If you are reading this post you probably know that Mike Shanahan is very much in danger of being fired soon after tomorrow’s game against the Giants. The conventional wisdom is that his departure is inevitable.
But is it the right move for owner Daniel Snyder to make?
There certainly are people who want Shanahan back to coach next year including most of the players. There may be some who would rather see a change at the top but no player has gone on the record saying that they would prefer that. In fact, there aren’t even any anonymous sources in the locker room who would rather see Shanahan and company move on. Many have cited the need for continuity as the main argument in favor of Shanahan staying on.
His four years in Washington have not been without accomplishment. After taking over a franchise in disarray with Vinny Cerrato and Jim Zorn in charge, he restored order. He drafted cornerstone tackle Trent Williams, found running back Alfred Morris in the sixth round, signed receiver Pierre Garçon and made a bold trade for Robert Griffin III that may have solved the Redskins’ decades-old problem at the most important position on the field. Along with Bruce Allen he navigated the team through a two-year salary cap penalty without blowing up the cap in future seasons. Of course the signature accomplishment was the NFC East title the team won in 2012.
But if you go by the adage that you are what your record says you are, you have to say that the Shanahan Redskins have not been successful. They go into what could be the final game of that era with a record of 24-40, counting the playoff loss to the Seahawks last January.
Yes, they did have to deal with the cap penalty, as Shanahan has mentioned repeatedly and both Kyle Shanahan and Jim Haslett noted during their press conferences this week. But they managed to win the NFC East in the first year of it. And in their second year they were remarkably injury free for most of the season, suffering no major injuries while they were in realistic playoff contention. The presence of all of their starters on the field should have mitigated the cap penalty to some extent.
Shanahan was supposed to rid the franchise of the off-field drama that has plagued the team for years. But it has not stopped. We had the theatrics of Albert Haynesworth and his conditioning test, refusal to play nose tackle and eventual four-game suspension to end the season.
To be fair, Shanahan inherited the Albert problem. But he traded for Donovan McNabb himself, giving up picks in the second and fourth rounds for the Eagles’ QB. It never was a good fit and troubles bubbled to the surface when McNabb was pulled out in the late going of a midseason game in Detroit because, as Shanahan explained later, he didn’t have the “cardiovascular endurance” to keep up with the two-minute drill. McNabb was dealt after one season for a sixth-rounder.
You probably don’t need your memory refreshed about the saga of Griffin and his offseason recovering from his knee injury and the recent leaks that have made the Sunday morning pregame shows must-see TV.
Bottom line, so much for no drama.
But how well has Shanahan done actually coaching the team?
That calls for a very subjective answer. One rap against Shanahan’s coaching that is unfair is that his teams have drawn too many penalty flags. In his four years in Washington, the Redskins have been in the top half of the league in terms of penalty yards just once. They have ranked 28th, 17th, 4th, and 18th. Their worst year was 2012, when they had the most success in the wins column.
But you can question the timing of some of the penalties. One of the most notable came in the second game of 2012 when Josh Morgan lost his cool in the closing minute, costing the Redskins 15 yards and pushing them out of field goal range in a game they lost by three.
Are infractions like that the coach’s fault or does the blame lie with the player? Certainly the player deserves some of it but has the head coach created an atmosphere where such mistakes are tolerated? Earlier this month against the Giants, three veteran players committed dumb penalties. In his news conference the next day, Shanahan gave Santana Moss (arguing with an official), Pierre Garçon (kicking a ball on the ground), and DeAngelo Hall (personal foul for retaliating) passes for their penalties (see item 4 in this post).
At a key point last Sunday against the Cowboys, the 15th game of the fourth season under Shanahan, the Redskins committed two sloppy, dumb penalties and then had to burn a timeout. That turned a golden opportunity for a touchdown into a field goal in a game the Redskins lost by one. Is a sequence like that a hallmark of a well-coached team?
Going into this season, the Redskins were 13-16 in games decided by seven points or less. That’s not particularly good but it’s not awful. But in 2013 they have gone 2-6 in such games.
Close games are one thing and can be a matter of getting the right bounce of the ball, but the Redskins are getting blown out with alarming frequency. This year they have lost games by 18, 15, 24, 21, and 35 points. In 2010, Shanahan’s first year here, they lost just two games by 15 or more points. With Rex Grossman and John Beck at QB in 2011 they lost three such games. Is this a sign of a program moving in the right direction?
They have been outscored by 130 points this year. Jim Zorn was fired after a four-win season during which the team was outscored by 70.
Did the Redskins face some headwinds this year? Certainly there was that cap penalty and the injury to Griffin, who was able to be the RG3 of 2012 only here and there. They didn’t have a first-round draft pick due to the Griffin trade. Under such circumstances, a slide back towards the middle of the pack would have been understandable.
But a total collapse? No. Not when you have 21 of 22 starters back from your 2012 division champion. Not in a very weak division. Not when you had to make only a handful of changes to your lineup before Thanksgiving due to injury. Not when your offense has the ball in the late going with a chance to tie or win the game in five of your last seven games (the Redskins went 0-5 in those situations).
Even given the on-field failure, Snyder might have been inclined to let Shanahan finish the final year of his contract. But it’s hard to see how things can continue after a string of media reports that have damaged the coach’s relationship with Griffin beyond repair. Even if Shanahan is not responsible for the leaks as many suspect, he has done little to refute the substance of them.
If Snyder does do the expected and ends the Shanahan era sometime early next week, it will be difficult to apply the popular impatient and impulsive label to the move. The case against Mike Shanahan continuing to coach the team is just too strong.