FENNO: No obvious answer for Redskins in determining Mike Shanahan’s fate

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The choice that confronts the Redskins in the coming weeks is as unpleasant as the dumpster fire that consumes their season.

Will Mike Shanahan be asked to return for the fifth and final year of his $35 million contact in an attempt to complete the organization’s overhaul?

Or does Daniel Snyder shrug off the lack of success by every type of coach in Washington — the Super Bowl winner, the legend, the college standout, the top assistant — and bring in the franchise’s eighth head coach since 2000?

Restraint isn’t the natural reaction when surveying the 3-9 fiasco. Not when the Redskins’ first back-to-back postseason trips since 1991-92 appeared as certain as Shanahan’s scowl, only to disintegrate in a flurry of football so head-scratchingly bad as to cast doubt on the coach’s continued employment.

A month remains in the season, but opponents already have outscored the Redskins by 93 points. That’s the franchise’s third-worst point differential since the 1960s. The crooked numbers point to the sprawling troubles, from the continued soap opera that follows Robert Griffin III on and off the field to the not-so-special teams unit that can’t do much of anything right to a 53-man roster littered with holes too numerous to address in one offseason.

Shanahan’s tenure in Washington has amounted to a 24-36 regular-season record. That .400 winning percentage is just a notch better than the .375 percentage by Steve Spurrier and Jim Zorn in their four  forgettable seasons coaching the Redskins.

Wins and losses are the ultimate measure of NFL coaching success and by that standard, progress under Shanahan has been illusory.

Should the Redskins surrender to the dropped passes and empty seats of bad football and gamble on starting over with another regime?

Or face the unenviable task of selling Shanahan’s return to a weary fanbase? This year’s unfortunate slogan of “Live it” would become “Trust us again … please.”

No straightforward, painless option exists.

Inextricably tangled up in the discussion is the $36 million salary cap penalty the NFL imposed on the Redskins in 2012 that hamstrung the organization in unprecedented fashion. As the losses pile up, the penalty is trotted out as an explanation, if not an excuse, for the sorry state of the NFL’s second-oldest roster. It didn’t inhibit the optimism that soaked the offseason, of course, but obscures a true evaluation of Shanahan’s work in Washington.

The cap space returns to the Redskins this offseason. Their Costco-sized list of needs would daunt the hardiest Black Friday shopper but, finally, the team will have the financial flexibility to do more than scrounge through minimum-salaried veterans on the clearance rack.

Fairness would dictate the coach have at least one season with his franchise quarterback fully healthy and a full allotment of cap space to provide the supporting pieces to assist in keeping that quarterback from being pounded into the turf on a regular basis.

But money, much as few dollars could have addressed problems on this year’s roster, isn’t a panacea. The Redskins’ sordid history in the free-agent market is filled with example after example of buyer’s remorse. Shanahan, for instance, invested big dollars in free agents like O.J. Atogwe and Josh Morgan with little return.

While the penalty is a legitimate obstacle, the Redskins haven’t compensated by developing a slew of bargain players. Even the Seahawks, owners of the NFL’s best record, start gunners on their punt unit who were undrafted and a sixth-round pick. Spurred by those two players, the unit has allowed 15 yards in punt returns all season. The Redskins allow an average of 15.9 yards per return.

But Shanahan has improved the roster’s talent, from mining Alfred Morris in the sixth round to developing receiver Leonard Hankerson. A third-round disappointment like Josh LeRibeus, little as the team can afford it after the four draft picks sent to the Rams in the Griffin trade, are an inevitable part of the NFL.

The catch is that Shanahan hasn’t done enough to warrant an extension, even if you buy the cap penalty as the main culprit behind this year’s disappointment. And attracting top-flight assistant coaches for the staff’s needed reshuffling would be difficult, if not impossible, without the security of an extension.

Would the hyper-competitive coach embrace the challenge of going all-in on one season?

Does Snyder have the patience to see through the rebuilding process Shanahan believed would take five years?

The questions extend to Griffin. The sometimes-strained relationship between the coach and quarterback over the past 11 months could go a long way toward determining Shanahan’s fate. Can they get along? How much say will Griffin have in the eventual decision?

There aren’t easy answers.

The on-field mess fuels the easy belief that dramatic, franchise-altering change is the lone solution to make all this better. But that change is fraught with as much risk, if not more, than maintaining continuity. The decision is as ugly as the season gone wrong.

Meanwhile, the dumpster fire smolders on.

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