Washington’s Mike Shanahan is in command of an NFL team for a 19th full season this autumn. Over nearly two decades as the coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, Denver Broncos and the Redskins, Shanahan has developed certain rules. One of them is dividing a season into quarters.
The Redskins reached the end of this season’s first quarter last Sunday by rallying from a 14-point deficit to beat the injury-riddled Raiders 24-14 in Oakland thanks to seven sacks and a touchdown by the previously battered defense.
What has to be scary for Washington fans in the wake of the 1-3 ugly start to 2013 that has followed the 2012 NFC East-winning campaign is that Shanahan has usually been more successful in the opening quarter of a season than he has the rest of the way.
In a dozen of his 18 full seasons, Shanahan’s teams had better first quarters than final three quarters.
Once, in 1995, his first season in Denver, his team was .500 during the first four games and .500 during the final 12 games, too.
In only five seasons did Shanahan’s teams improve after the first quarter and two of those were years in which the Broncos rose from a 3-1 record to open the season to a 10-2 mark the rest of the way.
So the only years in which Shanahan’s teams made a big jump after a slow start were: 2012 when the Redskins began the season 2-2 but finished 10-6; 2000 when the Broncos began 2-2 but finished 11-5; and 1999, his only previous train wreck beginning when Denver turned an 0-4 opening into a 6-10 finish. Shanahan didn’t get a chance for a similar reclamation project with the Raiders because he was fired after a 1-3 start in 1989.
There was no chance that Redskins owner Dan Snyder was going to fire Shanahan — who ranks 11th in NFL history in victories and second among active coaches — even if Washington had lost in Oakland to fall to 0-4. Shanahan, whose contract runs through 2014, has more control of the football side of the franchise than any of Snyder’s six previous coaches, save Marty Schottenheimer, who lost a battle of wills with the owner after just one year.
However, Shanahan, despite his two Super Bowl titles with the Broncos, might not be the ideal coach to rescue the Redskins from their unexpectedly poor start since last season and the 2000 campaign in Denver are the only ones in which he was able to turn underwhelming beginnings into playoff finishes.
What’s more, the first quarter of the season was supposed to be Washington’s easiest by far considering that the Raiders, Philadelphia and Detroit all went 4-12 last year. The Redskins were supposed to be enjoying their bye last week at 3-1, not feeling relieved at being 1-3 and just a game out of first place in the NFC Least. With Dallas’ wild loss to Denver yesterday, the Redskins now trail the Cowboys and Eagles by just a half game with the New York Giants in the division cellar at 0-5.
Five of Washington’s final 12 games of 2012 were against teams that had made the playoffs in 2011: Atlanta, Baltimore, the Giants (two) and Pittsburgh. The Falcons, Ravens and Minnesota were the only teams that the Redskins faced during the final 12 games of 2012 that went on to postseason.
Four of Washington’s final 12 games of 2013 are against teams that made the playoffs in 2012: the Falcons, Broncos, Vikings and San Francisco with another against Chicago, which missed out on postseason despite a 10-6 record. As of now, just four of the Redskins’ remaining dozen foes: the Chiefs, Broncos, Eagles and 49ers are on track to reach the playoffs.
The 2000 Broncos were fortunate to play just two of their final 12 games against 1999 playoff teams, both against Seattle which had gone 9-7. Denver also faced Kansas City, which had gone 9-7 but didn’t qualify for postseason. Among Denver’s final 12 opponents, only New Orleans, the New York Jets, who didn’t make the playoffs, and Oakland turned out to be winners in 2000.
Of course, Shanahan guided the Redskins to that improbable 7-0 stretch run after they headed into last year’s bye at 3-6 following three straight defeats. He’s also 11-6 after bye weeks. But Washington went 2-10 and 4-8, respectively, after starting 3-1 and 2-2 under Shanahan in 2011 and 2010. That’s not exactly the track record of a turnaround specialist. As of now, the Redskins’ 2012 renaissance was more an anomaly than a harbinger.
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.