A year ago Monday night, Mike Shanahan coached the Redskins to their first NFC East title in 13 years. As of Monday morning, he is Washington’s former coach after presiding over the biggest collapse of the franchise’s nine decades as a 10-6 record in 2012 turned into a 3-13 mark this year, matching the 1994 debut of rookie head coach Norv Turner for the most losses in Redskins history. But that came as Washington began to rebuild after a veteran-laden 4-12 season, not following a championship campaign.
Shanahan departs with a year left on his $7 million per year contract, a ruined relationship with franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III, and the return of the Redskins’ laughingstock reputation that owner Dan Snyder hired him to fix in January 2010.
A two-time Super Bowl winner in Denver, the cold-eyed Shanahan never endeared himself to Washington’s fans or to many Redskins employees. He was respected, but he wasn’t loved like predecessor once-removed Joe Gibbs.
Of course what cost Shanahan his job wasn’t his personality or his failure to get along with Griffin, former quarterback Donovan McNabb, the work ethic-challenged Fred Davis and Josh Morgan, Snyder’s $41 million mistake, Albert Haynesworth, et al.
All of that was background noise when the Redskins went on the 7-0 tear they completed a year ago tonight by thrashing the archrival Cowboys in the showdown for division supremacy. However, Shanahan rarely won otherwise, going 17-40 for a final 24-40 (11-21 at home) mark in Washington, a .375 winning percentage that matched those of his predecessors Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn. And those neophyte NFL head coaches were likeable men.
Shanahan’s 24-40 record doesn’t count the playoff loss to visiting Seattle 51 weeks ago, but that was the moment when the tide turned against the coach, who indulged Griffin by letting the record-setting Offensive Rookie of the Year stay in the game though obviously gimpy.
The Redskins led the Seahawks 14-0 and might have won behind backup quarterback Kirk Cousins. Instead, Seattle rallied to take the lead before Griffin’s right knee buckled for good, prompting major surgery three days later, an offseason on the sideline, a knee brace all year, and the deterioration of trust between the coach and his son/offensive coordinator Kyle and the larger than life (Subway, Gatorade, Adidas commercials) quarterback and his too-present father.
Griffin returned for the opener as promised, but wasn’t himself the first three weeks until Washington’s defeats were all but certain. Once Griffin returned to a reasonable facsimile of his 2012 dual-threat form, the sacks kept coming and Shanahan sat him for the final three games, supposedly to ensure he would have a healthy offseason, but more likely as part of a power struggle with Snyder, who loves the quarterback’s magnetic personality and marketing ability.
Griffin’s unhappy and unsuccessful 2013 season was only Shanahan’s most publicized problem. The coach, who had always used a 4-3 defense in Denver, installed a 3-4 scheme when he took over in Washington because he liked how it worked for fellow dark lord Bill Belichick in New England. Despite changing seven starters since his arrival, Shanahan’s defense was among the NFL’s worst in three of his four years. This season, the Redskins surrendered a franchise-record 478 points and were outscored by 144, their biggest negative margin since the 1-12-1 team of 1961, Washington’s worst-ever.
The special teams plunged to the NFL’s worst this season when the coach allowed Redskins fixture Danny Smith to leave for his native Pittsburgh and replaced him with Keith Burns, a Shanahan protégé who soon showed he shouldn’t be in charge of anything.
And for all of the Shanahans’ vaunted offensive wizardry, their power-running game/West Coast passing attack didn’t function well until Griffin arrived via a pre-draft trade with St. Louis in 2012 that cost Washington three first-round picks and a second-rounder.
However, the bottom line in Washington is that Shanahan wasn’t the ultimate problem. Snyder is. The next coach will be his eighth in 15 years. The only one who has produced a winning record during that span is Turner, whom he inherited. The Redskins are 32 games under .500 during the Snyder regime, worse than all but four teams (Arizona, Buffalo, Detroit and Oakland) who were in the NFL when he bought the once-great franchise in 1999. Two of those teams, the Cardinals and the Raiders, have reached the Super Bowl during those seasons, leaving the Redskins (two playoff victories during Snyder’s ownership) arguably at the bottom with the Bills and the Lions.
Snyder has hired proven winners Shanahan and Marty Schottenheimer. He lured Gibbs out of an 11-year retirement. He went the college route with Spurrier and the out of nowhere path with Zorn. The only things the owner haven’t tried are a true general manager and an established NFL coordinator.
Snyder should hire a GM who will upgrade Washington’s talent on the offensive line (other than left tackle Trent Williams), at receiver (other than Pierre Garcon), and almost everywhere on defense. And the GM should hire a coordinator like San Francisco’s Greg Roman and Seattle’s Darrell Bevell, who have worked well with young mobile quarterbacks like Griffin. A defensive mind like Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer should also be considered as long as he brings an offensive coordinator who can mesh with Griffin. Just don’t let the quarterback hire his college coach, Art Briles. That would be the worst possible move.
As for the 61-year-old Shanahan, that Hall of Fame resume has been badly damaged, but at least he has mega-millions to enjoy. Now, if only Redskins fans could enjoy an entire season for the first time this millennium.
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.