If you can't sell the present, sell the future. It's a tried-and-true strategy. You'll find it on Page 1 of "The Football Coaches' Handbook," just below: "When in doubt, waive the punter" and "Never schedule any major dental work for bye week."
What it basically means is: In bad times, don't get swallowed up by all the losing. Instead, impress upon the fans how much better things will be in the years ahead. Point to the young players already in place who just need a little more seasoning to become major contributors, if not stars. One way or another, change the subject (as they used to say on "West Wing").
Mike Shanahan's biggest problem right now is that he has no future to sell. It's out there, of course, tomorrow is out there, but Washington Redskins followers can't see it from here. They can't visualize the day when their team will be anything other than what it is, anything other than what it has been for too long: just another wannabe club that talks better than it plays.
Shanahan has had assorted public-relations disasters in his season-and-a-half as Redskins coach — the Albert Haynesworth staredown, the Donovan McNabb "cardiovascular" comedy, etc. — but this is his first real crisis. The Redskins have dropped three in a row, each defeat more disturbing than the last, to fall to 3-4, and folks are beginning to wonder where the bottom is.
Was the 23-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Toronto the bottom? Or is the club still in freefall, plummeting in the standings the way Alan Rickman plummeted from the Nakatomi Building in "Die Hard"? At this point, it's difficult to tell. As one Redskin pointed out Sunday night, "Things can always get worse."
This much is clear, though: After an embarrassment like Sunday's, one that included a team-record-tying nine sacks of John Beck, Shanahan is just another struggling coach. He's spent whatever capital he brought with him from Denver. Those two Super Bowls he won in the '90s? Ancient history. In the here and now, he's a guy whose club hasn't made the playoffs since 2005 and may not make it again until … you tell me. He's a guy whose club has had a three-game losing streak in each of his past five seasons. He's a guy who, frankly, looks to be drowning in his own ego and stubbornness.
At any rate, his days of "Trust me, we know what we're doing" — or words to that effect — are over. The fans need more than words at this point. They need tangible signs of progress. They need a glimpse of the future. But the former have disappeared in a flood of offensive injuries, and the latter is impossible because, well, a vision of the future requires a quarterback, someone on a white horse to lead the team out of the wilderness, and there's nobody like that on the roster. There are just Beck and Rex Grossman, a couple of door-to-door salesmen who don't make anyone's pulse race.
Even if one of them were the QB of the future, would he live to see that day, given the blocking the banged-up offensive line has been providing? Highly unlikely. I mean, after nine sacks, I'm pretty sure the insurance company cancels your policy. Beck wasn't a passer Sunday, he was a pinata.
This is where Shanahan and the Redskins are this week. Everything that's going on in Ashburn is being questioned by the fan base — the coach's decision-making, the offensive coordinator's play calling, the players' overall effort and whether general manager Bruce Allen even exists. (It would be nice if, every now and then, Allen took a swim in the Potomac — like Mao once did in the Yangtze — just to remind everybody he's still alive.)
But again, the future — where is it? Chris Cooley, not too long ago one of the cornerstones of the franchise, is out for the season and may never play for the Redskins again. Trent Williams, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft, also is out (for the short term); but at this stage, he's given no indication he's the next Chris Samuels.
Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan — it's hard to see the future through the prism of an outside linebacker, unless he's Lawrence Taylor. Thus, all eyes are trained on the present, which is the last place Shanahan wants them to be. The present is dark, gloomy, almost post-apocalyptic after a decade of Dan Snyder /Vinny Cerrato decadence. And Shanahan, for all his ballyhoo, has done little to chase the clouds away. In Year 2, he has assembled a team that's no better than middling, and even that comes with a caveat: as long as no one gets hurt.
(Too bad there was a lockout. The coaches, no doubt, planned to spend a lot of that time teaching the players how not to get hurt. It's a difficult skill to master, one that essentially involves never leaving the whirlpool.)
Shanahan tried to sell the future at Monday's post mortem, he really did. Toward the end, he mentioned that, "We've got a number of young players that are playing — at I think a big upside — at a number of positions. Obviously, it's not going to happen overnight. I've got a lot of belief in these guys that they will play well, hopefully much better than we played [Sunday]."
The question was whether anybody was buying it anymore. Three straight losses — and 14 in the first 23 games of the Shanny era — can test any fan's allegiance.
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