Not so long ago, Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren were the resident geniuses of their respective conferences. When they crossed grease pencils in the Super Bowl in January 1998, their Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers were considered shining examples of how to build a football franchise. It was the Packers' second straight trip to the championship game; the Broncos would make a return visit the next season. Only special teams do that.
Little more than a decade later, there's nothing very special about the clubs Shanahan and Holmgren are trying to resuscitate. Both are in the second year of rebuilding jobs, and both have fans wondering: What was all the fuss about this guy?
Yes, Redskins Nation, what's going on here also is going on in Cleveland, where Otto Graham and Jim Brown once strode the earth. Granted, Holmgren is operating exclusively from the front office, while Shanahan is still toiling at field level. But there are many similarities between the two situations, it's almost scary. For instance:
• The Redskins are 3-6 and last in the NFC East. The Browns are 3-6 and last in the AFC North.
• The Redskins have lost five in a row. The Browns have lost five of their past six (the only win a 6-3 classic over Seattle).
• The Redskins are averaging 15.1 points, 28th in the NFL. The Browns are averaging 14.6, 29th in the NFL.
• Sunday, the Redskins lost to previously 1-7 Miami. The same afternoon, the Browns lost to previously 1-7 St. Louis.
Shall I go on?
In their two seasons under Shanahan, the Redskins are 9-16. In their two seasons under Holmgren, the Browns are 8-17.
The biggest difference between the clubs is that the Browns are at least trying to develop a young quarterback: Colt McCoy, their third-round pick last year. The Redskins, on the other hand, have reached into the recycle bin for the likes of Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck. But let's face it, neither coach has done much to enhance his candidacy for Canton. In fact, they look like any other struggling team-builder, save for the Super Bowl rings on their fingers. If they weren't Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren, the gallows might already be going up outside their office windows.
I don't think for a second that the game has passed Shanahan and Holmgren by. I mean, they still know an X receiver from a Y receiver. It's just that everybody can't be Bill Parcells - and handle the personnel end of things as ably as the coaching. Holmgren had his best years, don't forget, when Ron Wolf, then the Packers' general manager, was finding talent for him. And Shanny's record was decidedly better before "football operations" became part of his title. Behind almost every top coach is Another Set of Eyes, perhaps even a More Discerning Set of Eyes. Do Shanahan and Holmgren really have one now? (And would they listen to him if they did?)
Sunday wasn't a good day for the Redskins and their coach. A few hours after they slinked off the field in Miami, a couple of their former players came up big for their new teams. In San Francisco, Carlos Rogers, who couldn't catch a bus when he was here, intercepted two Eli Manning passes to help the 8-1 49ers beat the New York Giants. And Sunday night, Andre Carter was an absolute monster, racking up a career-high 4 1/2 sacks as the New England Patriots won their first-place showdown with the New York Jets.
The Redskins' decision to let Rogers go certainly was defensible. Eight picks in 78 games - his stats in Washington - are nothing to get excited about, especially when you're talking about the ninth pick in the draft. But the club badly mishandled Carter. Instead of converting him (at age 31) from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, Shanahan should have just gotten what he could for him in a trade.
Carter, after all, was coming off an 11-sack season. He was an asset, even if he might have had more value for other teams than he did for the Redskins. But Shanahan hung onto him for one final, wasted year, then released him in March to clear his contract off the books. It was the kind of roster management that made Vinny Cerrato infamous.
Rogers and Carter weren't the day's only interesting developments, either. In Dallas, the Cowboys didn't just blow out Buffalo, they got major contributions from two players who, until injuries struck this season, were nameless backups: rookie running back DeMarco Murray and journeyman wideout Laurent Robinson.
Murray, taking advantage of Felix Jones' absence, has had games of 253, 139 and 135 yards in recent weeks and is averaging a ridiculous 6.7 yards a carry. Robinson, standing in for Miles Austin, had a pair of touchdown grabs in the first half against the Bills and has four scores in the past three games. And where exactly did these guys come from? Well, Murray is a third-round pick out of Oklahoma, and Robinson was signed by the Cowboys in September after San Diego cut him in training camp.
In other words, anybody could have had them. The point is, all teams have injuries. But all teams aren't affected by them the way the Redskins are. Some teams are able to plug in backups and keep their season alive. Until Shanahan builds that kind of depth - and don't hold your breath on this one - the Redskins will remain an accident waiting to happen.
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