Why General Competency will do for me what Mike Shanahan Cannot

At this time one year ago:

-The Pro Bowl was held in Hawaii the week after the Super Bowl.  London Fletcher had never played in it.

-Jim Zorn was a .500 coach in the NFL with promise of future successes.  Jason Campbell was the least intercepted quarterback in the NFL.  Santana Moss was an 1,000 yd receiver.  Chris Samuels was in the prime of his career anchoring the left side of the Redskins’ offensive line.

-Casey Rabach was known as a stalwart in the middle of the Redskins line, Greg Blache was known as the veteran coach who “led” the Redskins to the “4th overall” defensive ranking, Chris Horton was one of the biggest draft misses for 31 NFL teams not named the Redskins, and LaRon Landry was right on the verge of becoming an all-pro NFL safety.  Coincidentally, Jason La Canfora was the primary beat writer for the Redskins at the WaPo.

-The Redskins did not have money in their budget to make a big splash in free agency, and were quite serious about using the draft to build a team that could compete for the NFL title on an annual basis.  The highest paid executive on the Redskin payroll was some guy named Vincent Cerrato.

-Hog Heaven was adjusting to a new home at redskinshogheaven.com, and working to show that it’s content involved more than just the bells and whistles that come with a snazzy new site design.

-Sherm Lewis–nevermind.

You know the old saying about the more things change?

There won’t be a story written about the 2009 Redskins, because frankly, they weren’t very important either in the history of the franchise, or the story of the 2009 NFL season.  When NFL Films creates it’s highlight reel for this season, it will focus on the runs towards perfection by the Saints and the Colts, the fire and grit of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez making an improbable playoff run, and will have no less than 7 consecutive minutes of Brett Favre footage.  If the Redskins are mentioned, it will be a quick 30-second highlight clip of the Detroit game that has one clip of Matt Stafford running through the Redskins secondary while Fred Smoot dives and tackles nothing, and a second clip of the Redskins’ poorly designed last play of the game where Ladell Betts did some lateral thingy.  That’s how history will remember the 2009 Redskins: it won’t.

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be learned from this season.  First of all, the Redskins were not a bad team.  They were a highly forgettable team.  Their issues stemmed from larger problems that went uncorrected through many lost seasons, from 2003 to 2006 to 2009 (the Mayan’s don’t see the Redskins bucking this trend, for what it’s worth), but mostly, the 2009 Redskins were just very, very unlucky.  There was not an NFL offense that suffered more injuries than the Redskins, according to the Adjusted Games Lost measure over at Football Outsiders.

Only 4 of the Redskins’ 12 losses came by more than 6 points.  Of course, 3 of those games were the 3 nationally televised primetime games the Redskins played in.  Thusly, you can understand why national perception of the Redskins supports the fact that this team is picking in the top five: they looked horrible on the biggest stages.  But if you took any non-playoff team, and let me pick their three worst games for you to digest as your only way of knowing what these teams were all about, I could convince you that the Steelers, Titans, or Panthers were the worst team in football.  Try me.

The Redskins’ season was not defined by those games, or the blowout of the inferior Oakland Raiders and comfortable defeat of the Denver Broncos, but by the team’s 2-8 record in games decided by six points or less.  The truth is, if you measured, objectively, the Redskins’ team performance in these ten games alone, you’d probably see an average to above average football team overall, something at least on par with the 2008 team that went 8-8.  There was a five game stretch where the Redskins played like a top ten team that bookend three heartbreaking losses with the team’s two most impressive victories.  It was every bit as strong a performance as last year’s 4-1 start that caused FOX Sports/KC Star columnist Jason Whitlock to call Zorn the league’s best coach.  Two stretches of top five-type performance in two years probably isn’t an accident, particularly considereing that the 2009 team really had nothing going it’s way when it started this run.

But in both seasons, the Redskins’ success proved to be very fleeting.  In 2008, all projections suggested they could sustain what they started, at least up until the Chris Samuels injury in Week 14.  In 2009, we had hoped that the Redskins could keep it going, but again, we knew that they were doing it with smoke and mirrors on offense, and incompetent leadership on defense.  For a month-long period, the 2009 Redskins played great football.  But they were not a very good football team.  Good football teams don’t get beat at home 45-12 by a very middling division rival unless coaches on both sides of the ball were completely unprepared to coach against their opponents.  The Redskins were neither a good team, nor prepared.  They went 0-6 in a division that was right there for the taking this year, getting badly outschemed by everyone who wasn’t Dallas.  They went 2-4 in a 6 game stretch that involved some of the very worst teams in pro football.  And they never quit on their coaches, credit going to all of them for the effort.  But, you know, the Giants never quit on their coaches either, and despite not really having a marked talent advantage over they Redskins, they kicked their butts twice, including a smackdown on the Redskins home field.

I’ll always be a Jim Zorn fan wherever he goes, because I think he’s a good coach.  But the Redskins were correct to fire him at the conclusion of the 2009 season.  Management didn’t make very many correct decisions all year long, but decisively moving in another direction is really the first sign of organizational competency that the Redskins have shown in about two years.

I have a confession to make though, before I get back to gushing about the Redskins front office: I am not a Mike Shanahan fan.  I will never be a Mike Shanahan fan.  I, especially, am not crazy about Mike Shanahan coming in here and bringing son Kyle for the offensive coordinator position without really ever having an interview process.  Of course, no interview process was going to end with Mike Shanahan concluding that he had found someone more qualified to work with than his own son, but I’m really peeved that instead of a head coaching search, we got a re-tread coronation in Washington.  The whole process of bringing in the Shanahan’s was no departure at all from the way the Redskins had always done their business in the past, and in a vacuum, I see no evidence that this administration will be any more successful than the last.

Now that I’ve pointed out my trepidations regarding the current crop of decision makers over at Redskins Park, I will point out that there has since been quite observable change that things are ACTUALLY going to be different this time around.  While the hires did absolutely nothing for me, the responses that the coaches have taken towards the current roster have been shockingly refreshing.  I’m going to stop short of crediting Dan Snyder/Bruce Allen/Mike Shanahann for simply being professionals, but the fact that logical reasoning and careful evaluation are going into eventual personnel decisions instead of knee-jerk reactions, smear campaigns, and irrational desires to chase only players that the team doesn’t actually have represents a major change in the team’s philosophy.

For all of the legitimate optimism that the 2009 offseason created, it can’t be understated just how much of a circus it became under Vinny Cerrato.  Things started off fine under Vinny when the team was 6-2 in 2008 and barrelling towards the playoffs.  Fans could be patient with the slowly developing crop of 2nd round receivers, patient with Jason Campbell, excited about a defense that seemed to be improving under Greg Blache, and hopeful that the offensive line could go back to beating up defensive lines like it had been earlier in the season.  But for everyone’s sake, it was critical that the Redskins find a way to finish the season hard and make the playoffs.  From that point, the decline was team-wide, and Cerrato bugged-out.  None of the solutions to the Redskins problems in 2009 seemed to really fit the problems.

As far as I can tell, Cerrato felt that injuries were chiefly responsible for the decline of the offensive line (though he didn’t bother to bring back it’s best player from 2008, Kendall), he felt that Jason Campbell had a limiting effect on the offense, that Clinton Portis was an unbridled superstar, and that if he just threw some extra talent on the defense, the Redskins could win with stingy defense and a power run game while the west coast offense developed behind a healthy OL.  His starting five up front made it all the way to week two together.

You might have realized that neither Bruce Allen nor Mike Shanahan have made a long term committment to Jason Campbell either, who is a year away from unrestricted free agency, but with professionals in charge of the organization, there’s little worry that the team is going to wake up one morning and decide to go trade for Brady Quinn or Byron Leftwich, or David Garrard.  The whole Cutler/Sanchez saga was shameless and just so…Cerrato.  Dan Snyder supported his VP of Football Ops to the very end, but it could not have possibly been easy.  Jim Zorn, who was hired with good intentions just a year before, found himself caught in this mess.  Greg Blache found himself with Albert Haynesworth, DeAngelo Hall, and Brian Orakpo, not to mention a plethora of talented rookies who needed to be made into an elite unit, when he himself had no intentions of doing things any differently than he had done in the past.  For all the money Cerrato committed, his defense remained unimproved, and his offense declined into a freak show.

Never was this all Cerrato’s mess either.  Snyder personally wanted Blache to run his defense.  Vinny wasn’t wrong when he saw a unit that had room for major improvement, and he probably played the market correctly in chosing to chase that defense over an improved offensive line.  The Orakpo pick was the ideal example.  It was absolutely the right pick for the organization.  Blache had no clue how to make it all work, but if Vinny hadn’t been aggressive with the building of an elite defense, the Redskins are probably stuck with Rey Maualuga or someone instead who would have been a more classic OLB.  Then these changes come anyway, and the Redskins are down an elite young player.  No one said being an NFL GM was easy.  But being dignified and professional is probably more easily accomplished than Cerrato made it seem.

The Redskins pick twice in the first 37 picks this year, and this is such an unbelievably strong draft class (best in at least 6 years) that it’s nearly impossible for this team to not come away with two or more impact players in those picks.  Shanahan’s draft track record isn’t good, but he’s not going to have to avoid talents in 2010, and that’s to the benefit of Redskins fans everywhere.  The Redskins, for a whole bunch of reasons, are going to get a lot better very fast.  There will be fresh blood on the offensive line here.  They will spend money if they have to, they’ll spend draft picks if they have to, and they’ll resort to existing veteran leadership if they have to.  This team is getting a lot better up front, and then the effects of that will trickle down to Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis, and Santana Moss, Devin Thomas, and Malcolm Kelly.  The Redskins are so primed for improvement, that they can afford to spend the 4th overall pick on a QB and still have a 2004 Chargers type of breakout.

But Shanahan’s legacy in Washington won’t have anything to do with the success or failure of the 2010 Redskins.  Being able to afford to use the 4th overall pick on a quarterback and being able to land the right guy are two very separate concepts, and there are too many great players in this draft to take a quarterback that high and not end up with a guy who can play from day one.  I don’t have either Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen rated as a top ten player in this draft, and anyway, I have Colt McCoy (whose skill set appears to be system-dependant) with a very comparable draft grade to the two guys who figure to go in the top ten.  Aside from that, the class itself is deeper than probably any class ever, and there will be starting-caliber players available in round three or four at the quarterback position.  This team needs a center and two tackles, as well as a running back, a slot receiver, free safety, middle linebacker, and backup nose tackle all just as badly as a quarterback.  Get some guy with a quick release and functional accuracy, and Shanahan can make it work (see: Cutler, Jay).  You can draft two quarterbacks from this class.  The Packers did it in 2008, and decided their 6th rounder was better than their 2nd rounder.  That might happen in this class too.

A talented athlete or two could combine with what Orakpo already brings to this team to help make the Redskins a future powerhouse.  If that player is Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen, I’m all for it.  But the worst possible thing that can happen is that you make a quarterback the pick at No. 4 overall, and find out four years from now that you drafted the third best NFL QB in the class.  That’s how you stay mediocre forever.  That, and unproven young quarterbacks can be bought in the NFL for fourth round draft picks.  Seriously.

We already know the Redskins aren’t going to shy away from the quarterback discussion at No. 4 so hopefully the professionalism we can see on the outside prevails inside Redskins Park, and decisions get made for the proper football reasons.

With the financial resources and advantages the Washington Redskins have, they’re going to eventually be back at the top of the NFL pile.  I don’t know if Mike Shanahan will be the man to get them there, but someone is going to have to be, and he’s the guy who is getting the next crack at it.  I might not be the first (or last) to extend credit where it is due, but it’s time for us to see what this football coach has that our prior coach did not.

I’m going to guess: something.

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