There’s no arguing that Mike Shanahan can coach. If Washington wins just five of its final 14 games this season, he’ll tie Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, his Redskins predecessor once removed, and pass the legendary Paul Brown and Canton enshrine Bud Grant for 12th on the career victory list. Shanahan is also one of just 13 coaches to win two Super Bowls (both with Denver) and one of just six to win them back-to-back. Only New England’s Bill Belichick can match Shanahan in accomplishing that feat during the turbulent salary cap era, now in its 19th year.
But Washington’s stunning upset of New Orleans in the opener 11 days ago prompted me to delve more deeply into Shanahan’s record and led me to this conclusion: he’s a whiz when he has at least an extra week to prepare and good, but not great, otherwise.
That victory over the Saints raised Shanahan’s record to a remarkable 15-4 in openers (3-0 with the Redskins). The coach was 4-1 when he had a bye week to prepare for a postseason game and is 10-6 after regular season byes. All told, that’s a 29-11 record and a .725 winning percentage, one that would rank Shanahan behind only the peerless Vince Lombardi and Hall of Famer John Madden if he could sustain that pace for his career.
However, Shanahan is 137-114 otherwise, a .546 winning percentage that puts him in the same territory as Dennis Green and Lovie Smith, neither of whom is likely to be immortalized in Canton one day.
And Shanahan has been even worse since coming to Washington in 2010. Last Sunday’s upset by the lowly St. Louis Rams dropped the Redskins to just 9-19 when the coach has had no more than eight days to prepare for an opponent.
The easy argument to make against Shanahan is that he made his reputation thanks to John Elway’s talent. Certainly Shanahan’s four years with the Hall of Fame quarterback – 47-17 plus 7-1 in postseason including those Super Bowl triumphs – were his best. But take away any coach’s four best consecutive seasons and his career is going to look worse.
The trouble for the Redskins is that Shanahan hasn’t come close so far in Washington to matching his post-Elway decade with the Broncos. Shanahan was 91-69 during his last 10 regular seasons in Denver and 1-4 in the playoffs, although three of those defeats came on the road. The postseason victory was the only loss for superstar quarterback Tom Brady, Belichick and the Patriots in 11 playoff games from 2001- 05.
Shanahan was 23-9 against AFC West rivals with Elway and a solid 39-27 during the following decade. The coach was a staggering 33-3 (including postseason) at Mile High Stadium with No. 7 calling signals, and a fine 54-28 (including postseason) at home the rest of the way.
However, the Redskins were just 4-8 against their NFC East rivals during Shanahan’s first two seasons in Washington. They were a league-worst 4-12 at home. If a coach can’t win his home games and at least split his division contests, a pink slip should be coming.
Playing a rookie quarterback, even one as supremely gifted as Robert Griffin III, bought Shanahan another season of patience from Redskins owner Dan Snyder and the long-frustrated fan base so the coach will be back in 2013 for the fourth season of his five-year deal.
And while Washington’s visit to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Oct. 21 is its only NFC East game during this season’s first 10 weeks, it would certainly behoove the 60-year-old Shanahan if he began proving that FedEx Field isn’t always such friendly territory for opponents, starting Sunday against Cincinnati.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin