Initial thoughts: Mike Shanahan
Here’s what I’m thinking the day after the Redskins introduced Mike Shanahan as their new head coach:
**This seems like an appropriate start to the franchise’s attempt to turn things around. Shanahan’s track record as a football coach justifies some optimism. And the fact that the Redskins are now run by Shanahan and Bruce Allen instead of Jim Zorn and Vinny Cerrato is a significant improvement at both positions. That’s not enough, however, for the Redskins to reach their goals. This team needs better players–desperately.
There are two ways to get better players: 1) Acquire new ones through the draft, free agency or trades; or 2) Coach up the ones you have. Let’s start with the latter. Shanahan is a proven coach whose offensive mind is one of the sharpest in the game. When players spoke about Zorn after he was fired, they spoke of him as a nice guy with a genuine personality and healthy supply of entertaining stories. None lamented how the team was losing a great coach or football mind. Talk to Shanahan’s former players, on the other hand, and they marvel at his ability to exploit opponents’ weaknesses and make the same running play look like six different ones with motion and different personnel groups. By many accounts, Shanahan will be capable of improving the players already on the Redskins’ roster.
The questions arise when it comes to Shanahan’s ability to acquire better players from the outside. His track record in Denver was mixed. He’s got a list of successful draft picks and a list of failures, as well. His history of free agents is more lopsided toward the negative side. Yesterday Shanahan played down the importance of his ultimate authority on personnel moves, citing his preference to collaborate with other executives. But remember that Shanahan will be hiring those scouts/personnel executives (or allowing them to stay), so the onus ultimately falls on him. Shanahan spoke glowingly yesterday about owner Daniel Snyder’s willingness to give him every opportunity to win. Perhaps that means paying above-market value for executives and scouts that will help him on the personnel side, which is his weakness
**Shanahan was polished and confident in his remarks yesterday, a noticeable difference from Zorn. That’s not intended as a shot at Zorn. It’s just that you’d expect a difference between a 16-year head coach with two Super Bowls on his resume and one that was still unproven after two seasons, and there was one. This goes back to the notion of which type of coach is right for this particular situation. It’s clear from the last decade that established coaches (Gibbs, Schottenheimer) do better here than ones that aren’t (Spurrier, Zorn). Take this quote from CB DeAngelo Hall, for example: "I think it’s safe to say we all need a guy who has done it before, who has been to the big dance. It’s kind of hard to envision yourself trying to get somewhere when the person talking to you has never been there personally." Shanahan is confident, with credentials to back it up. That should suit him well in getting players to buy in to his program.
**Don’t get carried away with the symbolism at yesterday’s press conference. That Snyder didn’t sit on the stage or that the Lombardi trophies weren’t displayed certainly was noteworthy. Whether it was meaningful, though, remains to be seen. Those were simple PR tactics yesterday; it’ll take time to know if there’s substance behind them. However, it was an encouraging sign for those of you eager to have Snyder extricate himself from the football operation. There’s no reason to think he’ll ever be completely removed, but most of you would probably settle for any reduction in his role. Judging from Shanahan’s and Allen’s comments yesterday, it’s apparent that those two are going to run the show, with Snyder well into the background. Shanahan is famous for thriving off of control, and it’s difficult to envision him accepting this job with the possibility of Snyder making key football decisions. Expect the picture to become clearer over time, starting with free agency and the draft in the next few months.
**Shanahan already has a working knowledge of the Redskins, and probably much greater than that. There’s a big difference between Shanahan and some of the other Super Bowl coaches that were on the market recently. Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy and Mike Holmgren all left the game voluntarily. Shanahan didn’t. He never intended to leave coaching, and he made sure he was prepared to get back in when the opportunity arose. So he studied teams, games, formations, players, etc. all season. And considering that Snyder had been recruiting him for some time, Shanahan undoubtedly knows their situation. Yesterday he noted the Redskins’ offensive line injuries and their sporadically good play on defense. He didn’t offer many details about the direction he wants to take the team and what he believes must be done to the roster to improve it, but you can bet he’s already got a good idea. Watching film, as he vowed to do over the coming weeks, will help him hone his ideas.
**RB Clinton Portis’ future with the team will be one of the top storylines of the offseason. Considering that Portis’s ability has deteriorated and that he’s proven to be a divisive personality in the locker room, it’ll be fascinating to see whether Shanahan keeps him. And Shanahan sure was ready to address that yesterday, wasn’t he?
"Like all players, as they get older, the key is how they work in the offseason program, and what they do to make themselves better as all veterans," he said when asked about Portis. "I’ve been around some veterans that have been very successful, and all of the sudden they quit working out, and as a running back you can fall off of a cliff. If you make a commitment that you’re going to be the best that you can possibly be, or you’ve got the passion and the work ethic to be as good as you can possibly be, then you’ve got a chance to be something special."
I wonder how clearly Portis heard that warning from his former, and now current, head coach.
**Shanahan’s coaching staff will come together in the coming weeks, and the most interesting piece of that puzzle is secondary coach Jerry Gray. A Pro Bowl cornerback during his playing career, Gray’s reputation suffered late in the season after a series of bizarre and sometimes-confrontational exchanges with reporters about his in-season interview for the Redskins’ head coaching job. Skeptics hypothesize that Gray cut a deal with Snyder when he interviewed for the head coaching job. The conspiracy theory goes that Gray interviewed to help the Redskins, who were intent on hiring Shanahan, satisfy the Rooney Rule in exchange for a promotion/job security on Shanahan’s staff. It’s imperative, though, to highlight that no evidence of that has been publicized. But one thing is certain: many players in the secondary like playing for Gray. DeAngelo Hall vowed to voice his support of Gray to team executives. Asked specifically about Gray yesterday, Shanahan said: "I’m aware of everybody, every coach. That’s what I do. I study coaches. I study coordinators. I know what they’ve done. I know where they’ve been. He’s got a very, very good past. I’m looking forward to talking to him."
**Shanahan’s comments about QB Jason Campbell give the impression that he’s willing to keep him around next season. "I am looking forward to working with him," Shanahan said. "I just love the way Jason handles himself. I am looking forward to sitting down and watching film and going through every play that he has had throughout his career and sitting down and talking to him and hopefully the best years are ahead. That is a process that will take some time."
Retaining Campbell for at least one more year makes sense. No better quarterbacks are expected to be available in free agency. If the Redskins draft their quarterback of the future, Campbell could hold the position while the rookie develops. Shanahan, after all, admitted that the Redskins won’t turn things around overnight. So even if he doesn’t believe Campbell is part of the long-term solution, keeping him could be viewed as a bridge to the future. Shanahan surely is aware of Campbell’s strengths and weaknesses at this point. When he watches the coaches’ film more analytically, he’ll see the same things all of us have. Campbell misses reads at times, improved his detrimental tendency to focus on the pass rush instead of downfield and has a strong arm. We’ll know in the coming months whether Shanahan believes he should move forward with that.
**Shanahan said the right things yesterday about his philosophy regarding the offensive line. "You know you’ve got to have players up front," he said. "I don’t care if it’s offensive line, defensive line. You win with those big guys up front. You have to have that, so that will always be an emphasis for me because you can’t find teams that are successful without that."
The Redskins clearly need to make changes on their offensive line. We all know that. But this is the first time we’ve heard anyone with decision-making power acknowledge the importance of fortifying that area. Bruce Allen wouldn’t talk about it when he was introduced. Vinny Cerrato never articulated how the offensive line fit into a philosophy for building a team. (Not sure if he even had such a philosophy.) Perhaps Shanahan was just paying the question lip service because he knows how coaches/executives are supposed to answer that question. But that’s at least a step ahead of how that question has been answered/avoided in the past.