Friday January 8th, 2010

The Shanny and Danny Show opened to rave reviews in Washington this week, and there's a real buzz around town that the Redskins might have finally gotten it right this time. Mike Shanahan, we were reminded, is a proven winner, and again and again we heard about his track record and his ability to bring leadership to the organization.

To which I say, there's some merit to that. Shanahan has won and won big in the NFL, and he's eminently comfortable in the role of being the point man for a franchise. Both are pluses in his favor.

But there's also some merit to remembering this: Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs were all proven winners with obvious leadership gifts when they hit Washington in the Daniel Snyder era, and none left D.C. with those reputations burnished. So can we just go easy on the big talk for once in Redskins-land? Washington always talks plenty big, but comes up empty where it really matters -- on the field.

New Redskins general manager Bruce Allen actually introduced Shanahan at his Wednesday news conference by saying: "We're staring at a man the New York Times once said, 'He dares to be great.' '' He also dared to be a .500 coach in his last three seasons in the NFL, but I'm guessing that didn't sound anywhere near as dramatic.

Make no mistake, Shanahan is a very good NFL head coach, and he walks in the door as a huge upgrade over the novice that Jim Zorn was in his two years on the job. But I think we can all admit the greatness label is a little out-dated by now. Shanahan might be a proven winner, but it bears pointing out once again that in his last 10 seasons in Denver (1999-2008), he won exactly one -- repeat, one -- playoff game. Over that same span, the Redskins won two playoff games in the Snyder era. And nobody would think to call them proven winners.

Let's dig a little deeper into the numbers, just to try to balance out some of the hyperbole we're hearing at the start of the Shanahan era in Washington. In the 10 years he coached the Broncos after John Elway retired, Shanahan missed the playoffs six times. His Broncos had two losing records, two .500 records and two 9-7 non-playoff seasons. Four times Shanahan led the Broncos to 10 wins or more and made the postseason. When it qualified for the playoffs, Denver went 1-4 in those games, with three one-and-dones, and beating only New England in a 2005 AFC divisional-round game at Invesco Field. In the best shot Shanahan has had recently to add to his coaching legacy, his Broncos came up small at home in the 2005 AFC title game, getting blown out by the No. 6 seed Steelers.

Shanahan went 92-73 (.558) in those 10 Elway-less seasons, a quality, winning record to be sure. But he was 9-7, 7-9, 8-8 over his last three years (24-24), missing the playoffs each season and prompting Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to fire a guy he once promised would be his coach "for life.'' Somehow that didn't get mentioned much by the Redskins this week.

Compare that record with the four years he coached Elway (1995-98). Shanahan went 47-17 (.734) in those seasons, winning eight, 13, 12 and 14 games in the regular season. In the playoffs, he was even better, going 7-1 and earning those back-to-back Super Bowl rings after the 1997 and 1998 seasons. But again, the height of Shanahan's success was 11 years back, and that's three lifetimes ago in the NFL. He's won one playoff game since the 1990s.

I actually like Shanahan's chances to win in Washington more than I did any of Snyder's other big-name hires, from Schottenheimer, to Spurrier, to the second coming of Joe Gibbs. But let's hold off on the breathless introductions until we see if Shanahan is the guy who revitalized the Broncos when he came to town in 1995, eventually putting two Lombardis in the team's trophy case, or the guy whose struggles in terms of personnel evaluation became almost embarrassing in Denver. (You remember Maurice Clarett, Dale Carter and Jarvis Moss, don't you?)

Shanahan the offensive coach should be a great help in lifting the Redskins into at least the middle third of the NFL's hierarchy. He's had great success with building an offensive line and finding quality running backs everywhere he looks, and he knows what it takes to move the ball in today's pass-happy NFL. But he never really found his next great quarterback after Elway retired (bouncing from Brian Griese, to Jake Plummer, to Jay Cutler), so you can't just assume he'll either solve Jason Campbell's problems or draft the next Joe Theismann in Washington.

What Shanahan needs to do is build on the defensive talent in Washington -- and he had his issues in trying to fix the Broncos defense in his latter years in Denver -- and bring some stability and structure to what has been a dysfunctional, chaotic franchise for far too long. Let's see if Shanahan ends the Redskins' habit of always over-paying for the big-name free agent, making ill-advised trades and coveting players who don't even fit the system in Washington.

Let's see if Allen and Shanahan form the dynamic duo in the front office, as they have sold themselves to Snyder. The Redskins' quick-fix mentality has never worked in the past, and I have to admit I heard far too many echoes in Shanahan's introductory news conference to think that everything's going to be different this time compared to when Washington trotted out Schottenheimer, Spurrier, Gibbs and Zorn with all the same pomp and circumstance.

At this point, anyone who's a Redskins fan doesn't care to hear a new head coach once again talk about what an honor it is to lead a franchise with such great history and tradition. That's what every other coach has said as soon as he walked through the door, but nobody has done much to add to that history and tradition. The Redskins have missed the playoffs in eight of Snyder's 11 seasons, and are 17 games under .500 (82-99) during his tenure.

Now it's Shanahan's turn to try to fix the Redskins. Maybe he'll work wonders in Washington and recapture some of the magic of his early days in Denver. But let's save the "dares to be great'' spiel. The facts are he's been good, but far from great for a while now. The Redskins have hired proven winners before, and then watched them lose.

Shanahan brings hopes to last-place Washington, and I think it's a legitimate hope this time. But as I pointed out in a story I did last month, you have to be careful what you wish for when you hire a former Super Bowl-winning coach. There have been 11 of them who have taken at least one other job, and none of them have ever won another ring.

Let's see if Shanahan makes it 12, or proves the exception to the rule.

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