COMMENTARY | With the Washington Redskins following up a 2012 season where they won six straight games to win the NFC East with an awful campaign that sees them at 3-7, there is much discussion among Washington fans and media about what to do with the team.
From questions about Coach Mike Shanahan’s job security to whether the Redskins should bench quarterback Robert Griffin III, the questions surrounding the team aren’t surprising for a team that fell so dramatically from last year’s magical run.
We all know what happened last year. Griffin played two weeks after suffering a knee injury against the Baltimore Ravens and then suffered a tweak against the Seattle Seahawks and played progressively worse before eventually tearing his ACL in the team’s 24-14 loss at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. in January.
Griffin caused a lot of excitement last year, serving as a catalyst for the team’s turnaround and contributing to what looked like a culture change in the Redskins locker room.
That excitement could be seen in just about any local sports bar. When the season began, I usually saw a hodgepodge of jerseys of various NFL teams with a smattering of Redskins jerseys at a couple of different bars. Toward the end of the season, the bars were packed with fans wearing Redskins jerseys.
The team’s problems aren’t just confined to Griffin, however. Defensively, the team has looked awful throughout with mostly shoddy tackling. On special teams, a combination of bad kickoff coverage and early season struggles by kicker Kai Forbath has exposed the harsh reality: The Redskins are a bad team.
It’s true that the Redskins have uncovered some gems during Shanahan’s tenure. Besides Griffin, backup quarterback Kirk Cousins has looked good at times spelling Griffin. Running back Alfred Morris has been a revelation the past two years after being drafted in the sixth round last year out of Florida Atlantic. Tight end Jordan Reed has turned Fred Davis into the NFL’s 21st century answer to Wally Pipp. He was a third round draft choice.
I’m aware of the two year salary cap penalty the NFL imposed on the Redskins, and I’m aware of the talk that it has hamstrung the team’s efforts to improve. It’s a poor excuse. When owner Daniel Snyder opened his checkbook in years past, he built teams that looked great on paper, but that greatness never translated to on-field success. The team has won a grand total of two division titles since 1991, and their first one came in 1999, Snyder’s first year as the team’s owner. That was before he wreaked havoc by firing coaches and signing players.
Snyder arguably set the tone for the team’s dysfunction in 2000 when he fired head coach Norv Turner while the team was 7-6 and still fighting for a playoff spot. A year later, Marty Schottenheimer guided the team to an 8-8 finish after starting 0-5, but a power struggle between him and Snyder cost him his job. Including interim head coach Terry Robiskie in 2000, the team has had seven head coaches in Snyder’s tenure.
Taking the team’s problems as a whole over the past 22 years, it’s clear that coaching alone isn’t the problem. Only Shanahan and Joe Gibbs have lasted longer than two years under Snyder. If Snyder fires Shanahan after four years, only Gibbs will have walked away on his own terms.
The difference between the two Super Bowl-winning coaches was their respective willingness to adapt. Shanahan brought in defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and told him to run a 3-4 defense (three defensive linemen and four linebackers) and didn’t adapt to a roster built for a 4-3 defense (four defensive linemen, three linebackers). He brought a my-way-or-the-highway approach that may have run off a malcontent in Albert Haynesworth, but it doesn’t make for a coach who’s as great as Shanahan’s record was before he became the team’s coach.
For his part, Gibbs brought in Al Saunders to call plays after two years of calling them himself, which he did throughout his first tenure in Washington from 1981 to 1992. He also contrasted himself with Steve Spurrier by saying he would work with the defense even though he was an offensive coordinator in San Diego prior to his first tenure with Washington.
That much change in coaching staffs and philosophies makes it extremely difficult to create any sense of continuity for a franchise that essentially has to reboot every couple of years. Changing coaches is about more than changing the man calling the shots on Sundays. Each coach often brings his own coaching staff and new offensive and defensive systems, each with their own terminology and basic philosophies. Players used to one system then have to adapt to a whole new system or perhaps a new position.
The results in Washington dictate that it may be time for the Redskins to cut bait with Shanahan, Haslett and company, but whomever they bring in will have to overhaul more than a football team.