Monday, December 30, 2013
Reasons for Mike Shanahan's downfall
By John Keim
Mike Shanahan failed to overcome several challenges during his tenure as the Redskins' coach.
ASHBURN, Va. -- You can point to on-field issues as the major reason for the downfall. The Washington Redskins turned the ball over 34 times -- 20 more than a year ago. That stat could explain their plummet from NFC East champs to bottom dweller in one year.
But there’s more to the Redskins -- and ultimately Mike Shanahan’s demise as their coach -- than just turnovers. Not everything was the coach's fault, but a number of issues led to this season's 3-13 record, and the 24-40 overall mark in his four years.
The Redskins' offense was not the same as the one in 2012 in part because Robert Griffin III was not the same quarterback. His surgically repaired right knee had robbed him of some explosiveness, leaving him still fast but less dangerous. Also, defenses were more disciplined against the zone read option Washington had run with success his rookie season. One opposing defensive coach earlier this season said his team did not fear Griffin’s ability on the play.
But where the knee really affected Griffin was in his offseason work. He had to spend time rehabbing more than improving his game, especially in the pocket. He faced a wider variety of coverages this season and more blitzes. And the lack of offseason work showed in his inconsistency as a pocket passer.
Griffin did show flashes of his rookie success. Against Chicago, he threw for 298 yards and ran for 84. But he also needed more help than in 2012, whether from his receivers winning on their routes or from his line protection, and he did not always receive it.
Relationship with the quarterback
Shortly after the 2012 season ended, judging by Griffin's veiled comments, it was clear a problem existed between the coach and the quarterback. In separate news conferences, one would say one thing and the other party would say the opposite. Shanahan would tell the media that Griffin needed to learn to slide and get down better to avoid hits. That prompted Griffin to text ESPN’s Trey Wingo that he knew “where my responsibility is within the dilemma that led to me having surgery to repair my knee and all parties involved know their responsibilities as well.”
When asked during a media session in the spring whether he liked how he was used last season, Griffin merely said he liked to win. He had dodged the question, but in doing so, it further raised eyebrows. From Griffin’s perspective, he had lost trust in the coaches because he believed that after the initial injury, they ran plays they had told him they would not call, such as the zone read option.
By the spring, it became clear the relationship between Griffin and Shanahan needed to be monitored. Shanahan was not pleased with the fact Griffin occasionally attended events with team owner Dan Snyder, and believed it left the quarterback feeling entitled. According to an ESPN.com story earlier this month, Shanahan considered quitting after last season in part because of that relationship.
During this past summer, if Griffin came out and expressed optimism about his situation, Shanahan would follow in his own news conference by contradicting his quarterback -- or at least tempering his enthusiasm. Eventually, Griffin started talking after Shanahan so he would know what the coach said.
Griffin said during one news conference later in the season that it took time to build that trust, saying he was still doing so in Washington even after 18 months together. He was benched with three games left, ostensibly to keep him healthy in the offseason, but it further eroded any trust left and made it clear it would be very, very difficult to repair.
The Redskins were hit with a $36 million salary-cap penalty for their handling of the 2010 uncapped year. You can debate all you want whether it was deserved. They had to deal with the reality.
The timing could not have been worse for the Redskins, who learned of the penalties the day before free agency began in 2012. They lost $18 million in cap space that year, as well as in 2013, and it stopped them from pursuing certain players. In 2012, for example, they had planned to woo Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan, but could not.
They still managed to sign receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan early in the 2012 free-agency period. But they could not adequately address other problem spots, such as right tackle or the secondary.
Last offseason was worse, as they could not sign any expensive free agents. They were able to retain all but one of their own key free agents. They preached that familiarity and continuity would help them overcome those issues, with 21 of 22 starters returning from the NFC East championship team. It did not.
There were personnel mistakes, too. Josh LeRibeus, a third-round pick in 2012, was inactive for every game this season and was approximately 30 pounds overweight entering last offseason's workouts. Morgan is a prime example of why having more money to spend the past two years wouldn’t have guaranteed anything. He caught a combined 68 passes the past two years -- 20 this season -- while averaging $6 million.
Shanahan also agreed to bring back defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who signed a $100 million deal a year before with the previous regime. Shanahan made it known to Haynesworth in their first meeting that he did not like his 2009 performance. But he opted to keep him around and it led to a conditioning debacle in the summer, uninspired play during the season and an eventual suspension.
Shanahan agreed to trade multiple draft picks for quarterback Donovan McNabb, only to watch him fail in his one and only season. They traded a third-round pick for injured tackle Jammal Brown, who was largely ineffective in his two seasons because of injuries.
And Shanahan "staked his reputation" on quarterbacks Rex Grossman and John Beck in 2011. Beck failed miserably while Grossman moved the offense, but his penchant for turnovers hurt.
Shanahan also hired first-year special teams coordinator Keith Burns; the players never fully bought in. But the real problem was the fluidity of the special teams unit, perhaps a casualty of the cap penalty. Putting a first-year coach in charge of such a group proved too difficult.
They received contributions from two draft picks this season -- corner David Amerson and tight end Jordan Reed -- but the rest provided little help, whether from scrimmage or special teams. Of their 34 draft picks, only 12 were full-time starters or played pivotal roles in 2013. That led to a lack of youthful depth in the secondary and at linebacker, and unproven depth along the offensive line.
Despite all of that, the Redskins were poised to be contenders this season, based on their finish a year ago. However, the foundation was weaker than originally thought, and now the Redskins face a hard road back.