Daily Archives: January 3, 2013

REDSKINS: Shanahan’s comeback

Shanahan

Below, my feature on Mike Shanahan, and a roundup of the
day’s news at Redskins Park on Thursday. My photo of
Shanahan
, above, at training camp in August.

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ASHBURN, Va. – Exactly two months ago Friday night, exasperation might have got the best of Mike Shanahan.

Was his career flickering? Was his effectiveness as an NFL head coach waning?

Would those back-to-back Super Bowls he’d won at Denver in the late 1990s forever remain as his unrepeatable moments of greatness, sort of in the same way that Beatles and early Wings songs tower over the ever-crappier ditties that Paul McCartney has churned out since?

Shanahan, the 60-year-old head coach of the Washington Redskins, had just watched his team stink it up on Nov. 4, on both offence and defence, in a 21-13 homefield loss to the previously 1-6 Carolina Panthers.

Shanahan’s prized new player, rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, had just been significantly outplayed by last year’s rookie phenom QB, Cam Newton as the Redskins fell to 3-6.

Shanahan appeared well on his way to his third losing season in three years in Washington, and his fifth non-winning season in a row as NFL head coach, going back to his last two teams in Denver in 2007-08.

“When you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come,” a more-redfaced-than-usual Shanahan said afterward. “Obviously, we’re not out of it statistically. Now we find out what kind of character we have, and how guys keep fighting throughout the rest of the season.”

But a day later, Shanahan backtracked. He didn’t mean to imply he was throwing in the towel, he told Dan Graziano of ESPN.com – that that was a “completely ridiculous” interpretation. His team was still in the playoff hunt, he said, and he hadn’t lost faith in his players.

Fast-forward to today.

Shanahan’s Redskins haven’t lost a game since.

After an obviously much-needed bye on Nov. 11, the Skins remarkably won their final seven games – including two thumpings of the Dallas Cowboys, and one of the New York Giants – to finish as NFC East champions, at 10-6.

The Redskins play host to the surging 11-5 Seattle Seahawks in the fourth and final NFL wild-card playoff game this weekend (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. EST, CTV/FOX).

As for any legacy Shanahan legacy concerns? Gone.

“This is what I’m here for,” Shanahan told the Washington Post’s Mike Jones last month. “This is why I came … to do the things we’re doing now.”

And just in time. Shanahan’s first two-and-a-half seasons in the District of Columbia truly were disastrous.

In 2010 he traded for quarterback Donovan McNabb, and the former Philadelphia Eagle’s performance on the field was as poor as his relationship off the field with Shanahan and his offensive-coordinator son, Kyle Shanahan. The Redskins finished 5-11, in last place in the NFC East. McNabb was dumped.

In 2011 Shanahan acquired John Beck to compete with Rex Grossman at quarterback. Both were awful. The Redskins finished 6-10, again in the NFC East cellar. Beck was dumped.

Then, as all NFL fans surely know, Shanahan made his boldest player move yet. He doubles as executive vice-president of the Redskins in charge of football operations, and last March the club traded four high draft picks to the St. Louis Rams just to move up four spots in the draft, to No. 2 overall – to acquire RG3.

Obviously, that has proved to be a spectacularly wise move. Griffin is the likely to be named the NFL’s rookie of the year, who finished third behind only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning with a 102.4 passer rating.

What’s more, in Alfred Morris, Shanahan has rediscovered his old magic of finding out of nowhere a potential superstar running back –just as he did in Denver with the likes of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis.

Morris fell off almost every team’s radar after a glacially slow 4.67-second time in the 40 at last February’s scouting combine. But Shanahan saw on tape that this kid out of Florida Atlantic University almost never went down on first contact, and that that would translate to the NFL.

The Skins chose Morris in the sixth round, and with 1,613 yards Morris led all rushers in the NFL this season besides, of course, Adrian Peterson.

Not a bad draft.

And so, in his 19th season as an NFL head coach (after two with the Raiders in the ’80s and 14 with the Broncos), Mike Shanahan has pulled all the right strings to get his team into the playoffs – with a super athletic, rifle-armed quarterback and a smallish, powerful running back confounding opponents in a run-centric, big-pass-play offence.

Just like old times, really. After a long and winding road.

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REDSKINS ROOKIES NO LONGER ROOKIES:

ASHBURN, Va. – During their early-November bye week, Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan issued a challenge to his over-achieving first-year players.

“You guys are not rookies anymore,” he told them.

RG3In other words, don’t go hitting that traditional ‘rookie wall.’

They didn’t.

The Skins won their last seven games to win the NFC East, with rookies such as quarterback Robert Griffin III (my camp photo, right) and running back Alfred Morris raising their games to help lead the way.

“After you go through four preseason games and eight regular-season games, that’s 12 games – that’s a college season,” Shanahan told me on Thursday, after his news conference.

“That’s why I looked at those guys and said, ‘You’re used to our game plans, you’re used to being in our locker room – so you’re not a rookie anymore. If you’re a starter, we expect you to play at a high level. If you’re a backup, you have to understand your role and do what you need to do to give us a chance to win.’”

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‘EVERYTHING HURTS,’ BUT AGELESS FLETCHER STILL A TOP LINEBACKER:

ASHBURN, Va. – There must be something in the air in this Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area that spawns ageless, perennial all-pro linebackers.

A day after 37-year-old Ray Lewis announced his pending retirement from the Baltimore Ravens up the coast – after a Hall of Fame 17-year NFL career – London Fletcher of the Washington Redskins was named the NFC’s defensive player of the month for December.

Fletcher is in his 15th NFL season. And he was born just four days after Lewis in 1975.

Fletcher had three interceptions and two sacks last month, in helping the Skins go 5-0 on their improbably march to the playoffs.

“I wouldn’t say I’m impressed with myself,” Fletcher told reporters Thursday after practice. “I just feel fortunate to be able to go out and (suit) up on Sundays and (be) able to play well.

“On Thursday, everything hurts. That’s just the way it is. I tell people I feel good probably about three hours a week – on game day. You think about it. Fifteen years in this game, 16 games every season – you’re going to have some wear and tear on your body, some aches and pains.”

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DON’T CALL KYLE; HE WON’T CALL YOU:

ASHBURN, Va. – An NFL club in search of a new head coach already might have tried to contact Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Not that he’d know it.

Asked Thursday if he’d be interested in becoming a head coach already (he’s only 33), the son of Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan gave a resounding yes.

But good luck reaching him.

“Yeah, definitely,” the younger Shanahan said, three days before the Redskins play host to the Seattle Seahawks in a wild-card playoff game. “Everybody wants an opportunity some day to be a head coach, and I hope some day I get that opportunity. It’s very flattering to be mentioned for it right now.”

On Tuesday, his dad said no team can talk to Kyle until after Washington’s season ends.

Kyle said Thursday he learned of dad’s edict by reading about it in the papers. Not that he’s thinking much about The Next Big Step.

“I know we try to say, but it’s hard to really understand how focused and in a small world (we are) right now as coaches. I just live in my office back there, studying the heck out of film, trying to get ready for this game. And anything that detours your mind from that is going to be a detriment to the team.”

Have any teams contacted his agent yet?

“I don’t know, because I don’t have an agent, so I’m not sure.”

Laughs all around. OK, so has anyone contacted him directly?

“I haven’t answered my phone in about six months. I’ll check my voicemail after.”

More laughs.

Washington’s defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s name also has come up in stories listing potential head-coach candidates.

“I don’t worry about those things. I worry about this game coming up. That is the truth,” said Haslett, 57, who was head coach of the New Orleans Saints from 2000-05.

“That’s something you worry about when the season is over. But really, I came here to win. I like the pieces of the puzzle now … I think we have the opportunity hopefully this year, and for the future, to win a couple of Super Bowls.”

Besides, Haslett said that from an “individual standpoint” he’s already had every job, and every accolade, an NFLer could want, either as a player or coach – except one.

“I made rookie of the year, I was coach of the year – you know, all that stuff.

“I need to get a ring. That’s one thing I don’t have. Obviously I like the future of this club. That kind of answers this question.”

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SHANAHAN WAS RIGHT ABOUT HIS OFFENSIVE LINE:

ASHBURN, Va. – Five months ago, I asked Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan at training camp why he’d been defiantly telling everyone he thought he had a good offensive line.

When it had been so terrible in 2011, as a motley group of vets and newbies – besieged by injuries and suspensions – played like pylons as pass blockers, and couldn’t open up cracks let alone holes in the run game.

At least early in the year.

This past off-season, observers everywhere predicted the Washington OL in 2012 again would be a patchwork party of piss-poor, pitiful punching-bags. Or something akin to that.

Shanahan was adamant in the summer those predictors would be wrong.

“Yeah, people don’t say that anymore,” Shanahan told me Thursday in an interview, after his news conference.

Indeed, tackle Trent Williams, guard Kory Lichtensteiger, centre Will Montgomery, guard Chris Chester and tackle Tyler Polumbus have not only not sucked, they’ve been outstanding – especially Williams.

As a unit they’ve carved huge holes for Alfred Morris, and have solidly protected quarterback Robert Griffin III.

“The offensive line is always about a group of people playing together,” Shanahan said. “Until you do it as a group, until you have an effective running game, it’s all, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Which we understand.

“I think our offensive line now has the respect of everybody in the National Football League, and rightfully so.

“I knew they could (be this good).”

Lichtensteiger might miss Sunday’s playoff game against Seattle. He hasn’t practised yet this week because of an ankle injury.