Redskins' Shanahan not sweating as important season approaches
If Mike Shanahan is feeling any extra pressure as he approaches this season -- his third with the Washington Redskins -- he certainly doesn't show it.
With just two playoff appearances by Washington since 2000, and none since 2007, the Redskins' fanbase -- one of the NFL's most demanding -- is getting impatient. The struggles in Washington far preceded Shanahan's arrival, but he's nonetheless expected to turn things around in the nation's capital.
Despite last year's 5-11 record, and a 6-10 mark in 2010, he's excited about the current Redskins. He's led the way in revamping the team, starting with the man he hopes will be his franchise quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who signed his contract and reported to camp Wednesday.
"This is the first normal year we've had in my three years in Washington," Shanahan said. "In 2010, we had different rules with free agency for six-plus-year players, then we had the lockout last year, so we finally have a normal year with an offseason program. This gives us the chance to put our best team together with the type of character guys we want and who really want to play.
"I like our team and I think we have a chance to do something special. We had a good 2011 draft with all 12 guys still here and we've got a good mix of youth and vets. Hopefully with help from our free agents and draft choices and if we can stay healthy, we can make a good run."
This year's regular season schedule presents a challenge. Three of the first four games are on the road, including an opener against a New Orleans team and crowd that promises to be emotional in the post-bounty era. The season ends with five of seven games against divisional opponents. But Shanahan believes in a line I heard often from Vikings Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant in regard to the schedule --"It's not who you play, it's when you play them." Shanahan, incidentally, will tie Grant for 13th all-time in regular season wins (158) when the Redskins win their first game of the season.
A promising 3-1 start in 2011 was derailed by key injuries to several starters, uneven quarterback play (24 interceptions thrown by Rex Grossman and John Beck), shaky pass protection (41 sacks allowed) and a lack of turnovers forced by the defense. Shanahan and the Redskins made some bold moves in the offseason. Free agency netted more weapons at wide receiver in Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and help elsewhere.
Of course, there's also the gutsy trade in the draft that bumped the Redskins up to No. 2 overall, where they selected Griffin, who looks already to be a great fit for Shanahan's offense. RGIII and the Redskins will be one of the most compelling stories this season, as the charismatic passer appears to have a better opportunity for early success than Andrew Luck thanks to a better supporting cast and a system -- Shanahan's -- that's already been in place. Fans have responded to the addition of RGIII with excitement in anticipation of a Redskins revival.
Cam Newton and Andy Dalton had excellent rookie seasons last year, with Dalton leading the Bengals to the playoffs, so the pressure on Shanahan to get early production from his prodigal QB is high. The Redskins haven't had a Pro Bowl quarterback since Brad Johnson in 1999.
"Everybody is looking for a franchise quarterback, and we had a chance to get someone special who can be here 10 to 15 years," said Shanahan. "Robert has great arm strength, he can run and make plays with his feet, he's strong and will get stronger. It's obvious he has all the intangibles -- the work ethic, he studies the game, wants to be a good player, wants to win, the way he handles himself. Football is important to him.
"We've got to surround him with good players. The Elways, the Youngs ... they all needed good players around them to be successful. "
As for those surrounding parts, Shanahan believes his underpublicized running backs -- Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster -- can get the job done, and Shanahan has a history out of getting solid work out of less-heralded backs (see Terrell Davis, the sixth-round pick who became an All-Pro and Super Bowl MVP). He feels "very good" about his receiving corps, with the aforementioned free agent additions and the return of Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss, who Shanahan describes as, "in his best shape." Fred Davis and Chris Cooley bring talent to the tight end spot, although Davis has had off-field issues and Cooley injury problems. Shanahan also looks for good things from No. 3 tight end Niles Paul.
The offensive line has more depth, but Shanahan also knows that a mobile quarterback like Griffin can help counter a pass rush. He spoke of Jay Cutler's mobility helping to dramatically reduce the Broncos' sacks allowed, and he thinks RGIII can work similar magic for the Redskins' pass protection. That will be a challenge in the NFC East, where pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware, Jason Babin, Trent Cole, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora call home.
That's just part of what makes the division such a fierce test for the Redskins. The good news? Last season, the Redskins swept the Super Bowl champion Giants. The bad news? They dropped all four of their games against the Eagles and Cowboys.
"All four teams in our division have owners who will give everything they've got to win the Super Bowl," Shanahan said. "That's one reason the NFC East is the most consistent division year after year. The Giants' playoff run didn't surprise me, with the depth in their football team and those pass rushers. To win this division, you've got to have great players and coach the heck out of them."