Where does Mike Shanahan stand heading into year 4?

If on the day Jim Zorn was fired, Bruce Allen had come down from the front office and was able to provide the following guarantees about his first three years on the job:

  1. The Redskins would win the NFC East one out of three years
  2. The Redskins quarterback would win the offensive rookie of the year award
  3. The Redskins would have a rookie runner set the single-season rushing mark for a franchise that has been playing football since the 1930s
  4. The offensive line would be considered more of a strength than a weakness within three years
  5. The Redskins offense would be considered innovative enough for other teams to begin copying
  6. London Fletcher would not only go to multiple pro bowls in a new defense, but would still be the team's emotional leader in 2013

I think that every last one of us would have taken that deal in a heartbeat.  A lot of that was based on where the franchise was at the time, because in those same three years:

  1. The Redskins have still not won a playoff game since 2005
  2. The team is just 21-27 overall through those three seasons
  3. The defense which was very good under Greg Williams and at least average under Greg Blache has been mostly below average under Jim Haslett
  4. The team would let a ton of established veteran talent walk and at least three inherited Redskins (Andre Carter, Carlos Rogers, LaRon Landry) would have pro bowl seasons for other organizations
  5. The Eagles would get a second round pick and a fourth round pick to watch Donovan McNabb lose games for the Redskins
  6. Larry Johnson, age 30, would get $4 million guaranteed to play 2 games for the Redskins
  7. The team would continue to trade away draft picks like candy, and would not pick in the first round for consecutive years
  8. Four years in, the team would not be able to best Vinny Cerrato special DeAngelo freakin' Hall as it's top rated CB

It would have been unbelievably frusterating to accept the promises Allen would have been able to make at the end of the 2009 season.  Basically, over the last three years, the process has been really sloppy, mistakes have outnumbered successes, and if we were confronted with a simple take it or leave it offer for the last three seasons of Redskins football, every last one of us would have taken the deal.

The issue, then, with Mike Shanahan's tenure as Redskins coach has been one of timing.  The entire "pro" side of the ledger for Shanahan's tenure was condensed into an intense seven week period of digging out, then managing expectations, then enjoying a lead in the division for all of two weeks.  Benefitting from hindsight, it was an awesome experience and well worth the wait.  During the seven weeks, it was excruciating and the bottom always felt like it was going to fall out at any moment.  It eventually would, but by then the Redskins were in the playoffs, and the season was a huge success.

The issue of timing is still a real thing.  Right now, the playoff loss is framed in most minds as an unfortunate game where a 14-0 evaporated because our all-world quarterback was trying to play through an injury that would have sidelined anyone in the non-superhero division.  The seven game winning streak is what we remember from the 2012 season, not the 3-6 start and the poor playoff performance.

Listening to a lot of the pre-season chatter around the Redskins, you would believe that the Redskins were able to justify everything they have built here in those seven weeks.  I think a lot of that has to do with how recent those seven weeks still feel.  Like I said above, if we were told we could have those seven weeks and a division title and a great quarterback for just our patience as a fanbase in 2010, we would have all taken it.

But what if we were to expand the timeframe to a half-decade.  In NFL terms, that's basically two whole generations.  No coach or GM survives 5 NFL seasons without a track record of success.  Scott Pioli had about as strong of a reputation as one can have when he got to the Kansas City Chiefs, certainly a more spotless reputation than the one Shanahan and Allen came into Washington with.  Pioli had a team that won 10 games and the AFC West title in just his second season.  Pioli did not win a playoff game in Kansas City.  He did not get five years.  He was run out of town on a rail by maybe the most patient, leiniant sports down in America.  In four seasons.

If Allen were to have promised us back in 2009 that he would be able to lead the Redskins to win just one division title in five years, that probably wouldn't be good enough to get me on board.  That means, necessarily, that someone in your own division had a more accomplished five years than you did.  If Allen wasn't able to promise us a playoff win in five years, that certainly wouldn't be good enough, especially when we found out that the Giants would get another super bowl in that timeframe.  And if he admitted to me that the rookie of the year quarterback had seen his development stagnate when an AFC team went the extra mile and hired the arcitect of the Redskins offensive innovation to be their head coach, then I would be extremely furious when I heard the Redskins spent three first round picks and a second to get that player.

When you really get down to it, those are the questions that the Mike Shanahan hire has still been unable to answer.  It's not that I agree with the vocal minority of Redskins fans that trots out the 21-27 record Mike Shanahan has compiled as evidence that he's not a great coach anymore or that he hasn't done a good job here.  Things are far more complicated than that, and a coaches entire body of work can not be summed up in a record any more than a quarterback's can.

What Shanahan has done is a good job, up until this point.  He has lifted the national opinion of the Redskins organization from punchline to punch-thrower, and he has built at least a workable foundation for a team that expects to compete for the next five or so years based on having really strong spending power and enough established talent to contend for the division every single season.

But the Shanahan era hasn't exactly blown expectations out of the water.  The 2012 season exceeded expectations by about as much as the 2010 season failed to meet them.  And the expecations for the 2011 season were so low because the Redskins tore down established, useful pieces of the team without a coherent plan to replace those pieces, a lack of plan that got reflected in both the preseason predictions and the team's final record.

It feels like the Redskins may be getting more benefit of the doubt than they have earned.  Let's go over some of the things they have earned.  They have earned the right to be considered division favorites (or perhaps co-favorites) in the NFC East.  They have earned the right to have their draft picks and playoff development system assumed productive until proven otherwise.  They have earned the right to attack defenses on a week to week basis as they see fit.  And they have earned the right to start turning over parts of the roster that they themselves brought in without fear of criticism of those acquisitions given hindsight.

What they have not earned yet, given the lack of playoff wins, defensive production, and full season successes, is anything beyond the 2013 season.  I can remember the late Tom Kowalski (Lions beat reporter for the Detroit Free Press) saying that the easiest part of running an NFL team, however you choose to do it, is positioning your team to compete.  He was talking about the post-2011 Lions when he said that, but applies to this Redskins team as well.

If it feels to you that the Patriots, Ravens, and Giants get the benefit of the doubt in places where the Redskins do not get it, I'd agree with that perspective.  But consider why that might be.

The inspiration for this article came from a sports radio opinion that essentially boiled down to the fact that Mike Shanahan had little to prove this year.  Condesendingly, it was proclaimed that the head coach with the .438 winning percentage doesn't have to prove that the Redskins are at least as good in 2013 as they were in 2012, because, and I'm paraphrasing here, "what are they going to do if the Redskins have a bad year, fire him?"

Well, I suppose we should ask Pioli, an expert on the subject.  I hear that he's working in the media these days.

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