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Mike Shanahan, Please Rise For The Verdict

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Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

I can’t wake up. I am literally in some sort of subconscious death spiral. Every evolution (or game) brings deeper pain. A vomit-stained fan was my analogy after the loss to Minnesota. The listless, three-quarters-long sleep walk in Philadelphia was confounding. After Monday night’s “effort” against San Francisco, rage is the overriding emotion. Oh how I long to be simply confused and covered in my own bile; how fortunate I was three weeks ago. Wake up, dammit. Wake up to reality: a place where Robert Griffin III is an elite force, the defense is opportunistic and solid, and the playoffs are a distinct possibility.

What? I’m already awake? This is real? Well, then, I think I’ll have a long nap filled with delusional dreams of grandeur. 

My state of confusion is a consequence of the obvious: I didn’t see this coming. I never thought I’d be writing this article. Only the most potent of hallucinogens would have made contemplating a pink slip for Michael Shanahan a few months ago a plausible scenario. After landing a franchise quarterback and one-man force of hope, rattling off seven straight wins and snagging the NFC East title, Shanahan seemed a shoe-in for a contract extension and poised to ride into the Hall of Fame on the coattails of his latest quarterback toy. 

But there’s a reason the acronym NFL also stands for Not-For-Long.  Eleven games into the season, Shanahan now has the job security of a standing member of Congress. And while I didn’t expect to pen a verdict on the Shanahan regime back in September, I could feel it coming. The slow start was somewhat expected, but the team’s uneven play — not just week-to-week but quarter-to-quarter — indicated a bigger issue. The preaching of patience wore thin after the Minnesota loss. The cliché-ridden, post-game damage control routine fell on deaf ears after inexplicable failure-to-post in Philly. And Houston phoned after Monday night’s tap out to confirm a major malfunction with Washington’s football module.

So here I am in “situation unavoidable.” I didn’t want to have to do this. I even paused for a few weeks to be sure. I didn’t want to pile on; I had no interest in being just another member of the Shanahan lynch mob. I was deliberate. Reserved. Calculating. But he kept losing and in increasingly alarming fashion. Now it’s judgment day. Mike Shanahan stands accused of careless disregard for a beloved franchise and shackled before me. My thoughts are organized and I have a firm grip on my quill. The gavel rests within arm’s reach. Should he stay or should go? Let’s review the evidence…

Vice President Of Football Operations

Before filleting Shanahan the coach, let us not forget that the accused wields nearly omnipotent power in the organization. He is the final authority on nearly all things. This is his roster and his financial situation. And speaking of finances, Shanahan, to his credit, has cleaned up the books and has been a frugal free agent shopper. That hardly seems worthy of praise, but when you consider the franchise’s history, it’s no small feat.

Franchise apologists like to point out that the team has been severely harmed by a garnished salary cap. But no one, Shanahan included, should be given a pass for self-created hardship. Again, this isn’t just Shanahan’s team; it’s his football organization. It was his manipulation of the written or unwritten (only the league knows) cap rules that resulted in the $36 million cap penalty. You break the rules, you pay the price … or so my dad taught me.

But wait, you say. Shanahan, an offensive-minded coach, can’t be blamed for the defense’s or special teams’ struggles. Those issues are the fault of the coaching staff. Let me ask you this: Who hired Jim Haslett and Keith Burns? His initials are M.S.  

Regarding personnel, Shanahan has been more schizophrenic than a precise executive. The trade for Donovan McNabb was a disaster, but he recovered by flipping him to Minnesota for a sixth-round pick that became Alfred Morris. Free agency has yielded a bunch of roster fillers (Barry Coefield, Chris Chester, Stephen Bowen, Josh Morgan, et al) and but a single difference-maker (Pierre Garcon). Shanahan’s first-round picks — Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan and RGIII — have been sound (although occasionally expensive), but he has manufactured next to nothing in the all-important middle rounds. Do you think Leonard Hankerson, Josh LeRibeus, Roy Helu, Bacarri Rambo, Jarvis Jenkins, Niles Paul or Adam Gettis will be suiting for the Pro Bowl anytime soon? Jordan Reed, an apparent find in the third round, looks good, but that’s hardly enough evidence to label Shanahan anything but an NFL Draft Day 2 buffoon. His greatest single accomplishment might be fleecing a draft pick from New England for Albert Haynesworth (how did he do that?).

That’s a checkered record, but is it fire-able? Not quite. Shanahan the VP/GM reminds me of President Obama: you can’t judge the progress without considering the inherited mess. Vinny Cerrato, you will live in infamy…

Relationship With The Most Important Player

Rarely do NFL teams reach full potential when there is obvious acrimony between the head coach and the franchise quarterback. Just “getting along” often isn’t enough. Super Bowl titles, particularly in this day and age, require tight head coach-quarterback relationships to sniff a Super Bowl (think: Walsh-Montana, McCarthy-Rodgers, Payton-Brees, Belichick-Brady and anyone that has coached Peyton Manning). Don’t you think John Harbaugh engendered some good will with Joe Flacco when he whacked offensive coordinator Cam Cameron late last season?

Shouldn’t this fact be obvious to Mike Shanahan? Look at the circumstance surrounding his hiring in Denver. Was he not the tonic sought a few seasons after Dan Reeves and John Elway proved too combustible? Yet here he is in Washington, with all his arrogance on display, regularly urinating on his relationship with RGIII.

The fissures first appeared after last January’s playoff loss to Seattle. Shanahan allowed his young gladiator to die a slow and painful death in front of an adoring crowd. It was madness. Did the brave quarterback lie to Shanahan? Of course, but that’s what players do when questioned about their health. Instead of taking the blame for the decision and providing his quarterback much-needed cover, he was conniving and evasive. He conducted himself like a prideful father who had been disrespected by an ungrateful son. He blew his opportunity to preserve his quarterback’s health on the field, and then indirectly attacked his character in the aftermath of “The Great Accident.”

The soap opera was allowed to fester the entire offseason. Do you remember the wild proclamations about his rehab progress from the coach and surgeon? What about push-pull of RGIII returning first to practice, then to game action? Remember RGIII saying he didn’t understand the process? How about when he questioned the read-option? Remember Shanahan pinning RGIII’s Week 1 availability solely on Dr. James Andrews, the guy he couldn’t so much as have a sideline conversation with last January? Remember “Operation Patience?” How could we forget any of it?

When there are fissures in a relationship between a player and a coach, losses are like water. Water infiltrates and exposes a foundation’s weaknesses. It can’t be stopped; it’s tenacious. The ‘Skins are drowning in losses and the foundation supporting Griffin and Shanahan is full of cracks. Absent some miraculous late-season reset, the once-promising Shanahan-RGIII professional marriage can now be reduced to a single word: irreconcilable.      

Leader Of Men

Do you reach players? Do you inspire them to play a brutal game, often in brutal conditions, harder than they thought possible? Do you compel them to play through injury and “give what they have” even when it’s less than they once could? Do you create belief in a common cause and the corny but oh-so-true tenet of team sports that the whole can be greater than the individual parts? Do you thwart complacency when success is realized, and do you maintain hope and confidence when defeat encroaches? Can you identify and play to a player’s strengths and shroud their weaknesses? Can you see and exploit vulnerabilities in your opponent? Can you be in control and empower, simultaneously? Do you create an environment where players can grow and thrive? Do you instill trust? Do players buy your ideas, support your cause and form a team?

Can you lead?

Well, can you? Do you? I’m talking to you, Mike. 

Four years ago I thought the answer was a resounding “yes.” Shanahan’s record once spoke for itself; now his record is contradicting itself. There has been much talk lately about the leadership void in Washington’s locker room; losing will do that. Much of the blame has been levied on the players and, specifically, a second-year quarterback coming off a terrible injury — that is unfair. The blame should be placed on the head coach. Shanahan has nearly three decades of NFL experience and has won Super Bowls (although those rings are dusty and tarnished). Isn’t he the leader? Shouldn’t he be?

Shanahan should be standing up after games and routinely accepting responsibility. Mike Shanahan should be saying that he isn’t preparing his team properly and is getting out-coached (because he routinely is). Shanahan should be taking responsibility for RGIII’s regression. Shanahan should be saying it is his job to make sure the defense improves and that the special teams play at an NFL level. And Shanahan should be taking responsibility for the failure of so many talented players on this roster to progress. 

That is what leaders do. Yet where is the sniveling Shanahan when the heat is turned up? He hides behind his callous exterior as he skillfully evades uncomfortable but legitimate post-game questions. He thinks nothing of shoving his quarterback in front of the press-wolves week after week without top-cover. The emotional flat-line the team has displayed in the last three weeks is indicative of a leadership void and of a team questioning its cause. It is a team begging for a unifying voice … and Shanahan offers only silence.

Let The Record Show

As with any coaching regime, Shanahan’s tenure and future in Washington is ripe for debate. Some of what I’ve written herein will resonate with readers; other parts will be dismissed as folly. What isn’t subjective is his record: Shanahan is 24-35 as head coach of the ‘Skins. Absent a fluky seven-game winning streak, what has Shanahan delivered in nearly four full seasons and with total control of football operations? Ask yourself this: are the ‘Skins closer to that 7-0 team or the otherwise 17-35 team?

Despite my rather spirited rhetoric, this is difficult. I have seen many coaching changes in Washington, and few under Dan Snyder’s ownership have gone well. Another franchise reboot invites the unknown, and the unknown with Dan Snyder can be horrific. Considering the evidence and knowing the consequences of this decision, I’m left with no other choice than to find Michael Edward Shanahan guilty of horrible football offenses. Everyone observe, heckle and sneer at the dead coach walking. He is what could have been … maybe even should have been — but in the end, never was.