- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2011


One of best movie lines Mickey Rourke ever uttered was the one he laid on William Hurt in “Body Heat.” Hurt, playing a lawyer, had gone to visit his client in jail, and Rourke, the serial miscreant, said, “Any time you try a decent crime, you got 50 ways you’re gonna [mess] up. If you can think of 25 of them, then you’re a genius.”

Coaching in the NFL is a little like that. You try to prepare for every contingency, account for every variable, foresee every potential disaster; but, as Mickey pointed out, there are limits to the human imagination.

Speaking of jail, you couldn’t blame Mike Shanahan this morning if he felt as if the walls of Redskins Park were closing in on him. Word filtered out before Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets that arguably his two best offensive players, tight end Fred Davis and left tackle Trent Williams, would soon be handed four-game suspensions for marijuana use, effectively ending their seasons.

The problem with this, of course, is that there still are four games to play, starting with “Tom Terrific” Brady and the New England Patriots on Sunday. What already has been a long year — indeed, a long two years for Shanahan — could turn into an exploration of eternity in the weeks ahead.

How did it come to this? Well, why don’t we talk about that for a bit? I mean, it’s not as if there are more pressing matters to discuss — such as the NFC East race, the Redskins’ wild card prospects or who they might be meeting in the first round of the playoffs.

In fact, why don’t we begin here: When you’re rebuilding, as the Redskins are, you don’t have much margin for error — or for the unexpected. Injuries hit you harder than they do other clubs because you’ve yet to develop the necessary depth. If, on top of that, you haven’t found a franchise quarterback and are having trouble generating offense, it complicates matters even further. That is, you just can’t outscore your mistakes (the way, say, the Patriots, Packers and Saints can). Every turnover, every defensive breakdown is magnified.

That’s where the Redskins are in Year 2 of the Great Shanahan Shake Out. By the end of October, several of their offensive starters — Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, Kory Lichtensteiger, Tim Hightower — had been lost (all but Moss permanently), and in most cases the coach didn’t have a suitable Plan B. This is well-trod ground, and we won’t go over it again here.

Now, though, we have a veritable doomsday scenario: Davis, who was finally fulfilling his promise as a second-round pick, and Williams reportedly testing positive and being forced to sit out the last quarter of the season. You can only hope Rex Grossman hasn’t fallen behind on his life insurance payments.

Which takes us back to the beginning: When you’re trying to put together a winning football team, there are 50 ways you can mess up. If you can think of 25 of them, you’re a genius. Shanahan came to Washington with a just such a reputation, as a coach who had won two Super Bowls in Denver and was on the cutting edge of offense. Should he have seen this problem with Davis and Williams coming? Or is it just one of those blindside shots that no coach could possibly be prepared for?

Obviously, if the two players are facing four-game suspensions, it isn’t a first offense for either. So Shanny must have been aware of their previous transgressions. And yet he goes into the season with a dangerously thin offensive line — there was no real backup for Lichtensteiger — and with his Pro Bowl tight end, Cooley, struggling to come back from knee surgery. Talk about rolling the dice.

Granted, every coach takes calculated risks. An NFL locker room is hardly a Boy Scout convention. Stuff happens — with regularity. But this particular “stuff” doesn’t just reflect on the two players, it also reflects on the coach, who has said he wants to build an organization in which character is “paramount.”

So the Davis/Williams disaster — and the resulting fallout — are more than just bad luck. Beyond that, though, they’re a reminder of just how difficult it is to assemble a successful football team, even if you’re a genius capable of anticipating 25 of the 50 things that can undo you.

Davis is at the end of his contract; Williams still has four years to go. It’ll be interesting to see how this episode affects their future with the club. Generally speaking, the better a player is, the more chances he gets — and Fred and Trent are, in Shanahan’s estimation, “excellent.”

“To put the best football team together, you need talented players,” Shanny said Monday. “But to win a Super Bowl and be a top organization, you need character. Some people will make mistakes along the way. It doesn’t mean you’re going to drop somebody just because they’ve made a mistake.”

But talent can be a trap for a coach, as Shanahan showed several years ago when he drafted troubled running back Maurice Clarett in the third round — and Clarett never played a down for him. Talent can cause a coach to overlook or minimize a player’s imperfections. Talent can make you do things you don’t want to do.

But that’s another line from another movie, one Mickey Rourke wasn’t in.

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