- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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The "evaluation" news conference of five weeks ago was a mistake, plain and simple. Mike Shanahan is a fine coach with a fine track record who's doing a fine job with this year's Washington Redskins, but what he said in the wake of his team's upsetting Week 9 loss to Carolina about using the rest of the season to evaluate what he had for the future was an error. The Redskins are a blistering 4-0 since he said it, contenders now for the NFC East title as well as a wild-card spot, and if this past month has been about evaluation, then you have to think the evaluations are going very well.
That misstep aside, though, Shanahan and his coaching staff are having a big year in Washington. It's Shanahan's third year as the team's head coach and he's already won more games then he won in either of the first two. So that's tangible progress right there. But look deeper, look week-to-week at what's going on during the current winning streak, and you see a coaching staff whose moves are critical to the team's surprise success.
There's the offense, first of all, which some deride as a "gimmick" but is clearly complex and unusual and requires strict attention to detail from those who are calling the plays as well as those who are running them. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III is the engine that makes it all go, but the Redskins have managed him well. They threw the whole playbook at him in training camp in an effort to find out which parts of it he handled best, then designed their game plans around that when the season began. They have fed him more and more as the season's gone along and his remarkable mental and physical abilities have allowed him to learn and apply it all so quickly. They kept things simple in the wake of injuries to top receivers Pierre Garcon and Fred Davis, and since Garcon's return they have expanded Griffin's options in accordance with both the circumstances of the playoff race and the fact that he has his top downfield weapon back.
Griffin may not throw the ball downfield as much as, say, Andrew Luck is doing in Indianapolis. But when he does throw it 10 or more yards downfield, he's been the most efficient passer in the league this year. He's stayed away from turnovers, run when it's been called for and consistently made good decisions within the framework of an offense designed and meticulously maintained to maximize his abilities. They've supplemented him with rookie running back Alfred Morris, a sixth-round gem who fits the offense perfectly and is already over 1,000 yards. The issue of Griffin's durability is a topic for today, since he hurt his knee running the ball late Sunday and had to come out of the game. But he's going to run and he has to run in order to be as good as he can be. Injuries can happen at any time, and I don't think it's fair to label this one the result of a bad decision by Griffin or his coaches. They have put him in the best situations possible, consistently, all year long, to keep him healthy and successful, and successful they have been. Gimmicky or not, the purpose of an offense is to score points. Only six teams in the league have scored more points this year than the Redskins have.
But it's on defense where I really believe Shanahan and his staff have shined. Redskins fans for some reason dislike defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and routinely call for his firing. But when you assess the personnel with which Haslett is working, you have to appreciate what it takes each week to come up with even a representative defensive effort. The secondary didn't project as a strength to begin with, and both projected starting safeties are out, and basically have been all year. The cornerbacks are substandard. The team's best pass rusher and one of its starting defensive linemen have been out since mid-September. The Redskins allow more yards per game than all but four teams in the league, more points per game than all but eight. Yet they have a winning record and have won four games in a row. They're doing it in spite of their defensive personnel deficiencies. They're doing it because of their coaching staff's ability, each week at this point, to design a defensive game plan that holds the opponent down just enough to allow the dynamic offense to win it in the end.
The last two weeks, Haslett and his staff have made game-altering halftime adjustments, switching at the game's midpoint to more man-to-man coverage in the secondary and a more intense pass rush. The emergence of outside linebacker Rob Jackson as a pass-rushing threat has helped, but the timing of the move is critical. The Redskins aren't going to succeed, with their defensive personnel, if they plan man-to-man coverage and rush the passer like crazy all game. They need to hold it close in the first half and deploy their more aggressive strategy in the second in order to get the most out of it. Sunday, they held back in the first half but sent extra rushers after Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the second, and the numbers indicate that it rattled him.
The Redskins don't have a playoff-caliber defense, but their coaching staff is getting the absolute most it can each week out of its defensive personnel, and as a result they sit on the cusp of a playoff spot with three weeks to go. Whether they can hold it together for three more weeks and cash this in remains to be seen. But even if they don't, Redskins fans who'd been disappointed with the Shanahan regime over the first two and a half seasons have to admit it's looking much better these days.