- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If you’re a Washington Redskins fan, a couple of questions are probably bouncing around in your head this week. The first one is: Shouldn’t the team, after two seasons under Mike Shanahan, be further — maybe even a lot further — along the rebuilding path? And the second one is: Since the team isn’t further along that path, how much credibility does the coach really have left?

Shanahan inherited a 4-12 club from Jim Zorn, turned it into a 6-10 club in his first year and now has gone 5-11 in his second year. Needless to say, the local populace is underwhelmed. Shanny, after all, came to Washington with three Super Bowl rings and a reputation as a cutting-edge offensive mind. But the Redskins have continued to struggle and, even more troubling, the offense assembled by the coach and his offensive coordinator-son, Kyle, has struggled. At times, in fact, it’s been virtually unwatchable.

We’re all familiar with the excuses that have been trotted out to explain this sorry state of affairs. The 2010 season was messed up, we’ve been told, because the owners opted out of the CBA, making the pool of available free agents substantially shallower. The 2011 season was messed up, we’ve been told, because of the lockout, which kept bottom-dwelling teams from addressing their weaknesses on the practice field. The 2011 season was further messed up, Shanahan reminded us Monday, by all the injuries the Redskins suffered. Had the club not lost so many key performers, he said, it could have won “10, 11 games.” (With Rex Grossman and John Beck at quarterback, I’ll just remind you.)

And on and on and on.

The beauty of this reasoning, of course, is that We’ll Never Know. We’ll never know how the past two years would have gone for the Redskins if the labor situation had remained status quo and more of their players had remained healthy. All we know is 6-10 and 5-11, which add up to 11-21, which isn’t very good.

On second thought, here’s something else we know: Despite the monumental inconvenience of the lockout, seven NFL teams — almost a quarter of the league — managed to improve by four wins or more in 2011: San Francisco (6-10/13-3), Cincinnati (4-12/9-7), Green Bay (10-6/15-1), Denver (4-12/8-8), Detroit (6-10/10-6), Houston (6-10/10-6) and Carolina (2-14/6-10). Two of them (Bengals, Panthers) did it with a rookie QB. Another (Texans) did it despite losing its QB 10 games into the season. Another did it with a rookie coach (49ers, Jim Harbaugh). Another (Lions) did it to break a decade-long cycle of defeat. Another (Denver) did it by totally reinventing its offense in midseason.

In other words, all but one faced serious obstacles, but they were able find a way to overcome them.

The Redskins didn’t meet their challenges nearly as well. Yes, their offensive line was hit hard by injuries, but the impact wouldn’t have been nearly as great if Shanahan had done a better job of team-building (read: making room on his roster for more backup line help). And the quarterback issue persists because Shanny whiffed on Donovan McNabb and overestimated the ability of Grossman and Beck. Or perhaps he just overestimated his — and Kyle’s — own ability to get Grossman and Beck to play better. (We won’t even revisit the Albert Haynesworth debacle, the Great Andre Carter Giveaway or any number of other instances of questionable decision making.)

At any rate, when Shanahan says, “Even though our record might not show it, we’re a much better football team than we were a year ago,” how inclined is anyone these days to believe him? This is a coach, remember, whose past five clubs have missed the playoffs (2006 through 2008 Broncos, 2010 and ‘11 Redskins). That’s an awfully long stretch, especially for a guy who’s supposed to be at the top of his profession. Joe Gibbs was never out of the playoffs for more than two seasons. The same goes for Bill Parcells. Philadelphia’s Andy Reid, meanwhile, has never been out for more than one season. Mike Holmgren’s and Bill Cowher’s longest dry spells: three seasons.

Indeed, it’s hard to find any modern coach who, once he became successful, went through a period like the one Shanahan is going through. The only comparables I’ve found are Hank Stram (1972 throuh ‘74 with Kansas City, ‘76-77 with New Orleans) and Jim Mora (1993 through ‘96 with New Orleans, ‘98 with Indianapolis). (And it was much harder, let’s not forget, to get to the postseason in Stram’s day. As for Mora, he never won a playoff game, so I’m not even sure he can be considered in Shanny’s class.)

Anyway, that’s what we’re talking about here: a rut of fairly epic proportions — the kind that often ends a coaching career. Stram never had another head job after the Saints fired him. Mike Ditka, for that matter, needed only four straight non-playoff seasons (1992 with Chicago, ‘97 through ‘99 with New Orleans) to wind up in a TV studio. But Shanahan coaches on. You’ve gotta admit, it’s a great gig.

It’ll be interesting to see how the quarterback problem gets resolved. You hate to be desperate in the marketplace, because sellers will take advantage of you; but there’s no getting around it: The Redskins need a QB. If they have to move up from the sixth spot to get one, it could cost them in other areas where they’re shorthanded.

“I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Shanahan said, “but we’re moving in the right direction.” If so, they’re certainly not breaking the speed limit. The coach’s contract may say “three more years,” but the fans’ patience is likely to run out much sooner.