With this season's 3-7 record, Mike Shanahan's coaching ability has been called into question.
His 24-34 record since arriving in 2010 is not going to grant him a contract extension, nor should it. However, the six games that remain this season shouldn’t be his final opportunity to succeed in the nation’s capital, either.
Shanahan took over a woeful team that was full of underperforming, overpaid and over-the-hill players who came to D.C. to pick up a check and little more. His first task was to shed the dead weight and build the team his way.
He misfired in his first season with the acquisition of Donovan McNabb. That much is true. However, he also picked up Trent Williams, who has grown into one of the best left tackles in the league. Perry Riley has also solidified his place among the starters and proven himself in the NFL.
Call it a step forward and a step back. The 2010 season was to set a precedent for Shanahan’s career since returning to the NFL.
William and Fred Davis picked up drug-related suspensions in 2011, which halted the rebuilding progress. Shanahan infamously staked his reputation on Rex Grossman and John Beck at quarterback, and Washington's 5-11 record showed exactly how that turned out.
Shanahan's hands were tied, however. Should he have admitted that there was no quarterback in the draft whom he wanted so that fans would be prepared for terrible football until a solid quarterback came along? Of course not.
A $36 million cap penalty kneecapped the team in 2012, and Tanard Jackson proved that he couldn’t be trusted to remain within the limits of the NFL’s drug policy. An indefinite ban wrecked the plan at safety—a plan that was torn in two when Brandon Meriweather’s ACL did the same later in the season.
Things were looking up before Griffin’s knee buckled against Seattle and all momentum was lost.
Washington overachieved in 2012. That should have been clear to everyone. The holes on defense had not been filled by the second half of the season, and it was only by sheer force of will that the defense was able to keep the team in games.
Cooley: "Mike brought up the cap hit, and how he had no depth. He HAS depth. It’s sitting on his [inactive list]" http://t.co/hzhwdPcV4z— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) November 20, 2013
Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post points to Shanahan’s terrible defensive record in Washington as a place to start assessing his future, but Shanahan has been thwarted at every turn by injuries, suspensions and a salary cap penalty that hamstrung his plans for the future.
Meanwhile, the offensive line exceeded expectations in 2012 to help Griffin’s ability as a runner, along with a tricky playbook that thrived on misdirection. Expecting the same results from Griffin's line in 2013 was too much to ask.
Opposing teams wised up to the read-option, and Griffin's grueling rehab, combined with his zero preseason reps, stymied his development.
Griffin's tendency to lock in on his primary target has been exposed this year, and his injury has obviously affected his accuracy and ball placement.
These things were both present in 2012, too. It’s just that Griffin's Tarkenton-esque elusiveness made up for it and no one seemed to care.
Despite the record, Griffin's offense was still one of the worst in the league on third down. B/R columnist James Dudko made reference to the above aspects in his article in July, highlighting them as areas in which Griffin had to improve for the team to replicate its 2012 success.
Injuries aren’t excuses, and they happen to every team. The cap penalty was a sham, but front-loading the contracts in the way which Shanahan and Bruce Allen did in 2010 could be construed as unethical.
Again, these aren’t excuses, but neither do they help.
Some of Shanahan’s wounds were self-inflicted. He left Griffin in the game too long against the Seahawks and indirectly caused the injury to his quarterback. He got greedy and selfish when the situation called for impartiality and reason.
He also failed to address the concerns along the offensive line, instead taking two running backs in the draft who have contributed nothing to the cause.
Last year’s third-round pick, Josh LeRibeus, should be sent on his way, too, having shown up to camp overweight and failed at every turn to build on the promise that he showed in the final two games of last season.
LeRibeus has wasted his opportunity and let his team down.
Shanahan isn’t going to lead Washington to the Super Bowl next season. His fate is tied to his quarterback, whose regression has been painful to watch at times. They need each other right now, even if it’s just for one more year.
Canning Shanahan isn’t going to magically turn the team around for 2014. Owner Daniel Snyder has been trigger-happy in the past, but is unlikely to revert to form again on Black Monday.
Firing Mike Shanahan would likely mean firing Kyle Shanahan, and firing the younger Shanahan would mean a new offensive coordinator and a new system for Griffin to learn.
If Griffin gets through this season without another serious injury, he needs stability in order to develop his game for next season. Firing the coaching staff is the worst possible scenario for a young quarterback coming off a torn ACL and a sophomore slump.
Should Mike Shanahan keep his job for 2014?
The cap penalty will be gone in 2014 and Shanahan can be judged then with no excuses. He has alluded to such already during a news conference, as reported by Mark Maske and Mike Jones of The Washington Post:
...in the future, it will get better because we do have the ability to get more depth. We’ve got the ability to add some players on both sides of the football, and that gives you a chance to get better as a football team.
If he remains healthy, Griffin will have a full offseason and preseason to get the offense ticking and can then be judged with no excuses.
None of the complaints hurled at Shanahan have been off base, but they shouldn’t lead to his dismissal. There are too many unforeseen factors already that have blighted his tenure in Washington.
However, anything less than the playoffs for Shanahan and the team following the 2014 season, and the lynch mob can have him.