Why Mike Shanahan Should Be Under Pressure in Washington

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2013

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 13:  Head coach Mike Shanahan of the Washington Redskins leads the Redskins against the Dallas Cowboys on October 13, 2013 in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys beat the Redskins 31-16.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A 1-4 start has rightly prompted questions about the future of Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. The two-time Super Bowl winner deserves to be feeling the pressure after a start that has exposed key failures in the way he has attempted to rebuild the Redskins.

The Week 7 encounter with the Chicago Bears actually helps put some of Shanahan's follies in the spotlight. A cursory look at the Redskins' opponent reveals an ageing team that is lacking an infusion of young playmakers.

The Bears have a good supporting cast, but they lack emerging stars on both sides of the ball.

Shanahan's Redskins meanwhile pose a different question. They boast prime young talent in the form of quarterback Robert Griffin III, running back Alfred Morris and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.

But is the veteran supporting cast around these players strong enough?

The supporting cast around Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris is not good enough.
The supporting cast around Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris is not good enough.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Even a generous glance at key areas of the team would have to conclude no. Shanahan's team is still blighted by long-standing issues along the offensive line and in the secondary.

Part of the problem has been the tendency to indulge in stop-gap measures rather than seeking viable, long-term solutions.

For instance, can a defensive backfield that has featured the likes of Madieu Williams and E.J. Biggers during the last two seasons really be expected to be anything other than weak?

As game as Tyler Polumbus has been on the right side, would he really be a starting tackle for any other so-called contender? Probably not.

Of course, it cannot be denied that Shanahan has been hamstrung by the league-imposed salary cap penalty. But equally, that must not be used as a way of excusing everything.

A common argument in support of Shanahan, regardless of results, is how bad things were in Washington before he arrived.

After the fiasco of Jim Zorn, the hiring of a Lombardi Trophy winner gave credibility back to a franchise that desperately needed it.

While that was true of Shanahan in year one, the argument no longer applies in year four. This is now very much Shanahan's team.

Don't believe me? Well consider the defense, a group given an overhaul in both structure and identity by Shanahan himself.

When he arrived in Washington in 2010, Shanahan inherited a top-10 defense. That should have been a massive boost for an offensive-minded coach. Shanahan should simply have concentrated on fixing the unit that was struggling to score points and left the defense alone.

He instead forced a 3-4 switch on 4-3 players, a switch that demanded an overhaul of many of the personnel. That decision only increased the transition period for the rebuilding Redskins.

While it is certainly time I got over the decision to ditch the 4-3, there is also no denying that Shanahan's 3-4 experiment has not worked. It has not produced a good defense. The unit remains a mess and has been since Shanahan took over.

Washington's defense has consistently regressed since Shanahan switched to a 3-4 and installed Jim Haslett as coordinator.
Washington's defense has consistently regressed since Shanahan switched to a 3-4 and installed Jim Haslett as coordinator.Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It ranked 21st in points in 2010 and 2011, and 22nd in 2012. The Redskins currently rank 27th in scoring defense in 2013.

What about yards? Thirty-first in 2010, 16th in 2011, which is as good as it gets, and 28th in 2012. As for this season? Washington's defense is giving up 395 yards per game, 28th in the NFL.

Those are not failures that can be applied to Jim Zorn or Vinny Cerrato. This is a defense littered with Shanahan and current general manager Bruce Allen's free agents and draft picks.

It is a unit still run by Shanahan's handpicked coordinator Jim Haslett, even after three seasons of failure.

Shanahan has often been criticised for inflexibility when it comes to enforcing his schemes on players. He contradicted that view somewhat by bringing the read-option into the offense for Griffin in 2012.

It is instead on defense where the notorious Shanahan rigidity is most obvious in Washington.

Speaking of the Griffin-led offense, why can't it function unless the young passer with the surgically repaired knees is posing a regular threat as a runner?

Maybe it's because the players around 2012's second overall pick are not good enough. If that is the case, then the blame lies with Shanahan.

These are his players along a continually shaky offensive line: Left tackle Trent Williams is his draft pick. Guards Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester are his free agents.

What about Griffin's wide receivers? I was initially surprised at the number of readers who have commented on the group's inability to get open.

But the more you watch these receivers, the easier it is to agree. They are just not doing enough to escape coverage.

Hight draft picks like Leonard Hankerson have struggled to live up to their billing.
Hight draft picks like Leonard Hankerson have struggled to live up to their billing.Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Again, these are Shanahan's players, his chosen receivers. Pierre Garcon and Joshua Morgan are his free agents, and Leonard Hankerson is his draft pick.

This adds up to an offense that cannot function without Griffin's dual-threat skills to keep defenses guessing. That has been the story of the season so far.

Think about that for a moment. The loss of one element, Griffin's threat as a runner, has derailed a team that was as hot as any at the end of last season. That says only one thing about the rest of the team—that it is not strong enough to win another way. That is a terrible indictment of the way Shanahan has constructed this roster.

But then, this is a reality of his own making. When Shanahan traded away a king's ransom for Griffin in 2012, the deal had a dangerous implication.

First, there was the idea that Shanahan believed the Redskins were only a quarterback away from being contenders. But that has since been proved not to be true.

Therefore, could they really risk trading away consecutive first-round picks representing the means to continue building a strong and sustainable team?

If Griffin wasn't necessarily seen as the last piece of the puzzle, he was certainly viewed as a quick means to contention, and that is also a dangerous philosophy.

It takes more than just a quarterback to make a contender. The Seattle Seahawks have not risen to prominence solely because of the brilliance of Russell Wilson. Instead, he has been the catalyst to spark an already solid team over the top.

The Seattle Seahawks are not contenders just because of Russell Wilson, but because of the strength of the team around him.
The Seattle Seahawks are not contenders just because of Russell Wilson, but because of the strength of the team around him.Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

When he arrived in Seattle, Wilson was greeted by a strong defense, a solid running game and an underrated group of receivers. Contrast that with the Shanahan-Allen approach to team-building, which has looked a lot like standing Griffin in quicksand and crossing their fingers.

That is why even a below-par Griffin has been enough to sink the Redskins: Because the 3-4 defense is still not strong enough to carry the team through some games, even while its quarterback mends.

Because the offensive line is still not good enough to protect a quarterback who can't make defenses hesitate with the threat of a run and has to stay in the pocket and work through his reads.

Because that same quarterback's receivers are not the kind of wideouts who will make a young passer's life easier (think Reggie Wayne and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts).

So Shanahan is now left with a scenario where he has to let Griffin turn it loose as a runner just months after major knee surgery. He has to put the franchise's prized asset at risk just to start winning again.

Shanahan needs Griffin to get him out of this mess.
Shanahan needs Griffin to get him out of this mess.Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There is no denying that the task Shanahan faced rebuilding the Redskins was far from an easy one. He had a culture of excess and disappointment to reverse. In some ways he has even managed that. The draft process is far more exciting for Redskins fans than under previous regimes.

Free agency is no longer something fans quietly dread and then try to sound defiant about, while attempting to put a positive spin on grossly overpaying for players.

But despite those positives, the Shanahan era has mostly been one of excuses. Remember when the coach announced the job was bigger than he thought it was after going 6-10, and that it would take five years?

Shanahan's defense needed time to get the right personnel and learn the scheme. Presumably it still needs a little longer.

This season's struggles on offense will be excused by some because of the need to get Griffin up to speed.

But at some point, the excuses have to run out.

If Shanahan finishes with his third losing season out of four, that time should come sooner rather than later.

All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.


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