Much less is new about the Washington Redskins now compared with a year ago. This is Mike Shanahan's second season as their head coach, not his first. It's the second year of his zone-blocking offense, of Jim Haslett's 3-4 defense, of owner Dan Snyder staying in the background. And yet, even though so much less is new, so much feels different. Redskins players were saying this week that things this year around the team are "boring, in a good way."
"Most of the time, I've been around boring teams," Shanahan said when reporters relayed those comments to him. "That's what you like. You like guys taking care of business, and I guess compared to the first year, it is kind of boring."
After a year's worth of dealing with an Albert Haynesworth mess he inherited and a Donovan McNabb mess he helped create, Shanahan has the team he wants. He has a quarterback in Rex Grossman who knows how to run his offense and -- perhaps more importantly -- wants to do it. He has a converted 4-3 defensive tackle in Barry Cofield who's excited about playing 3-4 nose tackle. He has players he brought in -- such as Tim Hightower, Stephen Bowen and Josh Wilson -- who can carry out what he wants done now while also growing with the team as it develops into the future. He has high-caliber, high-character holdovers such as London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo and Santana Moss, whose leadership isn't being drowned out anymore by controversy after controversy.
For all of those reasons, this is the year in which people will make up their minds about Shanahan as Redskins coach. And the "Monday Night Football" spotlight he's got here in Week 3 in Dallas against the banged-up Cowboys is a huge opportunity for Shanahan to show people he's not just a big name but a great coach who knows what he's doing.
On the surface, it looks like a bigger game for the Cowboys, who would be 1-2 with a loss and heading into a very tough portion of their schedule. If the Redskins lose, they're 2-1 and still further ahead of the game than anyone expected them to be after three weeks. But if Shanahan's serious about changing the way things work and feel around the Redskins, he sees this game as a huge chance not just to do it but to announce it to the entire football-watching world.
A win in this rivalry game would make the Redskins 3-0, and 76 percent of NFL teams that start out 3-0 reach the playoffs. That was a goal that looked unattainable for the Redskins before the season started, but the way their schedule lays out, and the way their defense is playing, it's not out of the question. This is a league in which five new teams make the playoffs every year, in which we're guaranteed a handful of teams that turn out to be much better than we imagined they'd be. The Redskins are in a position to be one of those teams, and if Shanahan is able to take advantage of that position, it would rank among his most stellar coaching achievements.
Very little was expected of this year's Redskins, and they still have a long way to go to make good on their promising early returns. It won't always be this much fun around them. They will lose games they believe they should have won, and they will have to deal with more challenging issues than they've faced so far. Shanahan will have to manage all of that, and he surely knows this and believes he can.
But right now, in Week 3, Shanahan and his "boring" bunch of Redskins have a chance to do something that would force everyone who watches this league to sit up and take notice. Shanahan can make an early announcement that his team is for real and so is he -- that those who doubted after Year 1 were wrong and that he really does know something about how to put a team together from scratch and coach it. If they lose Monday, it doesn't mean none of that is true, and he'll have more chances down the road to prove it with steady progress. But if the Redskins win this game, there's going to be a lot of attention paid all of a sudden to the work Shanahan has done since he got to Washington. And people are going to be very impressed.