Nobody likes to clean up somebody else’s mess. But that’s usually the first order of business for an NFL coach. After all, teams that bring in a new head man aren’t usually oozing with talent. They’re usually oozing with losing.
In his first year with the Washington Redskins, though, Mike Shanahan chose the nip-and-tuck approach over the total makeover — at the outset, at least. Part of this was circumstances. The owners had opted out of the labor deal, free agency rules had changed and there were fewer available bodies.
But another part of it was ego. Like all successful coaches, Shanahan believed he could make chicken salad out of the mishmash of players left behind. His expertly drawn X’s and O’s might not cure all of the club’s ills, he figured, but they would certainly enable it to contend for a playoff spot.
So he went for the quick fix at quarterback with 33-year-old Donovan McNabb and did some temporary patching here and there. The plan was clear: Win now and, once the roster is rebuilt to the coach’s specifications, win bigger later. It wasn’t until the Philadelphia Eagles swept into town in November and subjected the Redskins to a 59-28 Monday night mauling that Shanny’s folly was fully exposed. The Redskins didn’t need tinkering; they needed TNT.
By the end of the season, the blowing-up process was well underway. (Witness Rex Grossman, the two-time castoff, replacing McNabb, the six-time Pro Bowler, in the final three games.) And now, after an offseason that seemed more like a two-minute drill, the Redskins are, in many areas, barely recognizable. By my count, only 28 of the 53 players on last year’s opening day roster made this year’s final 53 — barely half. The windows in Ashburn have finally been opened, and fresh air, lots of it, is blowing through.
This isn’t change for the sake of change. This is change because there was a crying need for change. Let’s face it, the 2010 Redskins were a mutt, a mixed breed with too many fathers — Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, Vinny Cerrato, Dan Snyder (and for all we know, Dan’s limo driver). The roster, meanwhile, was as unstable as something a kid might build with an Erector Set. Too many weak spots. Too many imbalances. Too prone to going ka-boom.
Shanahan didn’t make many friends in his first season here with his brusque ways and 6-10 record, but say this for him: He learned, and quickly, from his mistakes. When he saw that more youth was called for, he added it with ruthless vengeance. Never mind the 11 draft picks he brought to training camp; consider how he transformed the offense — his (and son Kyle’s) baby. Seven players who didn’t start in the opener against Dallas a year ago are expected to start Sunday against the New York Giants. Every one of them is younger than the man who started in Week 1 last season, in some cases considerably younger.
Take a look for yourself:
• WR — Joey Galloway (38 years old) out, Jabar Gaffney (30) in.
• LG — Derrick Dockery (30) out, Kory Lichtensteiger (26) in.
• C — Casey Rabach (33) out, Will Montgomery (28) in.
• RG — Artis Hicks (31) out, Chris Chester (28) in.
• FB — Mike Sellers (35) out, Darrel Young (24) in.
• RB — Clinton Portis (29) out, Tim Hightower (25) in.
Average age of starting unit in 2010 opener: 30.7.
Average age of (anticipated) starting unit in 2011 opener: 27.8.
In a nutshell, Shanahan has replaced descending players with what he hopes are ascending ones, guys whose best football would seem to be ahead of them. And it’s not just on the offensive side of the ball, either. On defense, first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan (23) has taken over for Andre Carter (31) at outside linebacker, Barry Cofield (27) for Ma’ake Kemoeatu (31) at nose tackle and Josh Wilson (26) for Carlos Rogers (29) at cornerback (though there hasn’t been quite as much turnover on Jim Haslett’s unit).
Finally, we tend to forget: There wasn’t a single rookie last year among the 25 defensive players who survived the final cut. Not one. This year, there are four (out of 24): nose tackle Chris Neild, linebacker Markus White and defensive backs Brandyn Thompson and DeJon Gomes - all draft choices. Heck, Thompson and Gomes are still 21 years old.
In Year 2 of the Shanahan era, the roster has been turned upside down - and shaken thoroughly. The ranks of the Gibbs/Zorn leftovers have been thinned considerably, and in their stead we have fresh faces with zero Washington baggage and futures that, while uncertain, are still tantalizing.
Don’t get me wrong. This is far from a perfectly constructed team. Once again, there’s thinness in the offensive line, especially at guard, and it remains to be seen what kind of season Grossman will have (not to mention all the newcomers). For Shanahan, these are just the first steps along what could be a fairly long road. What he has given Redskins Nation, at this point, isn’t a Super Bowl winner, or even a division winner, necessarily. What he has given them is possibility. A coach has to start somewhere.