The Washington Redskins are only nine months removed from their first NFC East title this century, but many expected them to build off of that 10-win 2012 season by making a run deep into January this time around.
Instead, a team that finished the 2012 campaign on a seven-game winning streak has seemingly regressed.
The 'Skins are 1-4. The defense has failed to make stops, and the offense has lacked consistency. They aren't getting enough pressure, and they're surrendering too much of it.
It's not just about franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has been less effective coming off reconstructive knee surgery. If the team was doing what it was doing last December and Griffin was the only problem, we wouldn't be as concerned.
But the Redskins have already turned it over nine times, which is five short of their total for the entire 2012 season. Alfred Morris has been less of a factor. The offensive line hasn't been right. Top pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan have disappeared for long stretches. That D is giving up four more points per game than it did in 2012. The special teams have been a mess.
We're not suggesting that this coaching staff has run out of time. Mike Shanahan and Co. battled back to make the playoffs after starting 3-6 last season, and that division is wide open. At the very least, Shanahan deserves a full 16-game run to right this ship.
But in a league and an era that lack patience, it's fair to wonder what could be in store for Shanahan this offseason if this talented team continues to lose as often as it has during the first month and a half of the year.
The expectation level rose dramatically after last season, so in a way, Shanahan could become a victim of his own success. If it even appears as though this organization's trajectory has been curbed by the time we reach the 2014 offseason, owner Daniel Snyder could think twice about giving more time to this regime.
Shanahan's contract expires after the 2014 season, but it's very unusual for head coaches—especially those with Super Bowls on their resumes—to coach as so-called lame ducks. Snyder will have a decision to make in only a few months, and if that comes with the aftertaste of another four- or five-win season, it might spell the end for Shanahan.
Say the 'Skins continue to spiral and finish 4-12. That would mean that in four years running this team, Shanahan will have been held to six or fewer wins on three occasions. How do you give an extension to a head coach who has gone 25-39 over a four-year span? And considering how dire things were before that seven-game winning streak to wrap up the 2012 season, you'd essentially only be sticking with Shanahan because of one hot streak in nearly half a decade.
Shanahan was only 15-17 in his final two seasons in Denver, which means he's now only gone 37-48 in his last five-and-a-half seasons as an NFL head coach. And he's been to the playoffs only once since 2006.
Still, those Denver teams were sort of rebuilding, and let's not forget that things were pretty much bottoming out in Washington when he was hired.
From Jason Reid in a video on the Washington Post's website:
People seem to forget how bad this thing was when he came here. I'm not saying he's done a great job overall at this point, but things were so bad with this organization that, as quiet as it was kept, the NFL made it clear to Snyder, through back channels, "Look, things have gotta change here."
The Redskins truly were floundering. Shanahan averaged only 5.5 wins per season over those first two years, but that was actually an improvement from the four games they won in 2009. That was the year they gave a $100 million contract to Albert Haynesworth. Before the season was a month old, people were already accusing the 'Skins of quitting on head coach Jim Zorn.
But I don't know how much of a role nostalgia will play here. This offense is Shanahan's baby, and it's been sloppy. There have been an inexplicably high number of communication breakdowns between RGIII, his receivers and his backs. The timing's been off too, which is odd considering that the personnel and the schemes are nearly identical to last season, when Washington ranked fifth in yards annd fourth in points.
Head coaches also deserve credit or blame for the hires they make and the assistants they let go. In Philadelphia, Andy Reid's demise was tied largely to his decision to name offensive line coach Juan Castillo the offensive coordinator. That backfired on Reid in a big way.
This past offseason, Redskins special teams coordinator Danny Smith strangely left Washington for the exact same job in Pittsburgh. His replacement, Keith Burns, has already been criticized heavily for what we've seen on the field.
The excrement really hit the fan Sunday in Dallas, when the Cowboys had two returns of 85-plus yards. In Oakland before the bye week, the Redskins gave up a touchdown on a blocked punt and surrendered a first down on a fake punt.
Football Outsiders ranks Washington's special teams dead last in the NFL. They're averaging only 4.8 yards per punt return and 19.6 yards per kick return, ranking in the bottom six in both areas. They've missed three of their nine field goal attempts, and they've had the second-worst average starting field position in the league.
Shanahan is not the special teams coordinator, but he hired the special teams coordinator. Right now, that promotion is making him look very bad. That alone might not be a fireable offense, but it all factors in.
Still, there's one component here that probably looms larger than anything else, and that's Shanahan's relationship with, or at least connection to, RGIII.
By surrendering four prime draft picks in order to secure Griffin, the 'Skins went all-in. I don't think they have any regrets there, because the 2012 No. 2 overall pick is coming off a season in which he was the Offensive Rookie of the Year. The knee injury was bad fortune, but he's only 23 years old and appears to be on the mend.
But it doesn't seem as though the team's commitment to Griffin is more than loosely tied to its commitment to Shanahan, especially since the relationship between those two figures has by most indications been less than perfect.
Rewind the tape to the end of the 2012 regular season. The 'Skins had won seven straight and were division champs, and Griffin was relatively healthy. They were off to the playoffs for the first time in half a decade. It was sunshine and lollipops, and as a result, we were hearing that the front office was already considering extending Shanahan's contract.
And then everything went to hell.
And suddenly, everything went quiet. In March, Shanahan said he and the team had yet to discuss an extension, and we've heard nothing to indicate that has changed since.
While Griffin recovered from surgery, we weren't privy to what went on inside the Redskins dressing room and front office, or what was said privately between Shanahan and Griffin. But the perception of their relationship that was generated by comments made publicly was far from positive.
The good (drafting RGIII, Trent Williams, Kerrigan and Morris in the lead-up to a 2012 playoff appearance despite $36 million worth of salary cap sanctions) has probably outweighed the bad (the way he handled Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb and the way he has sometimes handled Griffin), but has it been good enough to merit an extension?
From Mike Jones of the Washington Post:
The thing is, Snyder very much wants this to work with Shanahan. This is the guy that he turned the keys over to, admitting that he didn’t have the answers. He has given Shanahan more power than anyone besides Joe Gibbs. He knows Shanahan inherited a mess, and that it would take some time.
Now, it looked like the turnaround had taken place after last season when Washington went 7-0 to close out the regular season and won the division. What happened now? Is Griffin’s recovery and deficiencies on defense (because of age and salary cap limitations) to blame? Are those factors enough to cause Snyder to give Shanahan the benefit of the doubt?
As of right now, I believe Shanahan still is safe. It’s a bad start, but it’s only five games in. The next 11 weeks are extremely important to his future, however.
If Shanahan's fate isn't tied to Griffin, then I'd have to imagine that these next 11 weeks will indeed make or break his tenure in D.C. I don't necessarily think he has to turn this around so dramatically that he winds up winning the Super Bowl—which is what Tom Coughlin did while facing similar pressure with a struggling team and a young franchise quarterback with the Giants in 2007—but I don't know if the notoriously impatient Snyder will tolerate another four- or five-win season, especially considering how high the bar was raised last year.
If that were to happen, things would become downright gloomy, especially when you consider that the 'Skins won't get to use the top-10 pick they'd have been in line for. Gloomy enough, maybe, for Snyder to write Shanahan a $7 million check for the final year of his deal and look elsewhere.
Keep in mind that this is a man who has gone through seven head coaches in the 15 years since buying the Redskins. Not one—not even Joe Gibbs—lasted more than four years.
This is Shanahan's fourth year. Might it also be his last?