All signs pointed to another Redskins spending spree. For years, we'd become accustomed to Washington winning the month of March by signing big-name, if aging, free agents to lucrative contracts. To owner Dan Snyder and his top lieutenant Vinny Cerrato, the NFL draft was for weaklings.
While teams such as the Baltimore Ravens loaded up on offensive and defensive linemen, the Redskins turned to established stars in the league. Unfortunately, though, the Skins' version of March Madness couldn't overshadow what happened each fall.
Snyder built a foundation on smoke and mirrors, and the results had become downright depressing. At least the '09 season provided comic relief when Cerrato interrupted Sherm Lewis' bing0 calling to name him the team's playcaller. In retrospect, coach Jim Zorn was in over his head from the start. He was a panic hire by Snyder after his candidate pool evaporated in '08.
He has fired plenty of coaches in more than a decade as owner, but following last season's 4-12 campaign, Snyder knew his organization was at a crisis point. The losing was bad enough, but the Redskins had managed to alienate their fan base through a stunning series of blunders, the most humorous being a ban against homemade signs at games. In addition to being treated to a poor on-field product, fans were asked to express their dissatisfaction in healthier ways, such as politely clapping for first downs and pretending to recognize Marcus Mason's name.
If Snyder didn't get the next hire right, he might have encountered fan revolt. Fortunately for him, a Super Bowl-winning coach happened to have the '09 season off. Mike Shanahan might as well have had an office at Redskins Park because you knew he would replace Zorn from about Week 4 on. Snyder's only serious competition for Shanahan would've been the Cowboys, but most folks don't have an appreciation for Jerry Jones' devotion to Wade Phillips, a man who's happy to let the owner wear the whistle, and at times, the Russell coaching shorts.
The Redskins hired general manager Bruce Allen, son of George, late in the '09 season to start assessing the damage. Once he sacked Zorn, the stage was finally set for Team Shanahan to take over the building. The former Broncos coach hasn't done anything that dramatic (Artis Hicks, anyone?), but his presence alone has changed the club's perception around the league. As I walked the streets of Indianapolis during the combine in search of scouts and refreshments, people told me stories about Shanahan's iron-fisted ways. Members of the Cowboys' delegation weren't shy about admitting that the landscape of the NFC East would quickly change with Shanahan on the scene.
In fact, I'm not sure there's a coach in the league that Jones admires more than Shanahan. In the past, Shanahan had been a ghost at the combine, slipping into town to look at a certain player and then leaving before anyone saw him. But this year, Shanahan was popping up all over the place. He spent more than an hour with reporters and then I later saw him sharing trail mix with Wade Phillips at a Marriott property. For now, Shanahan's the face of the franchise and I think he realizes how important it is for fans to see him at work.
On the eve of free agency last Thursday, Redskins fans gathered at their laptops (hopefully) and read about Shanahan and Allen releasing 10 players. It sort of felt like the final cuts in the preseason. Allen was rather diplomatic in his description of Black Thursday at Redskins Park. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was a little more blunt, telling ESPN that the Skins were able to shed some "dead weight." Nice touch, DeAngelo.
Some of us interpreted these moves as a prelude to a big-ticket item in free agency, but unless Hicks and Maake Kemoeatu were at the top of your wish list, the Skins basically sat on their hands. You keep waiting for that other shoe to drop, but it looks like this is all we're going to get. It makes you wonder if someone's kidnapped the free-spending Snyder, an owner who has been known to covet another man's roster. Surely he'll put a stop to all this inactivity at some point. But Allen recently told SI.com's Peter King that Snyder seems to be taking the (non) news in stride.
"He didn't throw anything at me," said Allen of Snyder. "And he didn't throw a tantrum. He's fine with it."
So we've apparently entered a new era of Washington Redskins football. To be clear, though, Shanahan won't be given license to have a couple more 4-12 seasons. He isn't expected to win the NFC East title in 2010, but the Redskins will need to show marked improvement.
Fortunately for Shanahan, the bar's been set pretty low over the past decade. His critics will point toward his playoff record in the post-John Elway era in Denver. But his total body of work is impressive.
The best news for Redskins fans is that Shanahan and Allen don't appear to be looking for shortcuts. As we've seen in the past, shortcuts look a lot better in March than they do in December. Artie Hicks and Kemo might not get your heart pumping, but regaining the respect of your division foes should.
And that has already happened.