Transforming the Washington Redskins from a 4-12 geriatric unit into a perennial Super Bowl contender never was going to be easy for executive vice president/head coach Mike Shanahan. Talent deficiencies were rampant on the NFL's oldest roster when he took over in January 2010.
As Shanahan nears the conclusion of a second consecutive season with double-digit losses, though, he has developed an appreciation for the magnitude of the building project he's charged with.
"A lot longer than I first anticipated," he told reporters at Redskins Park on Monday. "We had less depth than I thought. We were a little bit older at a few different positions, and I thought we might keep those players a little bit longer than we did.
"But that's not a negative. You've just got to evaluate your squad on a day-to-day basis, a year-to-year basis, and put the best football team together. And I think that's what we're doing."
Shanahan addressed the big picture Monday, sounding like a coach who believes he will get to see his plan through to the next stage.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder during his tenure has fired coaches with better records than Shanahan's mark of 11-20, but Shanahan's message emphasizing the importance of stability has at least fostered self-confidence.
Although a win in Sunday's season finale at Philadelphia would only equal last season's total of six wins, progress is evident to the Redskins' top personnel decision-maker.
"I see a big difference than two years ago," Shanahan said. "We have a much younger football team. We have a lot more depth at a lot of different positions. I feel good with the type of players that we do have."
Many players agree. The Redskins overcame a slew of serious injuries to several of their top offensive players and have played competitive football during the second half of the season. Starting running back Tim Hightower, first-string left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and two-time Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley were lost to season-ending injuries by the seventh game. And left tackle Trent Williams and tight end Fred Davis were suspended for violating the league's drug policy.
In spite of all that, three of their past four losses were by seven points or less, and they led the other loss — 34-19 to the New York Jets — in the fourth quarter.
"We've got the right guys in this locker room," linebacker Brian Orakpo said. "Guys are fighting hard. We don't have any, really, issues as much. Guys play for each other. We've got a great coaching staff. We've got everything. We've got an owner that's doing everything possible to win. Just got to be optimistic."
Shanahan is, at least. A loss to the surging Eagles on Sunday would ensure his worst record in 18 seasons as an NFL coach, but he senses progress, especially on defense.
The Redskins prioritized upgrading defensive personnel last offseason, particularly the front seven, and the unit has improved from 30th to 17th in yards allowed per play.
"I feel good about that," Shanahan said. "Not only do we have some first-teamers there, but we believe we have some second- and third-teamers there, and that's what you're looking for is depth in that front seven, front eight."
Much work remains, though, especially on offense. Only two teams have turned the ball over more than the Redskins' 34 giveaways, and they rank 21st in the NFL with a 5.21 yards-per-play average.
Shanahan has discussed their need for playmakers, and the time to add some is approaching.
"We still need a good draft, a good free agency," he said. "We still need to improve from where we're at right now. Our record obviously dictates that, but I feel good about the football team and the direction we're headed."
Notes: Running back Roy Helu was inactive for Saturday's 33-26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings because his knee and toe injuries were problematic. "We ran him about three hours before the game," Shanahan said. "We tried to get him to push off and do all the football-related drills, but I talked to him, and our gut was no."
Helu's replacement, Evan Royster, rushed for 132 yards on 19 carries. "I thought Evan made a lot of great cuts, and he was very productive throughout the whole game," Shanahan said.
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