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RGIII, Mike Shanahan and the Importance of Harmony

by David Elfin
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David Elfin David Elfin
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at...
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Mike Shanahan watches RGIII. (credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Mike Shanahan watches RGIII. (credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The saying goes that defense wins championships, but there is no more important relationship in sports than that of an NFL coach and his quarterback.

Twelve of the first 14 Super Bowl champions have their coach and quarterback enshrined in Canton. The other two have their coach or their quarterback in the Hall of Fame.

Fifteen of the teams that won the next 19 Lombardi Trophies also have their coach and/or quarterback immortalized in bronze as will more than a few of this millenium’s Super Bowl winners.

Of those more recent championship duos, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco won the title in their fifth season together. Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning conquered all in their fourth and eighth seasons as a tandem. Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers triumphed in their third season. New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Drew Brees finished on top in their fourth. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger did so in their second. That covers the last six Super Bowl winners. Include New England’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who won it all in 2001, 2003 and 2004, and that’s nine of the last 12.

What’s more, all six of those coach/quarterback combos are still intact.

“If you take a look at all the teams that are consistent year-in and year-out, one thing that’s usually in common is that quarterback position,” said Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who won back-to-back Super Bowls in Denver with Hall of Fame passer John Elway.

Which brings us to the relationship between Shanahan and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who made beautiful music together to win the NFC East in 2012 but have made a cacophonic mess in owning the division basement in 2013 while already being eliminated from contention with four games remaining.

Shanahan, his son/offensive coordinator Kyle and Griffin were on the same page last season as the coaches adapted their playbook with much of the read-option scheme that the quarterback ran in winning the Heisman Trophy at Baylor in 2011. However, the relationship between the Shanahans and the Griffins (that includes the latter’s father) began deteriorating when the coach indulged the quarterback by letting him play hurt in the playoff loss to Seattle before the knee injury became so aggravated that surgery was necessary.

As Griffin was rehabbing, his dad went public with an appeal for the Redskins to cut down on his designed runs and make him more of a pocket passer. For the most part, the Shanahans accommodated that request, but neither the offense, nor Griffin, has been as effective this season. Along the way, the once-beloved quarterback has taken plenty of criticism for questioning the play-calling and for never quite taking personal responsibility for Washington’s woes.

Teams that keep changing coaches and/or quarterbacks rarely win big as Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who employed six non-interim coaches and eight regular starting quarterbacks during his first 13 seasons, knows all too well. Washington has made the playoffs just four times and won just two postseason games during his 15 years in charge.

Although the top quarterbacks tend to get more publicity than their coaches, the latter’s importance can’t be minimized. The Patriots went 11-5 in 2008 when Brady missed the season because they still had Belichick. The Saints, who averaged 10 victories during the first six years of the Payton-Brees partnership, were 7-9 while the coach was suspended last season but are 9-3 following his return this year.

“You always try to have a relationship with your quarterback,” said Shanahan, who’s completing his 19th year as a head coach but has yet to start a quarterback for more than four seasons, something the Redskins have also lacked over the last two decades. “When you take a look at what we did last year, on offense, we were able to do some special things. This year [with Robert] going through a rehab program with his ACL, his LCL … there’s always going to be some tough times in that transition. But I think Robert’s … tough enough to fight through it and he understands how important an offseason is. … I think we have a good relationship. … I think it’s always been good.”

Griffin responded, “I love having them here,” when asked about the Shanahans.

“Whenever you have a year like we’re having, sitting at 3-9 when we had higher expectations, people are going to try to sink the ship,” Griffin said. “Our job is not to focus on that stuff. I think these guys have a great future. … Me, coach, Kyle … we all want to win, and that’s a winning recipe. … We’re all competitors. We all get heated at times, but at the end of the day, we all want to win.”

Asked if he trusts the elder Shanahan, Griffin noted that he has been in Washington and in the NFL less than two years.

“I haven’t spent a lot of time here [or] a lot of time in the league and it takes time to build that trust over time in a coach,” Griffin said.

The trouble is that Griffin knows that he was the face of the franchise before he ever played a snap. Snyder and Shanahan traded four first-round picks to get him. Although Shanahan is being paid $7 million per compared to Griffin’s $5.3 million, the 61-year-old coach’s Redskins record with the 23-year-old Griffin is just 12-15 compared to 12-21 without him. Guess who’ll be wearing burgundy and gold longer?

Having covered the Redskins for 22 years, including the entire tumultuous Snyder era, I understand the importance of continuity and the lack of it. The Giants, who doused Washington’s slim playoff hopes last Sunday, will enjoy an 11th season with the Coughlin/Manning tandem in 2014, three years behind the Belichick/Brady standard of stability, assuming that all four return to their roles, as expected.

However, if the Shanahans and Griffins can’t find a way to get totally back in sync as they head into next season, then something has to give. It’s not going to be the quarterback. And that means that Snyder’s Redskins will be starting over yet again.


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.

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