Mike Shanahan told it to everyone who would listen after he became the Washington Redskins’ coach in January 2010. Returning the franchise to respectability would not happen overnight, he said. Those words have appeared in every local newspaper and on every local airwave many times since.
And while Shanahan avoided using the word “rebuilding,” the obvious age and lack of talent on the Redskins roster crystallized the magnitude of Shanahan’s task. It required more than just some fresh paint and pretty pictures to hang on the wall. No, Shanahan needed a bulldozer and sledgehammer for a full-scale demolition and remodeling.
Fast-forward 34 months, though, and the project remains far from complete. The Redskins reached their bye this week with a record of 3-6, the same mark as this point last season. Shanahan used “overnight” as a figure of speech, but with a 14-27 record as Redskins coach and another December of irrelevance ahead, it’s fair to wonder when the sun is supposed to come up.
“We started over again — offense, defense,” Shanahan said. “We’ve tried to do it through the draft and free agency, get a lot younger, get the right players, and I see some tremendous strides. Hopefully, it’s not only me. Hopefully, it’s Dan, as well.”
Shanahan, of course, referred to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. It was an unusual occurrence Monday, but these are dire times. Shanahan’s vision for this season has not become reality, and, as the one who has assembled the roster, any scrutiny ascends the organizational hierarchy to Shanahan’s perch.
He drafted Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III in April, trading three first round draft picks and a second-rounder to do so. He expected to add Griffin to an offense retooled in the offseason with young playmakers and a defense he believed was capable of finishing among the top five in the NFL a year after he overhauled it.
A mix of injuries and underachievement on defense, though, has outweighed — at least in the standings — Griffin’s promising rookie season. Instead of a strong defense helping a struggling rookie quarterback, the reverse has been true. The Redskins’ offense ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per play, while the defense ranks 29th.
Shanahan attributes the defensive breakdowns to injuries.
“It’s not what we were a year ago,” he said. “But these guys are gaining some experience. I think we’ve got a chance to get a couple guys back, and some of the other guys that have been playing, I think are getting better. So it gives you a chance.”
The Redskins lost two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (torn pectoral muscle) and starting left defensive end Adam Carriker (torn quadriceps tendon) for the season in Week 2. First-string strong safety Brandon Meriweather, who signed as a free agent in March, has not played because he sprained his left knee in the second preseason game and then reinjured it during a freak pregame collision in Week 4.
Amid the injuries, other front-line defensive players, ones Shanahan acquired, are not performing at the level they did in 2011.
Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has only one sack in the past five games, and that was of a Pittsburgh Steelers receiver attempting to throw on a trick play.
Kerrigan contributes stopping the run and covering tight ends, but an impotent pass rush is killing the Redskins’ defense. Kerrigan sometimes faces double teams and extra attention from blockers in Orakpo’s absence, but he concedes he must improve getting off one-on-one blocks to disrupt quarterbacks’ timing.
Defensive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, free agents Shanahan signed in 2011, are major positive factors on a run defense that ranks 14th in yards surrendered per carry. But they admittedly are not pushing the pocket consistently enough in passing situations.
That has not helped a secondary that has surrendered eight passes of more than 40 yards, tied for most in the NFL. Cornerbacks Josh Wilson, whom Shanahan signed as a free agent last season, and DeAngelo Hall, whom Shanahan inherited, have repeatedly been victimized.
Free safety Madieu Williams has been, too. Shanahan signed him in the offseason to be a reserve, but Tanard Jackson was suspended indefinitely for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. The Redskins signed Jackson as their Plan A for free safety knowing he had a history of violations.
The defense has yet to hold an opponent to fewer than 21 points after doing so eight times last season. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has received the brunt of fan criticism.
“I come to work, I work hard, I do the best I can with what we got and try to put these guys in position to win games and be successful on defense,” Haslett said Wednesday. “That’s all really I can do.”
On offense, the outlook is much brighter. Shanahan’s aggressive move to trade up and draft Griffin appears to have been worth the high price. Griffin was one of the most electrifying players in the NFL during the first half of the season, and it’s clear he has significant room for improvement recognizing open receivers and throwing the ball.
Shanahan drafted rookie running back Alfred Morris in the sixth round in April with one of the draft picks the Redskins received as compensation for trading quarterback Donovan McNabb. Morris is fourth in the NFL with 793 yards, making Shanahan look like a genius.
Shanahan’s offensive line, which crumbled due to injuries, has not had to tap into its depth. No starter has missed a game.
And even though No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon, the offseason’s top free agent acquisition, hasn’t been healthy but for eight successful plays in the season opener, Washington’s offense is one of the NFL’s best with Griffin at the controls and the coaching staff designing effective formations and option concepts.
In the big picture, then, Shanahan insists there is progress despite a record that doesn’t prove it.
“I know I’m going in the right direction,” he said.
To some, Griffin’s presence, by itself, validates that.
“When you look at the NFL in some instances where you say third year of a program, third year of a head coach, and you would like to see that team starting to ascend, but I think in our situation this is the first year we’ve actually had a quarterback, for the most part,” linebacker London Fletcher said.
“That definitely makes a difference, and you see with Robert he’s going to be a great player, and he’s going to give you a great chance to win. Now you just continue to build pieces around him to make sure.”