For three years, Mike Shanahan has been telling us, “Trust me. I know what I’m doing.” And because he won back-to-back Super Bowls in the Pre-iPhone Era, the inclination has been to go along with him — to a point. That point was reached at the end of last season, when Shanahan followed a 6-10 debut as the Washington Redskins‘ coach with a 5-11 second act. The organization seemed to sense this, too, and, just before the draft, traded an arm and three legs for the pick that brought Robert Griffin III, who it’s hoping will be the next Sammy Baugh.
Anyway, the trust stops here for Shanny. After yet another roster churn — more about that shortly — we need to see signs of real progress. We need to come away from this season with genuine hope for the future, a conviction that things are going to get a lot better. Otherwise, is there any reason to continue the present course?
This is Shanahan’s team now — lock, stock and long snapper. Well, almost. By my count, just 10 players predate him, six of them starters (at last glance). Let’s call the roll. On offense, you’ve got Santana Moss, Fred Davis and Will Montgomery, and on defense you’ve got London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo, DeAngelo Hall and, in reserve, Kedric Golston, Lorenzo Alexander, Chris Wilson and Reed Doughty. These guys are such survivors they need a nickname. What’s the opposite of The Expendables? How about The Indispensables?
Every year since he came to Washington, Shanahan has turned over almost half the roster. In Week 1, he’ll have 23 or 24 players who weren’t on the Final 53 the season before. And every year, of course, he’ll express confidence that this club is better than the previous club — that there was more competition in camp, and that this competition will lead to improved results.
What was that he said the other day? “We got a lot more competitive, I think we got a lot younger and hopefully a lot better.” Pull his string in September, any September, and he’s likely to come out with something along those lines.
One of the benefits of shuffling the deck every year is that it enables you to create the appearance of progress where none might exist. The suggestion is: Look at all the turnover we’ve had. How can we not be better? And then the team wins five games after winning six the season before and the fans are reminded that the final roster, while it might seem revamped, is merely a hypothetical. Once the first kickoff is in the air, stuff happens. Stuff always happens.
A year ago, the Redskins‘ lack of depth in the offensive line, particularly at guard, was exposed. So they took steps in the offseason to try to prevent a recurrence. But roster math is a zero-sum game. If there are more reinforcements in the O-line, there are fewer somewhere else. The only solace is that every club has to do this kind of educated guessing. You make your cuts and then pray you don’t get caught short at some position (knowing full well you probably will, football being a collision sport).
Another way to create the appearance of progress is by keeping most or all of your draft picks. The Redskins, you’ll note, did that this year. Eight of their nine selections avoided a visit from The Turk, and the casualty, offensive tackle Tom Compton, was signed to the practice squad.
Last season, though, 10 of the team’s 12 picks eventually suited up (and one of the other two, Jarvis Jenkins, is in the defensive line rotation this year). Did the Redskins make a great leap forward in 2011? And in ‘08, I’ll just remind you, nine of their 10 picks stuck (and the other wound up on injured reserve). Of that group, only Davis remains.
My intention isn’t to cast aspersions on the Redskins‘ scouting department or on the coaches’ roster decisions. It’s to work back to my original thesis: The trust stops here. This club might be dramatically better this season, or it might not be. But it certainly isn’t better just because Shanahan thinks it is, or because eight draftees made the final 53. We’ve learned that from past experience, oh so painfully.
On Sunday, the Redskins will open against the Saints in New Orleans. Only then will we begin to get some answers. Only then will the true impact of Griffin, largely a mystery so far because of his limited playing time, be revealed. Let’s face it, though, Year 3 for Shanny is different from Year 1 or Year 2. Back then, he had more credibility. Now he’s just another coach who needs to win — or to be taking the franchise in that direction, at least.