Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 18, 2010

For Redskins Fans, The Three-Ring Circus Continues

Beginning late in their forgettable 2009 campaign and continuing into the off-season, the Washington Redskins made three key moves that raised the hopes of fans in the D.C. area. Months later, as another season teeters on the brink, those hopes are starting to look sadly misplaced.

When last year’s team had a record of 4-10 with two games to play, Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato resigned. Cerrato was widely reviled by fans, who welcomed his departure as long overdue. When Bruce Allen was named General Manager a short time later, the Redskins’ fan base dared hope that better days lay ahead. Allen achieved some success as a GM in Tampa Bay while saddled with a salary cap nightmare created by his predecessor with the Bucs. Plus as the son of legendary head coach George Allen, who brought the Redskins out of the football wilderness and into the playoffs in the ‘70s, Allen had instant credibility in the Washington area.

Then in early January Mike Shanahan was named the team’s new head coach. Shanahan has won more than 150 regular and post-season games as a head coach. In 14 seasons guiding the Denver Broncos, he took his team to the playoffs seven times and won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999.

Three months later the Redskins traded for veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb. The 33-year old McNabb is a 6-time Pro Bowler who took the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2005. He replaced Jason Campbell, who had admittedly been burdened with frequent changes in coaches, coordinators, and offensive schemes during his four years with the Redskins; but who nevertheless had done little to inspire confidence.

With Allen, Shanahan, and McNabb, the Redskins filled three critical roles with well-respected men accomplished in their respective positions and seemingly united in the purpose of turning Dan Snyder’s franchise around. Along with Snyder giving every indication that he was finally going to stop treating the team as his personal entry in some fantasy football league, the three moves couldn’t help but cause ‘Skins fans to start dreaming about the playoffs.

Alas, these are still Dan Snyder’s Redskins; the team that wins the off-season Super Bowl every spring, only to disappoint when the time comes to actually strap on helmets and play football. The 2010 NFL season has now crossed midfield, and it appears that they are also the team where even well-respected and accomplished men wind up joining the Snyder-led circus.

It began in training camp, when Shanahan engaged in a war of wills with Albert Haynesworth. The defensive lineman with the $100 million contract had refused to participate in off-season workouts because he was unhappy with Shanahan’s announced change in the Redskins’ defensive scheme. In return Shanahan refused to allow him to participate in team practices until he proved he was fit. While the coach was clearly in the right on principle, the standoff became the media’s primary focus throughout Washington’s pre-season.

But that was a minor distraction compared to the events of the past few weeks. On the last Sunday in October, trailing the Detroit Lions with time winding down, Shanahan sent in backup quarterback Rex Grossman to run the 2-minute offense. The surprise benching of McNabb instantly became the talk of D.C., fueled by weak and contradictory explanations for the action. First Shanahan said that Grossman had a better handle on the Redskins’ hurry-up offense. While people were still scratching their heads over how that could be, the story was changed to one that questioned whether McNabb had the cardiovascular fitness for the two-minute drill. What, the starting quarterback can’t run down the field?

With Washington’s bye week coming on the heels of the loss to the Lions, McNabb’s benching remained the story with various rumors circulating about the real reason for it. The most consistent one was that it was not Mike Shanahan but his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan who decided that McNabb should sit. The younger Shanahan joined his father shortly after the latter’s hiring after spending four years in Houston, the last two as offensive coordinator for the Texans. The backup quarterback for the Texans during Kyle Shanahan’s tenure? Why, none other than Rex Grossman.

Then earlier this week, when it finally looked like the scheduled Monday night contest between the Redskins and Eagles might finally turn the conversation back to football, Allen stepped into the center ring to announce that the team had signed McNabb to a five year, $78 million contract extension. Fans were left to wonder how much the quarterback would have been worth if he only had a grasp of the two-minute offense.

Initial reports that the new contract included $40 million in guaranteed money left even the strongest McNabb backers dumbfounded. Thankfully those reports were wrong. It turns out that the Redskins have an out at the end of this season in the form of a $10 million option that will either lock in the rest of the contract if exercised or make McNabb a free agent if declined. But Redskins fans are still left feeling dizzy. One minute the team is sending its starting quarterback to the bench; and the next its saying “sorry” in potentially 78 million ways.

Both the length and the potential size of the contract are hard to justify based on performance. I like Donovan McNabb, but one can’t ignore the fact that he’s having a horrible season. His quarterback rating of 75.2 is the worst since his rookie year. His nine touchdown passes are outpaced by eleven interceptions; and this from a passer with a better than 2:1 lifetime ratio of TDs to picks. With seven games still on the schedule, he’s only two interceptions short of his all-time high for a single season. He ranks dead last in the NFL in third down conversions, turning just 24 of 111 chances into first downs. Those are numbers that would make one think he should be, well, benched. And of course, hours after the contract extension was announced on Monday afternoon, Washington was humiliated by Philadelphia 59-28 Monday night, leaving them under .500 at 4-5.

The fiasco against the Eagles isn’t all on McNabb by any means, though he did have another bad game. The defense has surrendered 96 points over the last eight quarters, and only two NFC squads have yielded more points through the season’s first nine games. The offensive line is its usual porous self, and injuries on both sides of the ball are starting to mount.

Looking ahead, five of Washington’s final seven games are against teams with winning records. Two of those games are against the New York Giants, who are tied with the Eagles for the NFC East lead. The other three are against teams that are just one game off the lead in their divisions. All of those teams will be strongly motivated by the push for the playoffs. Even the two games against teams with losing records, Minnesota and Dallas, are not sure things. While it’s apparent that Brett Favre unretired one time too many, the aging gunslinger may still have a big game or two in him. And the recent sacking of Wade Phillips in Dallas has seemed to wake up the Cowboys.

Seven games are plenty of time to turn a season around; and plenty of time to see it go totally in the tank. Redskins’ fans will be hoping for the former of course. But after what they’ve seen so far, there are plenty of reasons to think that those big springtime hopes were just one more off-season Super Bowl. At FedEx Field, the circus is still in town. Only the names of the clowns have changed.



  1. A lineman with a $100 million contract? I thought the record ever paid to a lineman was an obscene $78 million.

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