Mike Shanahan arrived in Washington in January of 2010 with two Super Bowl victories on his résumé and the expectation that he was the head coach who would finally return the three-time Super Bowl champion Redskins to glory.
However, as the Redskins prepare to face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in Toronto, Shanahan is far from accomplishing that mission.
After a surprising 3-1 start, led by a resurgent defence and since-demoted quarterback Rex Grossman, Washington has lost consecutive games to the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers, each of which entered the contest with just one victory. A Redskins defeat in Toronto will make it 12 consecutive years in which they’ve lost at least three games in a row.
Coming on the heels of a 6-10 record in 2010, the current downturn dropped Shanahan to 9-13 with Washington. That’s a worse mark after 22 games than those of his much-mocked predecessors Jim Zorn and Steve Spurrier, neither of whom had been an NFL head coach before.
Shanahan, in contrast, had coached 15-plus seasons before coming to Washington. The hard-eyed former offensive co-ordinator guided the Denver Broncos to the playoffs seven times, winning the franchise’s only Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998. But since Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway retired after the latter triumph, Shanahan has a lone playoff victory. The Redskins, for all their angst and chaos during owner Daniel Snyder’s free-spending reign, won two during those 12 seasons.
To his credit, Shanahan has rebuilt the Redskins in his no-nonsense image. Malcontent defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, upon whom Snyder had foolishly bestowed $41-million (U.S.) guaranteed in 2008, was traded this summer, as was quarterback Donovan McNabb, whose somewhat undisciplined style was a poor fit for Shanahan’s system. The off-beat Clinton Portis was also dispensed when the running back’s injuries overshadowed his successful past for the coach.
What remains is almost entirely a locker room full of good soldiers, all but 16 of whom never played for Washington before Shanahan took command.
But Shanahan’s boundless self-assurance has its downsides, too. Although he had never coached a 3-4 defensive scheme, he became intrigued with by watching the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers utilize it in 2009, the year he was out of the NFL after being fired by Denver. Rather than waiting to install the defence until he had the personnel to fit it, he forced the players into inappropriate roles in 2010 as the Redskins plunged from 10th to 31st in yards allowed.
It was similar on offence, where after three months on the job, Shanahan decided to replace incumbent quarterback Jason Campbell by trading for six-time Pro Bowler McNabb. However, the 33-year-old quarterback clashed with offensive co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan, the coach’s son three years his junior. McNabb was yanked for the final minutes in Week 8 and benched for good after Week 13.
The atmosphere at Redskins Park is much more copacetic this year. New quarterback John Beck, whose start last Sunday was his first in almost four years, is the antithesis of a prima donna. Barry Cofield, signed as a free agent from the New York Giants, was, like Haynesworth, a career defensive tackle, but unlike him, is happy to play nose tackle, the most critical spot in co-ordinator Jim Haslett’s defence.
And yet, in part because of a wave of serious injuries that sidelined five offensive starters the past two weeks, the Redskins are on the cusp of another one of their trademark slides. They’re an underdog to the Bills and will be again next week at home against the San Francisco 49ers. Dates with the powerful New England Patriots and New York Jets and the rematches with the tough NFC East rival Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys still remain.
Washington has endured three consecutive 2-6 second halves and hasn’t had a winning final eight games since the 2005 surge to the playoffs. But with ailing fullback Mike Sellers inactive on Sunday, the Redskins won’t have any players on the field who were on that team.
“This is a different group,” said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, denying that there’s a here-we-go-again feeling in the locker room. “This isn’t a group that’s gonna hang their heads and feel sorry for themselves. We’re gonna bounce back and move on.”
David Elfin, the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, is the author of five books on the Redskins, including Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.
Special to The Globe And Mail