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Redskins-Shanahan Saga, Pt. 3: Lost and Found

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The Redskins jettisoned both McNabb and Haynesworth from the team roster before the 2011 season, setting aside the “Future Is Now” mindset and limping into rebuild mode (whether or not the coach was prone to call it that). The usual fix-it route of free agency was largely eschewed by Shanahan et al, as it contained uncertainty due to the expiration of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the NFL’s players association as well as the subsequent lockout by league owners from March to late July.

The Skins drafted twelve players after trading down to maximize their selections (depleted by previous moves like the McNabb trade) but did not select a quarterback. Mike and Kyle Shanahan left the QB slot open to Rex Grossman (who started the last three games of the 2010 season) and John Beck. Beck, a 30-year old who hadn’t seen playing time since his rookie season with the Dolphins, was highly touted by Mike Shanahan as "everything you look for in a quarterback" and the “top-rated quarterback coming out” in his draft year. (Beck was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007, a few months shy of his 26th birthday).

Grossman started the season under center for the Burgundy and Gold, but was replaced mid-game against the Eagles in Week 6 after throwing his fourth interception. The QB change did nothing to improve the Redskins’ woeful offensive output. John Beck, who was sacked in Buffalo 10 times (or 35% of the Bills’ team sack total for 2011), failed to win in any of his three starts and was replaced by Grossman by Week 10. The team finished 5-11, ranking 26th in points scored and 21st in points scored.

Though Mike Shanahan’s second season produced another losing record, Redskins fans were optimistic that events had conspired (including the losing record and the corresponding high draft pick) to give the team a chance to acquire a potential franchise quarterback in the 2012 offseason. Unable to secure interest from Peyton Manning after his release from the Colts, the Redskins moved quickly to secure a deal with the St. Louis Rams to exchange first round picks in the impending draft. The deal, which swapped the Skins’ first rounder (6th overall) with the Rams’ top pick (2nd overall) and sent the Skins’ 1st round picks in 2013 and 2014 to the Rams, put the team into position to select the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Baylor QB Robert Griffin the Third (AKA RGIII).

The excitement generated in the Washington area in March from the draft pick trade was soon replaced by shock, anger, and disgust with the news revealed hours before the opening of free agency that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would implement an unprecedented salary cap penalty of $36 million on the Redskins. To justify the penalty, the NFL gave out a statement talking of memos meant to encourage fiscal restraint in the uncapped year that was not demanded by the CBA but was desired by some NFL officials and members of NFL committees (i.e. owners of teams that aren’t as free-spending as others). Specifically, the NFL statement asserted that “teams were warned not to spend into the uncapped year as a way of circumventing the salary cap in the future.”

However, the collective bargaining agreement reached its final year in an uncapped year, so there was absolutely no assurance of a future salary cap, despite the NFL’s references in hindsight to its re-implementation. Therefore, the presence of an uncapped year gave any team the right to proceed however it saw fit, short of actual written, ratified, and enforceable rules. That some in the league didn’t like it and sent memos rather than implementing written, ratified, and enforceable rules left the Redskins guilty of nothing other than following the dictates of their management philosophy, none of which resulted in the NFL’s disapproval of any of their contract re-workings at the time.

Though evidence emerged that this penalty – which originated from the NFL’s Competition Committee at the behest of John Mara of the division-rival Giants -- was merely a stunt used to boost the overall salary cap figure for the NFL and that Goodell essentially strong-armed NFLPA leadership into it, the Redskins had little opportunity to overturn it other than to bring the matter to outside court on antitrust grounds, an approach for which there was recent precedent of checking the NFL's latest autocratic outburst. However, ownership decided against that route, and the Shanahan Saga was marked to its end by the impact of the penalty.

Despite the pressure on RGIII to succeed (made greater by Shanahan’s choice to spend the team’s 4th round pick on quarterback Kirk Cousins), Griffin showed poise, leadership, and game-breaking athleticism from the get-go, beginning with a 40-32 victory in New Orleans. Griffin was the first player to win the NFC Offensive Player of the Week in his debut. Griffin’s offense was aided by a two-touchdown, 96 yard rushing performance from another rookie: Alfred Morris, who was acquired in the 6th round with the pick sent to the Skins from Minnesota from Donovan McNabb.

Griffin’s defense-freezing moves and speed out of the “read-option” helped transform the Redskins’ offense into a potent force. However, the option became a subject of concern early in the season as RGIII took what was considered an excessive amount of hits by many observers, chief amongst them Coach Shanahan. Citing “seven or eight hits” that RGIII “didn’t have to take” against Cincinnati, Shanahan said he wanted to limit those hits, yet he deemed the option as a way “not to take a lot of hits.”

Shanahan chalked up many of those hits to 3rd and long situations. However, it was the repeatedly-run option play that left RGIII prone to be hit full-speed by defenders – whether or not he had the ball or not -- without the usual restrictions afforded quarterbacks. (In his postgame presser, Griffin indicated unawareness that he could be legally hit on an option play, something that seems unfathomable had it been made clear by the coaching staff.) Thus, Shanahan’s own game plan (and that of his son, offensive co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan) was the main culprit in many of the excessive hits that RGIII endured.

As the play was run early in the season, the option seemed too often on the verge of disaster, with a defender almost always a step away from knocking down or picking off an exchange. The speed of the game and defenders on this level is why the option as run by RGIII had not a been a mainstay of most offenses, no matter how fast the QB is or how skillful the QB is in disguising the play and executing it. Griffin actually said after the game that he would have to make it clear to the referees and defenders that he doesn’t have the ball on option plays, which of course would defeat a key point to running the option of deceiving the defense as long as possible as to which player has the ball.

As I speculated at the time: “One would think that shovel passes, pitches, and other backfield misdirection strategies could achieve what the option plays are designed to accomplish without the inherent and demonstrated risk of increased exposure to unnecessary hits.” RGIII’s success in keeping defenses off-balance prompted other coaches with athletic quarterbacks to add similar elements into their offensive packages. Those coaches learned from the mistakes made by Griffin and the coaching staff in executing modified option-based plays in a manner that protected their QBs (from Russell Wilson to Colin Kaepernick) more successfully.

The mid-season challenge for the Shanahans became making the best use of their newly-unveiled offensive weapon while simultaneously maximizing protection for its rookie quarterback in which the team has so much invested. Offensive production slowed while the Shanahans made modifications and Griffin strove to implement them. As Jim Haslett’s defense was consistently giving up big yards and big points (just under 28 points a game through Week 9), the Redskins slipped to 3-6 prior to the team’s bye week, prompting Shanahan to say the team would be “playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come” and that he would have “a chance to evaluate players and see where we're at” going forward.

Those comments (which Shanahan tried to modify a day later) seemed to rally the team around Griffin and his leadership. RGIII’s scintillating performance in Philly the first game after the bye week included a perfect 158.3 passer rating, as Griffin became the first rookie in NFL history to pass for 200 yards, pass for 4 touchdowns and rush for more than 75 yards in a single game. Even the sieve-like defense rallied behind London Fletcher (though it almost let the Cowboys back into the Thanksgiving Day game despite a 35-13 lead in the fourth quarter) and came up with some key stops as the weeks went by. As the Shanahans showed more and more confidence in Griffin, RGIII and his team delivered. The Skins reeled off six straight wins, setting up a playoff-type showdown against the Cowboys in the final game of the season for the NFC East division title.

“WE WANT DALLAS! WE WANT DALLAS!” The echo of Redskins glory days rang through FedEx Field for one of the few teams since Dan Snyder took over as team owner. Griffin, who had weathered an early-season concussion and a knee injury that forced him to wear a brace since mid-December, toughed it out and kept Skins drives alive with mostly error-free decision-making. The defense, which finished the year a dismal 28th in the league in yards allowed, rose to the occasion and intercepted Cowboys QB Tony Romo three times. The game’s MVP was Alfred Morris, who rushed for three touchdowns and 200 yards as he passed Clinton Portis with the most rushing yards for the Redskins in a season (1,613). Morris’ final touchdown with just a minute to play secured a Redskins victory by the score of 28-18 as well as the NFC East title.

The Redskins finished the last game of the 2012 season as division champions, with almost everyone in and around the NFL agreeing that most of the credit was owed to the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III. Of course, Griffin’s production was unquestionably outstanding, from his rushing prowess to setting records for the highest passer rating by a rookie quarterback (102.4) and the best touchdown to interception ratio (4:1). However, the promise and excitement generated by Griffin’s success had broken through the Skins’ toxic atmosphere of mediocrity and futility, breathing life and hope into a franchise that had lost any sense of positive direction. All eyes were on RGIII as the Redskins prepared to host a home playoff game for the first time in the 21st century, with the ceiling and possibilities unlimited.

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