Mike Shanahan has one year left on his contract with the Washington Redskins. A new deal would have been considered the right choice not too long ago, but Shanahan's future is not as secure as it once seemed.
The very real prospect of a third losing season out of four has given fresh impetus to the critics of the Shanahan regime. There is certainly plenty of ammunition for criticizing Shanahan, as The Washington Post's Rick Snider points out:
Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan’s short leash is about to become a choke collar.
Only one Redskins coach ever — Bill McPeak — has reached a fifth season with as sorry a winning percentage as Shanahan’s .421.
Norv Turner was .454 at 49-59-1 from 1994 to 2000 and was considered a big disappointment. Like Shanahan, Turner inherited an aging team with little remaining talent and a young quarterback, but at least the former Cowboys offensive coordinator reached sustained mediocrity after two seasons.
The comparisons with McPeak and Turner are hardly flattering for a two-time Super Bowl winner, but few can argue with the figures.
So, based on this stark numerical reality, it seems an open-and-shut case. Shanahan does not deserve a new contract—it's as simple as that.
Well, not quite.
The caveat that is always applied to Shanahan's stewardship in D.C. is to think back to how bad things were before he arrived. It's not a view entirely without merit, either.
While fans and pundits may be divided on the Shanahan era, few can dispute that Jim Zorn's two seasons in charge represent a particularly painful chapter in the history of the franchise.
The 4-12 campaign of 2009 was the nadir and seemed to confirm every worst fear about Washington's NFL franchise: that it is an organization mismanaged by a maniacal, overbearing owner in Dan Snyder; a franchise that prioritizes the short term over responsible team building; and a team content to stay willfully defiant in the face of growing trends in the modern NFL.
The Redskins were a laughing stock after 2009. Snyder had given the keys to the kingdom to a novice woefully out of his depth.
He had allowed the organisation to be duped into paying $100 million to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, a player for whom football seemed to be the least of his priorities.
The franchise needed repairing on both a systemic and, just as importantly, a cosmetic level. It needed credibility—real kudos for the first time since Joe Gibbs' first tenure.
That called for a marquee head coach, boasting a pedigree for success and name recognition. Shanahan offered both.
But the problem is that since taking over in 2010, Shanahan has really only done half his job. He has altered some of the systemic issues and given Snyder's franchise a slightly better image as a responsible footballing entity.
The logic behind that last statement is simple, as Shanahan has done one thing that sets him apart from most of his predecessors, Gibbs included: He has shown a real desire to build through the draft and to take a more measured approach to free agency.
And these methods have borne fruit.
Shanahan's drafts have yielded players like Trent Williams, Alfred Morris, Roy Helu Jr., Leonard Hankerson, Jordan Reed, Perry Riley Jr. and Ryan Kerrigan.
That is a nucleus of exciting young talent. Before Shanahan arrived, when was the last time the Redskins possesses a core like that?
Shanahan has made the draft an exciting event for Redskins fans and pundits again, rather than a time to avoid the mocking of other fans and just keep heads down until it's over.
Draft picks are now treated as invaluable building blocks and not merely commodities to be traded away in an annual cavalier chase for the quick fix.
Speaking of chasing quick fixes, free-agency analysis is no longer a seminar on how the Redskins represent the dangers of overpaying and trying to buy a Super Bowl.
Shanahan has resisted the lure of headline-grabbing signings and opted for less heralded but solid players like Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield and Pierre Garcon.
In doing so, he has restored some respect to a franchise long presented as the epitome of how not to do things in the modern NFL.
But is that alone enough to save him? Snider certainly thinks not:
Shanahan has one year remaining on his contract. It’s the worst thing for a coach. Snyder shouldn’t extend what has been an awful four seasons under Shanahan. The owner should thank Shanahan for restoring a football operation to professional standards, but it’s time for someone else to take the team forward and pay off the coach’s final season.
Ultimately, this is a results business. One of the problems in any "bottom line" environment is that successful structural changes, like the ones Shanahan has made, are often obscured by the win-loss column.
Just like the central argument that endorses Shanahan's tenure, this is also a reasonable view to take. After all, applying a positive spin to 6-10 and 5-11 finishes, as well as a current 3-6 record, can't be easy.
The idea to put a credible face on the franchise after 2009 and find a marquee coach was good one. But did the Redskins simply choose the wrong coach?
For those who say Shanahan has done plenty right, there will be those who can argue he has got just as much wrong. He switched the defense when it was a top-10 unit. He spent two seasons trying to get the right quarterback, botching it on more than one occasion.
The risk was compounded by a league-imposed salary-cap penalty that inevitably delayed the pace of rebuilding.
But Shanahan and his general manager, Bruce Allen, went ahead and traded for Griffin anyway. It was move that smacked of desperation and looked a lot like another short-term fix.
Fans of the move will say that securing a potentially elite quarterback does safeguard the future of the franchise. But how prudent was it to trade away the best means of strengthening the team overall, rather than just one position?
Ironically, the move that was supposed to save Shanahan and restore his reputation could ultimately prove to be the one that sinks him.
That is because all is not well between Shanahan and the young playmaker he anointed as the franchise savior. It started after Griffin's major offseason knee surgery and the way in which his recovery was managed by the team.
The notorious "Operation Patience," Shanahan's decision to hold Griffin out of preseason reps, obviously drew the ire of the quarterback, as The Washington Times' Rich Campbell noted back in April:
Griffin’s fierce competitive drive is testing his ability to hold up his end of the bargain this summer. “Operation Patience,” as he calls it, means stomaching a plan he detests in order to achieve his rehabilitation goal — to start on “Monday Night Football” against the Philadelphia Eagles in less than four weeks.
“I don’t like it, but there’s some part of it that I do understand,” Griffin said Monday at his weekly news conference. “I don’t understand all of it, but at the end of the day, he gave me his word.
“We talked privately. I know the plan. I’m not telling the whole plan because he doesn’t want the whole plan known. I understand that as well. But I don’t understand the whole plan at all, and I can’t lie about that. But when you give your word to somebody, that’s all you have. So I’m just banking that they’re going to stay true to their word. I’m staying true to mine — I’m doing everything they asked me to do without any gripes.”
Griffin's explicit references to his conversations with Shanahan and how he feels about them fuel the idea that the quarterback is altogether too public about team affairs.
For a known autocrat like Shanahan, that has to be hard to take. It also speaks to another worrying trend, namely that Griffin is a little too big for his boots.
This issue was put in perspective by The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins at the end of October:
Garcon’s remark came perilously close to dissension, and you wonder if it’s because the offensive design has been compromised by attempts to please Griffin’s dictates about how he wants to play. Or if he is perhaps beginning to chafe on his elders. He created this power play, but likes to disappear behind a smoothly cultured facade and leaderly sounding platitudes, which, if you analyze them, really mean, “I’m in charge here.”
Listen carefully: “I make sure no one becomes a cancer on the team,” Griffin said earlier this week when asked how he was dealing with failure. “Your job as a quarterback is to know how to manage people. I feel I’ve done a good job of that my whole career.”
There are more than a couple problems with the above statement, starting with the fact it is utterly lacking in self-deprecation. Second, you’re a sophomore in the NFL. What career? You haven’t had one yet. Come back and talk to us when you’ve played 50 games. Or even 25.
Griffin's desire to become the de facto leader of this team and act accordingly is a good competitive trait to possess. But it also has a flip side, one Jenkins identified.
Not only can Griffin's proclamations that he is in charge—regular as they are—tick off his teammates, they can also annoy his coach. The Redskins find themselves with a star player and a head coach, neither of whom are lacking in the ego department, seemingly on a collision course.
The implications of that for the franchise are dire. Glimpses of this ongoing power struggle have already been seen this year, as The Washington Post's Mike Wise reported back in August:
Shanahan is merely the coach who needs to prove he is the right man to guide a healthy Griffin through the best years of his career. Heading into the fourth year of his five-year deal, Shanahan needs Griffin more than Griffin needs him. It’s a dangerous power imbalance for any leader of a 53-man roster.
If it is a power struggle, it is one Shanahan is likely to lose, given Griffin's close ties to Snyder—something Jenkins noted as a major issue:
The guy has played just 22 regular season games, and into that time he has packed a few random stabs at semi-greatness, followed by a lot of unseemly power machinations, and drivel about being a leader, without yet mastering his craft.
A second-year quarterback with the owner on speed dial is calling all the shots for the Washington football club, and what they’ve got to show for it is a 2-5 mark, and a strong whiff of locker room discontent.
But there is no looking away from the fact Griffin’s poor play has been critical, and more than that, he has created fundamental tension on an offense that is disjointed from catering to him and his operatic personal demands about how he wants to play.
Griffin's relationship with Snyder and the resulting power it gives him can't be ignored. It has undoubtedly fueled the current media narrative concerning a potential move for Griffin's former college coach, Art Briles.
Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio even recently speculated that Baylor just awarded Briles a new deal to ward off interest from Washington.
But if Griffin really does possess enough sway to decide future head coaches, that has very serious implications for not only Shanahan, but the franchise as a whole.
Because if a player starts making high-level decisions in their own interests, that "whiff of locker room discontent" Jenkins hinted at would turn into a nostril-burning stench. Then the Redskins would be right back where they were before Shanahan arrived—the dysfunctional franchise the rest of the league enjoys laughing at.
So where does Shanahan really stand after this myriad of point, counterpoint?
That will depend on how big of a job you believe getting and keeping the Redskins competitive really is. Those in favor of Shanahan will say he needs to finish his five-year plan.
That's what The Washington Times' Thom Loverro believes:
But if you call for the firing of Shanahan after this year, then you are no better than the owner who angered you for years with his meddling and influence. We all know that Shanahan told Snyder he would need five years to dig this franchise out of the grave the owner had dug for it.
You have to give Shanahan that fifth season. You have to see the end of this movie.
In order to do that, you have to give him a contract extension.
A fifth season would let Shanahan enjoy life after that pesky salary-cap penalty. Maybe he deserves the chance to use full resources to fix some of the longstanding issues on the team, like the secondary.
But there are dangers to Loverro's approach, as the writer himself is quick to point out: "It doesn’t have to be a long-term marriage — a one-year extension would suffice, though there is no guarantee that Shanahan would agree to a deal that is clearly a hot-seat arrangement."
The phrase "lame duck" can be applied here, and that is a dangerous dynamic for any team. Think about how the Carolina Panthers fared in 2010, going 2-14 as John Fox was awaiting the swing of an ax he knew was coming.
Putting Shanahan merely on borrowed time would create a license to ease up in the minds of players. That would lead to a historically bad season, especially if the quarterback is already not wholly enamored with the man on the sideline.
Many would argue it is simpler to let Shanahan walk after this season. After all, his record is poor enough to justify it.
Bad decisions have been made. Failing assistants, like defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, have not been held to account, and problem units, like the offensive line, seem to be getting worse each year.
If Griffin does prove a problem, that will represent the third and biggest blunder Shanahan has made at quarterback. It will also be a problem of Shanahan's own making, since he made the call to trade for him.
In many ways, what Wise wrote in August still holds true. Griffin remains essential to Shanahan's tenure.
If he is being made to look better by the coach and his carefully crafted system, then Griffin and Washington need Shanahan.
But if Griffin falters, Shanahan is already positioned as the scapegoat.
On many levels he represents an acceptable casualty, particularly if this season ends with a record of five wins or less.
But in terms of the damage it could to the organization's credibility—not to mention removing the last check against Griffin's growing influence—ditching Shanahan could be more dangerous for the Redskins than keeping him around.
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