Last week’s farcical debate over the meaning of Mike Shanahan “evaluating” the Washington Redskins’ beleaguered roster obscured the real issue. The coach, well into the third season of his $35 million contract in Washington, vigorously argued over the meaning of his words and the intent behind them.
Not his defense surrendering 27.6 points per game, the most by a Redskins team since 1963.
Not the head-scratching claim two weeks ago that the Redskins, if not for injury, could have a top-five defense.
Not the 32 plays over 20 yards the Redskins allowed.
Ten weeks into a season dragged down by a 3-6 record, with few signs of progress other than Superman-socked messiah/quarterback/pitchman Robert Griffin III, semantics consumed Shanahan. These aren’t the debates of a winning team. They serve only to distract from a simple truth: Shanahan constructed the roster careening toward a third straight season of irrelevance heading into Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
For all of Shanahan’s tactical brilliance on the field, his record evaluating personnel has been decidedly mixed. Sure, he inherited a mess of bum contracts and bad attitudes in Washington and, last offseason, dealt with the unexpected salary cap penalty. But just 10 players remain on the 53-man roster from the Jim Zorn era (which, statistically speaking, featured defenses better than Washington has since seen). Shanahan drafted 27 players, threw big money at free agents such as Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen and Pierre Garcon and, of course, dealt four draft picks to select Griffin, extending the already considerable patience of Washington’s fan base.
This is Shanahan’s team.
Look closely, though, and the coach’s past echoes through the roster. After 14 seasons and two Super Bowl victories with the Denver Broncos, Shanahan the coach lost his job in 2008 because of Shanahan the personnel man. A series of miserable drafts from 2001 to 2005, producing busts from Paul Toviessi to Willie Middlebrooks, and a distinguished list of free agent flops helped sink the coach.
The personnel failures contributed to a defense that allowed 857 points in 2007 and 2008, an average of 26.8 per game. No amount of late-round running back steals, Shanahan’s specialty, or offensive wizardry could overcome the churn in defensive personnel. The problem was basic: The Broncos couldn’t stop teams from scoring.
Sound familiar? The Redskins rank 28th in total yards allowed, 397.9 per game, allowed 1,258 yards after the catch, 136 first downs and, for the first time since the Nixon administration, have given up at least 22 points per game in three consecutive seasons.
Improving personnel evaluations was key to Shanahan finding success in Washington. But for every success — tackle Trent Williams and Griffin and sixth-round running back steal Alfred Morris and linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (if you buy the decision to bypass sack czar J.J. Watt and trade down) — are more question marks.
Even with Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker injured and out for the season, it’s difficult to see a top-five defense, as Shanahan asserted, lurking on the roster. He constructed the secondary, for instance, around a fading veteran (DeAngelo Hall), an undersized cornerback who repeatedly surrenders big plays (Josh Wilson), a free safety with a history of substance-abuse problems (Tanard Jackson) and a strong safety dogged by off-field issues throughout his career (Brandon Meriweather). The foundation may as well have been sand. Jackson was suspended for the season, Meriweather hasn’t played one snap because of injury and the rest have contributed to an orgy of blown coverages as part of the NFL’s third-worst pass defense.
Even the offense, which padded its totals against two of the four defenses actually worse than Washington’s, the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaves questions. On an offensive line that struggled to protect Griffin (knocked down 28 times in one game, plus a concussion and sore ribs in others), rookies Josh LeRibeus, a third-round pick, and Adam Gettis haven’t been factors. Second-year receiver Leonard Hankerson, 2011’s third-rounder, struggles with drops while speedy Aldrick Robinson can’t stay on the field.
Garcon, this year’s big-ticket free agent addition, is hampered by a lingering foot injury.
The story goes on. Securing a franchise quarterback and revamping an offense to fit his talents are no small steps for Shanahan. But Griffin, for all his gifts, can’t rush the quarterback, not get beat deep, block and provide deep threats. Without first-round picks the next two years in exchange for Griffin, options to fill the holes (that seem to grow by the day) are even smaller. Future difference-makers are difficult to find on the roster. Griffin aside, where is reason to believe things will change?
At some point, results must replace bad luck or untimely injuries or patience for youngsters to develop. Shanahan built this team. No tempest over words can hide that. And any evaluations should start not with the men who occupy the roster but the man who created it.