- Associated Press - Sunday, November 7, 2010

ASHBURN, Va. | Just when the Washington Redskins were starting to get a decent feel for life under Mike Shanahan, along came the benching of Donovan McNabb, a move so baffling that even players admitted they couldn’t figure it out.

“I thought McNabb was hurt,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “I would never expect in a million years that he would be taken out of a game, being who he is and what he’s done and his resume. You just don’t see that. You wouldn’t see a Tom Brady coming off the field. It was surprising, shocking, but (Shanahan) had his reasons for doing it.”

Had Jim Zorn pulled such a move — yanking a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback for unimpressive Rex Grossman in the final two minutes with the game on the line against a one-win Detroit team — owner Dan Snyder probably would have moved even more quickly to hire a consultant out of Bingo-calling retirement to oversee the head coach’s work.

But Shanahan has more cachet, more power, more room for error than the coach who was fired after last year’s 4-12 season. Two Super Bowl titles with the Denver Broncos gives Shanahan plenty of leeway in the rebuilding process, and it turns out he might need it. As the McNabb episode shows, the team is still in the getting-to-know-you stage with the demanding coach who likes to control everything.

“We’ve only been with the guy for six, eight months,” Alexander said, “so you’ve still got to learn his personality, what he likes, what he does, what’s the method of his madness — because we haven’t seen the results quite yet from it. But once you start being successful with a guy like that, you understand what he’s doing, you become more comfortable and you understand, ‘OK, this is why he’s doing this.’”

Added guard Artis Hicks: “There’s going to be a feeling-out process. It’s going to be pretty much for the length of the season, and we’re still going through that.”

Some of the more practical directives were understood from the start. Don’t dare show up late for a meeting. Learn your play book. Look sharp in practice. Any violation is met with the infamous Shanahan glare.

“There have been times at practice where I might have missed a guy, and I look back and he’s just giving me that look,” Hicks said. “He don’t have to say much. That look says it all. You can look in his eyes, and that’s all you need.”

If some of Shanahan’s words and deeds have raised eyebrows, that’s to be expected. After all, he spent 14 years as the head coach of the Broncos, an eternity in the coaching business and more than long enough to firmly establish his way of doing things for everyone inside the locker room and throughout the community at large. Bumps in the road were inevitable with a change of venue.

He started well in his first major test of wills, refusing to budge in a standoff against disgruntled defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. Even the players had called Haynesworth selfish, so they more than understood when Shanahan made the two-time All-Pro pass a conditioning test and work his way up from second string.

Shanahan couldn’t leave well enough alone, however, probably going further than needed to prove his point when he made Haynesworth play all four quarters of a preseason game — and when he wouldn’t let Haynesworth play last month against Indianapolis. Haynesworth knows the Colts as well as anybody on the defense, and it’s easy to see how he could have made a difference in a game the Redskins lost by three points.

Shanahan also put his players on notice that he’s monitoring their words. He had a chat with Chris Cooley after the tight end mentioned on the radio something about Haynesworth working with the scout team in practice, a strategic no-no in the eyes of the coach. When the media reported something in a way Shanahan didn’t like leading into the first game of the season, he didn’t pull reporters aside for a constructive chat to sort out the problem — he lectured them twice in three days, on the record with cameras rolling, about the need to preserve the team’s “competitive advantage.”

“I don’t want to be called upstairs and talked to,” fullback Mike Sellers said. “You’ve got to watch what you say. We joke about it. ‘Now, watch what you say.’ It’s just one of those things. You’ve really got to tread lightly.”

And it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re an undrafted rookie — or a high-paid Haynesworth.

“You want to be on your Ps and Qs,” Alexander said. “And you don’t want to be a guy that’s caught in his doghouse. He wants it a certain way, and if you don’t give it to him, he’ll find somebody else and he really doesn’t care who you are. You can see that in meetings, how he talks to people. He’s the same way from top to bottom. He expects a certain level of professionalism.”

Despite the early hiccups, things were starting to hum along as the weeks passed. The Redskins have made it to 4-4 at the bye, equaling the number of wins from last year, despite major problems along the offensive line and at receiver, plus a defense that creates turnovers but gives up lots of yards. Players have been crediting Shanahan for creating an atmosphere of belief that they can win the close, ugly games they would often lose under Zorn.

But pulling McNabb? That’s a head-scratcher which could divide the locker room, outrage the fans and alienate the quarterback for whom Shanahan gave up two draft picks. Shanahan then made things worse by giving inconsistent explanations for the benching. Shanahan’s son, the offensive coordinator, gave a version that was flat-out contradicted by McNabb.

Shades of Zorn all over again.

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of a coach being new in town and not yet fully understood. Shanahan, for what it’s worth, feels he is on the right track, at least with his players.

“I think all the players have a good feel of what we want as an organization,” Shanahan said. “What we’re trying to do on the football field and off, the standard at which we practice and which we play at, and I like the direction we’re going.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who once turned around a losing franchise as coach of the New Orleans Saints, said it takes a while to shift a team culture.

“You don’t just turn the football team around, you’ve got to turn the whole organization around,” Haslett said. “Because there’s a lot of people in that organization, including secretaries, administrative people, people in the building that are negative because you’ve been losing so many years. So you’ve either got to get rid of the people that are the negatives, and I’m talking about everybody, and you’ve got to start over and bring people in that want to build a winner — or you’ve got to change people. The whole organization has to feel that they’re part of winning.

“When I first went to New Orleans, you didn’t want to be out in public because you knew you weren’t very good. When we left, I felt they had a great feeling about themselves: ‘Hey, this is a good football team.’ They felt proud about being out in the community. That’s in the process we’re in right now.”

 


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