How is this possible?
The Redskins have wallowed in mediocrity for two decades, making the playoffs just four times in that span. They have gone through 21 different starting quarterbacks and eight head coaches over the past 20 years.
Dan Snyder has been a laughingstock since he bought the team in 1999. From his personnel decisions to his poor relationship with football operations, the Redskins have simply been a mess under current ownership. They were even hit with a $36 million cap penalty this offseason stemming from one of Snyder's poor decisions—the Redskins abused the uncapped season by signing incredibly front-loaded deals, including Albert Haynesworth's.
A blackened tapestry of ineptitude and hubris has been woven in Washington D.C. while the rest of the NFC East has risen to the pinnacle of sports—or close to it, in Philadelphia's case—at various points over the past two decades, further twisting the knife for agonized fans of the team.
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are serious threats to become a dynasty. The Giants will have a strong case if they win another Super Bowl in the next year or two. A year removed from the Dream Team, the Eagles look to finally make their run.
After coming off 6-10 and 5-11 records in consecutive seasons and dealing with increasingly powerful NFC East rivals, what reason is there to declare the Redskins a dynasty anytime soon?
Teams do not win championships without great coaching.
True, Mike Shanahan has done little since winning a pair of Super Bowls with John Elway and Terrell Davis anchoring his team, but he was not exactly terrible. The Broncos made the playoffs thrice more under his vigilance and only had one season with a losing record—all the while dealing with mediocre or raw talent at key positions.
Yes, Shanahan's 11-21 record is actually one game worse than Jim Zorn's 12-20 mark during his ill-fated tenure in the nation's capital. Zorn was not tearing the team up, rebuilding and installing an entirely new culture, though. The team Shanahan inherited was a far cry from the one on the cusp of greatness that he got in Denver.
Shanahan might be considered overrated, but for flimsy reasons. I reached out to NFL writer and Denver radio personality Cecil Lammey—who knows Mike Shanahan well—and here is what he had to say about Washington's head coach:
Mike Shanahan is far from overrated. The impact he's had on the coaching community cannot be overlooked. Looking at what Gary Kubiak has built in Houston reminds me of the great influence Shanahan had on him as a young coach. Yes, Shanahan hasn't won a Super Bowl since QB John Elway retired, but we need to examine the teams he's had since then to get a true look at what he worked with. Guys like Olandis Gary, Tatum Bell, and Fullbacks Mike Anderson and Reuben Droughns were able to gain over 1,000-yards rushing under the guide of Shanahan. His zone blocking scheme and offensive philosophy can produce a strong ground game regardless of the natural talent of the back. Shanahan made Jake Plummer into a 4,000-yard passer! Just think about that. The Broncos implemented a heavy bootleg offense (expect to see that early and often with Robert Griffin III) so that Plummer could use his athleticism to it's fullest advantage. In 2004 Plummer threw for 27 touchdowns, which ranks him #1 in the Broncos record book for a single season.
In the ten seasons A.E. (after Elway) in Denver Shanahan still coached the team to 91 wins. His failure as a GM and evaluator (especially on defensive talent) forced him to overcome a serious lack of talent for many of those seasons. Shanahan knows offense, and he knows how to craft an offense that best serves his talent. The ability to adapt his offensive philosophies while still getting quality production is what still makes Shanahan one of the top coaches in the league.
Cecil Lammey is a NFL Insider for ESPN Denver 102.3 and senior writer for Footballguys.com.
Shanahan has been able to focus more on coaching since his arrival in Washington, splitting player personnel business with general manager Bruce Allen. His record may not be a reflection of success thus far, but he was just getting started.
More importantly, Shanahan has the football smarts and savvy to get his team to the top. It's just taken him a bit longer to right the ship in Washington with what he had to work with.
Robert Griffin III will become the 22nd starting quarterback in 20 years for the team in the nation's capital this fall. He will be the first with such burdensome expectations. The Redskins traded a pretty package of picks to the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft Griffin this past April.
Thus far, it appears to have been worth it.
Griffin impressed right out of the gate at Washington's first OTA practice of the offseason. Veterans have gushed about the rookie, including London Fletcher earlier this offseason (via Don Banks of Sports Illustrated):
"You can obviously see the maturity, the leadership, all the intangibles you would like in your quarterback,'' Fletcher said. "He's very humble, very respectful, and not coming in feeling like he's entitled to anything. He's willing to work, he works hard, he's here early, and he's in the playbook. A lot of different things that, believe it or not, there are some first-round draft picks, especially some high guys, they come in and feel like things should be given to them. That's not the case with him.
"He has an aura about himself that people want to gravitate to him, just get to know him, and talk to him. You can see why everyone felt so highly about him.''
Tim Hightower also has great things to say about the rookie:
TH 25 on @RGIII "I've seen great leadership qualities, that u don't see out of many young guys. I've seen a work ethic that is 2nd to none."— Chris Russell (@Russellmania980) July 18, 2012
Of course, leadership and determination can only take a player so far. Fortunately, Griffin also happens to be a highly talented player.
A blistering Heisman campaign helped Griffin scale Mount Draft during his senior season. He went from a fringe quarterback prospect who many thought should become a wide receiver to pushing Andrew Luck to be the first overall pick in the draft.
He made a believer out of the Redskins, and he will be doing the same for fans everywhere soon if they are not already there.
The talented quarterback boasts a fantastic arm and elite athleticism. He may come from a spread offense, but that is not a bad thing in today's NFL. Even so, Griffin clearly can combine his talent with his work ethic to overcome whatever may come his way.
Shanahan's bootleg-heavy offense features rollout plays designed to get the quarterback on the move, where Griffin can be extremely dangerous. As Mr. Lammey mentioned, Shanahan was able to coax a 4,000-yard season out of Jake Plummer, and Griffin is no snake. Heck, Rex Grossman and John Beck combined for over 4,000 yards last season.
Just imagine what Griffin will be able to do with some seasoning.
John Elway had made three Super Bowl appearances that ended in failure before Shanahan showed up in Denver in 1995.
Coincidentally, that is when Davis burst on the NFL scene as a rookie, rushing for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns.
What was not coincidence was Davis' ascent to the top of the running back heap the following season, thanks largely in part to offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. He was a major proponent of the zone blocking scheme (ZBS), eventually popularizing it in the NFL by having wild success with the Broncos under Shanahan.
Davis romped his way to two straight second-place finishes in rushing yards—he finished second to legendary Barry Sanders in 1996 and '97, not that there was anything to hang his head about—before torching the league for 2,008 yards in '98.
Elway was finally able to get over the championship hump, due in large part to the dangerous rushing attack he had at his disposal.
Unfortunately, Elway retired and Davis' career was cut short by injuries. As Mr. Lammey mentioned, the ZBS gave rise to several unknown running backs in Davis' wake—excluding Clinton Portis' two-year stint in Denver—but the Broncos were not able to muster the success they had in the late '90s. It ultimately led to Shanahan's demise in Denver.
Look at what Washington is building and it is easy to see a multifaceted offense with serious threats in the backfield. Set aside Tim Hightower—who might be a nice guy and a hard worker, but has the upside of Windows 2000—and you will see serious talent and potential with Roy Helu and Evan Royster.
The talented duo flashed their abilities to put up Davis-like numbers in their rookie seasons. Helu was a workhorse when he took over the starting gig—he was in on 86.7 percent of all offensive snaps as a starter—and Royster averaged a whopping 5.9 yards per carry (YPC) on the season.
A good bootleg usually requires a good running game to sell the fake, and it looks like Shanahan has a dangerous one in the making.
Both have room to grow their abilities. The tandem should thrive in the ZBS Shanahan has implemented in Washington and could do so for years to come. Having a great running game is not as important as it once was—the champion Giants had the NFL's worst rushing attack last season in what has become a pass-happy league—but Shanahan is not wired that way.
Is having a tremendous air and ground attack really a bad thing?
Like everything else, the defense must obviously improve for the future dynasty to come to fruition. It is, however, in need of bigger improvement than its counterpart.
The Redskins were not a defensive powerhouse last season, but they were improved. Jim Haslett was in Year Two of his reclamation project, getting his unit comfortable in the 3-4 defense he had installed in 2009. Progress was marked as the defense improved from 31st to 13th in total defense.
Defense does not necessarily win championships nowadays, but a good one is key. Just ask Green Bay.
The Packers won their most recent championship with an excellent offense, but they also featured an opportunistic, fifth-ranked defense that helped get them over the top. They may have flirted with an undefeated season the following year, but the defense took a major step back, ranking dead last in the league. It finally caught up to them in the playoffs.
Washington's defense is moving in the right direction.
Their biggest hurdle in the short term is getting better play in the secondary, particularly at safety. O.J. Atogwe and LaRon Landry are gone, leaving second-year man DeJon Gomes and either Tanard Jackson or Brandon Meriweather—neither of which is particularly inspiring—to start on the other side. Josh Wilson was not particularly great in his first year with the team, and DeAngelo Hall looks like he is getting close to getting put out to pasture.
Washington's youthful front seven is much better, though. This is a unit that believes it is on the cusp of greatness (per Rick Maese, Washington Post):
“You got a front seven that can be there for a long time,” Haslett said, “because they’re a bunch of young guys. . . . The front defensive linemen, there’s nobody over 27 or 26.”
Bowen and Cofield have long-term contracts. Defensive end Adam Carriker is coming off the best season of his career, and though he’ll be a free agent, he could be brought back. “He made a big jump from a year ago,” Shanahan said.
“I think we’ve taken some tremendous steps. . . . We got to be more consistent,” Orakpo said. “I think from Year 1 to Year 2, we hear it around the whole league — coaches, players — we’re a very top defense in this league.”
Coaches expect to see improvement across the board next season. And they say it wasn’t only front-line players who progressed in 2011.
This is a young and talented front seven that is also getting second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins back from injury.
The Redskins may not field an elite defense just yet, but continued improvement is in store. They may have all they need in a year or two.
The Supporting Cast
Skepticism abounds after years of severe money mismanagement highlighted by bloated contracts for the likes of Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb. There may be one or two vestiges from a more reckless time within the organization, but positive contributors hold a vast majority on the team.
Indeed, the Redskins have not eschewed their free-wheeling ways entirely—did Pierre Garçon really command a five-year, $42.5 million deal this offseason?—but a philosophical shift is evident. The Redskins were surprisingly frugal during the free agent blitz that occurred shortly after the lockout ended in 2011.
Instead of signing the big names in recent years, the Redskins have opted to build through the draft and add veterans quietly, for the most part. Last year they spent their money on solid contributors like Josh Wilson, Barry Cofield, O.J. Atogwe (now with the Eagles) and Chris Chester.
Garçon's big contract aside, the Redskins hope to get more of the same from free agents Brandon Meriweather, Tanard Jackson, Josh Morgan and Jonathan Goff this coming season.
Where they have really shined the past couple of seasons is in the NFL draft.
Washington traded back several times in the 2010 draft, ultimately having one of the best drafts in the league including Ryan Kerrigan, Leonard Hankerson, Roy Helu, DeJon Gomes and Evan Royster. They went the opposite direction in the pursuit of their franchise quarterback this year.
It may be slow going, but this was all part of the plan (via Albert Breer of NFL Network):
"We needed to get depth at all positions," Shanahan emphasized, over the phone from his office recently. "We had no depth at all. And now, with a good draft and run in free agency, we'll be right in the thick of things next year. I really believe that. I told the owner when he hired me, 'This is not gonna happen overnight. You hire me for five years, you're gonna have to give us that time.' We're getting there."
Perhaps more of their moves will fail than not, but the point is that Dan Snyder has finally decided to let football people run his football team. He also happens to have picked two smart, proven ones to do it in Allen and Shanahan.
The Road Ahead
Reasons for optimism are prevalent in Washington, but the path to greatness is never an easy one.
Achieving dynasty status is daunting for any team. The cellar-dwelling Redskins seem like they stand a better chance of flipping Congress' approval ratings than winning one Super Bowl soon, let alone multiple times in the next decade.
If they can keep their current trajectory, however, they will be turning heads soon. In a big way.