was putting up his best numbers. It is no coincidence that this was when Shanahan was his offensive coordinator.
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Griffin is accurate in and out of the pocket, and his ability to throw on the run widens the playbook to include the play-action bootlegs that were a feature of Shanahan's Cutler-helmed offense, as well as the strong running game that is so crucial to their success.
This will ease Griffin's transition to the NFL by simplifying his reads—as well as nullifying some offensive-line frailties—as the weakest part of his game is probably his decision-making in the pocket.
If the run is a threat, then the play-action will remain a viable option to gain yards. One look at the Cleveland Browns last year shows how quickly a West Coast offense can unravel when the defense doesn't respect the running game.
I believe that 2012 will be the first year we can truly judge the progress that Shanahan's Redskins have made. Not for nothing did he pass on Blaine Gabbert in favour of trading down, and not for nothing did he give up the amount that it took to bring Griffin to DC.
Mike Shanahan will probably be forever known as the guy who won successive Super Bowls with John Elway and Terrell Davis, but the team he has assembled in Washington has the potential to make the Redskins continually relevant again, a task that has eluded every coach since 1992.
There are many who would argue that this would be his greatest achievement yet.
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