Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 2, 2014

Shanahan Departs, But The Melodrama Remains

As NFL Black Mondays go, this one wasn’t that dark. Five head coaches were relieved of their duties, and in five different cities there were the usual somber press releases and grim appearances in front of the microphones. But just a year ago seven coaches and five general managers were sacked the day after the regular season ended, making this year’s round of firings seem mild. On the other hand, the Black Monday body count doesn’t include Houston’s Gary Kubiak who was fired in midseason; nor does the fact that they weren’t immediately dismissed guarantee long-term employment for several other coaches, including Jason Garrett in Dallas, Mike Munchak in Nashville, and Joe Philbin in Miami.

Jim Schwartz of the Lions paid the price for guiding Detroit to six losses in their final seven games, turning a division leader into just one more club with a losing record. Fellow NFC North head coach Leslie Frazier joined Schwartz in the unemployment line after his Vikings fell to the bottom of the division one year after winning a Wild Card playoff slot. Tampa Bay ownership scored the daily double, firing both head coach Greg Schiano and GM Mark Dominik. Schiano became the latest in a very long line of successful college coaches unable to transfer their magic to the professional stage. Easily the most surprising firing came in Cleveland, where first-year coach Rob Chudzinski was canned after going 4-12. Given that the Browns had posted similar records of either 4-12 or 5-11 in each of the previous five years, allowing Chudzinski but a single season to turn things around seems just a wee bit impatient.

The fifth Black Monday victim was Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, whose dismissal was anything but a surprise. One year removed from guiding a late season surge that lifted his team to its first division championship in more than a decade, Shanahan presided over a train wreck of a season. Quarterback Robert Griffin III was slow to come back from offseason knee surgery and showed little of the dazzling play that made him a fan favorite during his rookie campaign. Washington’s offense was mediocre, its defense was bad, and the special teams were atrocious. Purportedly angered by the close relationship between RG III and owner Dan Snyder, Shanahan spent much of the second half of the season seemingly trying to get fired. As Washington sank into the NFC East cellar with eight consecutive losses over the second half of the season the most pressing issue around the team wasn’t winning football games but whether the head coach would be paid the $7 million remaining on the final year of his contract.

So now Shanahan is gone, and deservedly so. He had double-digit losses in three of his four seasons in Washington, and finished with a record of 24-40. He had full control over personnel decisions, and while there is no doubt that the league-imposed salary cap penalty played a role in shaping the team’s roster, in the end Shanahan was responsible for a lineup that yielded the second most points and had the third largest negative points differential in the NFL. He will always have a pair of Super Bowl rings, but Mike Shanahan remains a head coach who has won exactly one playoff game in his NFL career with a quarterback not named John Elway.

But if simply firing the head coach were enough to change the team’s fortunes, then Snyder’s team would have won a Super Bowl or three by now; because firing the coach is the one thing that Washington’s owner seems really good at. Shanahan is the seventh head coach in what will soon be the fifteen years that Snyder has owned the team and the fourth to be fired. Snyder gave Norv Turner the dubious distinction of being the first NFL coach in the post-merger era to be axed in midseason despite having a winning record when he was fired with three games remaining in 2000. Marty Schottenheimer fell out of Snyder’s favor after just one season, while the hapless Jim Zorn made it through two. Steve Spurrier would likely have been the fifth Snyder coach to be fired had he not resigned first after two desultory campaigns in 2002 and 2003.

As that list indicates, over the years Snyder has ricocheted from one approach to another in selecting someone to guide his team. He’s tried experienced coaches like Schottenheimer and Turner (whom he inherited when he bought the team). He plucked a star out of the collegiate ranks with Spurrier. He’s tried promoting little known assistants like Zorn, and he’s gone with big names like Shanahan. Yet the results have been consistently dismal no matter the approach. Spurrier, Zorn and Shanahan all posted identical .375 winning percentages.

Now in Washington the coaching carousel spins again, with the early signs indicating that Snyder will go back to the “promote an assistant” route for his next selection. But having just spent several days in the D.C. area, what I find most remarkable is the willingness of the team’s fans to put up with it all. They all tuned in to watch an utterly meaningless game against the Giants last Sunday, and in discussing the team many seem to be of the opinion that success is near at hand. Given the NFL’s weighted scheduling, this year’s dismal 3-13 record should yield a slate of games next year that will allow for some improvement.

But climbing back to 8-8 or 9-7 hardly makes the team relevant again. What the local fans prefer to forget is that it’s been more than two decades since Washington last won a Super Bowl. In the intervening years only five NFL franchises have worse records. In looking to the future the team now hopes to make RG III into a pocket passer. But that’s not the type of quarterback that Washington gave up four high draft choices, including first round picks the next two years, in order to sign. There is also the matter of the immature air of entitlement that Griffin frequently displayed this year. It’s hard to see that changing now that the young quarterback has seen the coach he clearly no longer wanted to play for shown the door.

Soon enough someone will have a big enough ego, or be lured by a big enough contract, to be introduced as the franchise’s next head coach. When he stands at the podium and talks about the team’s bright future, he will no doubt genuinely believe he can produce a different result. But whatever that next head coach and Washington’s fans may want to believe, the truth is that for a once-great franchise the Dan Snyder era is always long on drama, but glaringly short on success.

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