Here we go again, Redskins fans.
Another December, another losing record, another season that’s coming to an end with no postseason contention. The Washington Redskins are once again playing with an eye toward their future, they are using the last two weeks of the 2011 regular season to study their roster for the next year, and big decisions are already on their way.
Fans are probably once again disappointed, but looking at the long-term plan that the Shanahan era has brought in town, there’s also reason for optimism.
The two-year record may tell another story—it’s simply another losing effort which fans are tired of. However, Shanahan inherited a team that needed major improvements in a large number of spots and did a decent job in the last 24 months to adjust as many things as possible—and let’s not forget that he helped to change a fundamental aspect: the culture.
History taught us that winning teams are built through excellent draft choices and smart management, none of which was seen inside Redskins Park since owner Dan Snyder purchased the franchise that he loves so much.
The Redskins have been considered a joke in recent years. They signed a lot of bad free agents, basing all the evaluation process on bringing in the big name, giving roster spots to players who rarely produced as expected.
They gave away many high draft picks while failing to build a rock-solid foundation for seasons to come, contrary to what great teams like the Patriots, the Ravens or the Steelers have been able to do.
Shanahan and Bruce Allen may have kept that bad habit alive when they decided to trade for Donovan McNabb, a move that backfired, but the overall belief is that they've chosen the correct path to right this sinking ship.
Shanahan didn’t tolerate any prima donna acts. He put any player on his roster on the same level (no, Fat Albert, that contract didn’t mean that you were the best player on the team). He had the courage to suspend players that didn’t follow his lead and sent a clear message to the entire locker room—he came there to win, simple as that.
Utilizing Jim Haslett’s coaching experience, he switched the defense to a 3-4 without having the right personnel to properly run the scheme from day one, but this year the defensive side of the ball has witnessed significant improvements.
Pre-Shanahan players adapted well, and the new ones were asked to fill in immediately, and mostly did.
But defense has been the lesser problem for a long time.
The Redskins struggled mightily to find the right quarterback—McNabb, Grossman and Beck all failed in a certain way. This is the only roster spot for which Shanahan probably never had a plan, or was probably waiting to develop one knowing that the problem was meant to be solved approaching the 2012 draft.
This year’s draft was correctly used to pick some roster elements that fit the new defensive scheme and to add overall depth, so quarterback was not a high priority.
Even if it’s difficult to believe that Shanahan has seen something in a player (Beck) who actually still never has won as a starter in this league, he gave him a chance. But would be the Redskins a better team if Grossman would’ve run the offense without being demoted?
Anyway, whoever played this season was hopefully a mere bridge between today and the beginning of a new era.
Speaking of Rex, the team knew what it was getting from the former Florida Gator. Grossman never was the best decision-maker available and has always been turnover-prone, but he proved that he could give the offense the best chance to create big plays.
However, the Redskins once again lack the franchise player that they desperately need to make a run to the postseason any given year. The team strongly deserves this after two decades of frustrating suffering.
Mistakes made by past management produced three playoffs appearances since the last time the team won the Super Bowl.
That’s not acceptable anymore in a place like Washington.
During that time span, no one found a way to make the offense work. Joe Gibbs, in his second stint, tried to bring back his old power-rushing concepts, but for the majority of the games, opposing defenses were stopping it too easily.
Steve Spurrier and the Fun ‘N’ Gun was a complete failure. So was Marty Schottenheimer.
This has been a team that produced very little on the offensive side, so defense was the only reason the Redskins played many close games. Last year and this year, the feeling has been dangerously close to this.
The reason of hope is exactly how the culture change helped to manage this franchise differently.
For the first time in the Snyder era, the draft was given strong value. Shanahan and Allen made a Patriot-like move, obtaining 12 picks. The Redskins picked well in the last two years, finally bringing into town something comparable to a solid foundation.
Think about the new generation of players.
Trent Williams, Shanahan’s first pick as a Redskin, steadily improved from his rookie campaign. Perry Riley, a fourth-rounder in 2010, has taken McIntosh’s starting spot. Ryan Kerrigan, this year’s first-round pick, proved doubters wrong and made an efficient switch from college defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker.
Roy Helu Jr. is a one-cut back that fits perfectly in Shanahan’s typical zone-blocking scheme and is already considered the team's future featured back. Niles Paul was valuable on blocking schemes, and last Sunday was utilized as third receiver. Leonard Hankerson showed flashes of the player this offense has desperately searched for for years—someone with athleticism and size—before ending on injured reserve.
The Redskins won only five games, couldn’t manage leads and gave up games that shouldn’t have been lost, a sinister feeling that brought everyone back to the disastrous Jim Zorn days.
But recent outings proved that they have improved so much, and they somehow moved the chains despite losing (again) Chris Cooley for season and not having Santana Moss active for a long time.
Grossman developed a nice chemistry with Jabar Gaffney, a player that should be on next year’s roster for his ability to make plays, and the rushing game can only improve as Helu accumulates experience and once Tim Hightower returns a healthy player.
Something’s still wrong, but the new Redskins’ operating ways could hold a competitive future.
The third draft run by Mike Shanahan will hopefully answer many questions, including to determine who will be the best signal-caller to accept this challenge.