Into the miasma of Snyderatto-induced futility rode Mike Shanahan, with that futility giving the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach the ability to essentially write his own ticket with the Redskins. That ticket included final say on personnel matters, overruling not only the Cerrato-less Dan Snyder but also the newly appointed general manager Bruce Allen, late of Tampa Bay and Oakland. Former NFL coach Jim Haslett was selected as defensive coordinator, a move that kicked off the first melodrama of the Shanahan Saga.
It soon became evident that Haslett will be transitioning to the 3-4 defensive front despite inheriting a defense filled with personnel overwhelmingly suited for the 4-3 style. This was worrisome to fans who watched successive coaching regimes flounder while trying to remake the defensive personnel rather than optimizing the coaching schemes to maximize the skills of players already on the roster. Too often, it had meant releasing existing well-paid personnel whose cap hits have limited the team’s ability to find replacements talented enough to improve the team. However, Haslett had run both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts and assured defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who had expressed dissatisfaction with his role on the team in 2009, that the team would run different looks and use the high-priced defender all over the defensive line.
Haynesworth had enough doubts about his ability to shine in the new scheme that the Skins front office gave him and his agent Chad Speck permission to seek a trading partner a month after Shanahan’s hiring in January 2010. Any deal had to be secured by April 1st, as Haynesworth was due a $21 million roster bonus per a contract renegotiation designed to lessen the future salary cap impact of his long-term agreement. When no deal acceptable to all parties was found, Shanahan has indicated that the team told Haynesworth they expected him to accept being a Redskin and give his all regardless of the system if he accepted the roster bonus.
In the midst of the Haynesworth distraction, the Redskins sent the 37th overall pick to the division-rival Eagles for veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb. The move was so unexpected that the possibility of it had barely been considered beyond an April’s Fools article from a particularly prescient and insightful source (you’re welcome, America). The nature of the reveal was also encouraging, as the new-look Skins front office had managed to pull off a major deal without leaks pouring out and telegraphing their intentions as has become commonplace under Snyderatto.
Trades of high draft picks for McNabb and Saints offensive tackle Jammal Brown held echoes of Snyderatto’s perennial swap of picks for vets (something for which the new GM’s Hall of Fame father George Allen was famous), though it was understandable that a coach known for his work with quarterbacks wanted to have a proven QB under center as he and his son Kyle (formerly the offensive coordinator with the Texans) attempted to return the Redskins’ offense from its long absence from consistency and respectability. Four months in, there was no doubt as to the approach of Shanahan et al: "The Future Is Now."
The Skins’ offseason trade frenzy did not include Albert Haynesworth despite the best efforts of his agent to create pressure for the team to trade him for much less than fair market value right after paying him the roster bonus. Shanahan made it clear to Haynesworth that he wasn’t going anywhere and had to accept the defensive assignments designated for him if Haynesworth expected to see the field in 2010. Shanahan’s plan, which centered on forcing Haynesworth to pass a conditioning test before being permitted to practice with the team, allowed Shanahan to exert authority in a reasonable manner and let Haynesworth work himself back into the good graces of the coaching staff and his fellow players. The plan appeared to be successful, as Haynesworth was welcomed warmly by fans and teammates at the team’s Fan Appreciation Day after he passed the conditioning test. When Haynesworth managed to stay on the field for every play of an extended drive by the Buffalo Bills in the Redskins’ first preseason game, it appeared that the ongoing soap opera played up by the local and national media was set to fade away.
However, Haynesworth wasn’t inserted into the next exhibition until the 3rd quarter with the 2nd team defense, a move that elicited frustration from him. In his postgame comments, Haynesworth took issue with putting in a nine-year veteran so late in the game with backups and from there, began taking every piece of bait tossed by salivating reporters. After inferring that there was more to Haynesworth’s absence from three recent practices than Coach Shanahan’s supposed reference to headaches, Haynesworth was asked why he felt team officials "left out a whole lot of stuff" about his conditions. "I guess to make themselves look good, make me look bad for not going to their offseason conditioning program. But, next year I'm not coming either."
While Haynesworth used up just about every bit of slack given to him by Redskins fans, it fell on Shanahan to manage this seemingly healed relationship more carefully than he apparently did. Getting Haynesworth at his best was important for the team since they’d chosen the “win now” route. Having asserted his authority, it served little purpose for Shanahan to overdo the discipline-driven action when it risked reviving the media circus that surrounded Haynesworth that offseason.
This incident reminded many of the coach’s “my way or the highway” approach that eventually wore thin with the Broncos. Shanahan’s former signal caller Jake Plummer described how a coaching style not focused on the big picture had ceased motivating him and others: "We were 7-2 at one point my last year and we came out of a meeting with our heads bowed and we were all just sulking around like we had just been berated for not putting up 40 points, for not leading the league in offense. It was a weird style to be coached that way. It really took it out of you as a player. I've been on 2-7 teams that had better attitudes coming out of team meetings than oftentimes when we came out of team meetings after Shanahan felt a need to motivate us even more."
At the start of the 2010 season, the Redskins’ offense looked anemic and mistake-prone, with McNabb averaging a 74.5 QB rating (puffed up by his 119 rating against Houston’s 30th ranked defense in a home loss). The team had a 4-3 record heading into Detroit in Week 8, with McNabb’s numbers and ratings slipping week by week. The Redskins were losing 30-25 with 3:12 left in the game when Shanahan benched McNabb for backup Rex Grossman. Grossman promptly fumbled the first snap, sealing the victory for the Lions.
If the call to pull McNabb wasn’t enough to get the usual Skins drama started, Coach Shanahan fixed that by attempting to justify the move by questioning McNabb’s “cardiovascular endurance” and saying Grossman had more experience running his and Kyle’s two-minute drill, discounting McNabb’s veteran presence. Rather than going into the bye week at .500 and working on fundamentals, the team was now trying to manage the media feeding frenzy that gleefully pointed out Shanahan’s clumsy comments that essentially questioned his hand-picked elite QB’s fitness and leadership.
The mixed signals from the Redskins continued when the Redskins announced prior to their Monday night game hosting the Eagles that McNabb had signed a five year, $75 million contract. Significantly, the contract guaranteed only $3.75 million to McNabb and included a $10 million roster bonus if McNabb wasn’t cut or traded prior to the end of the season. McNabb proceeded to throw three interceptions in what turned out to be a record-breaking performance for the Eagles’ Mike Vick and the Skins’ defense. Haslett offered a preview of coming disasters by showing a complete inability to stop the Eagles in any way, with Vick accounting for six touchdowns and the Eagles rushing for 260 yards and scoring 45 points in the first half (59 points for the game).
McNabb was benched in mid-December with three games remaining, as Shanahan decided to pull his newly re-signed starter and evaluate players such as Grossman and see where the team was at (to paraphrase a pivotal Shanahan quote from the RGIII era). With a high-salaried veteran acquired for a top draft pick and quickly deemed a bad fit for the coaches and on his way out the door (to go along with the departing Haynesworth), the new regime had many Skins fans feeling like it was Snyderatto all over again. But hey, it’s only the first year, right?