Back in March, when the Redskins swung the blockbuster deal that landed them the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft and the ability to take Robert Griffin III, it was fair to say that Mike Shanahan would be playing for his job in 2012. The former two-time Super Bowl-winning coach with the Broncos (who, his critics would quickly point out, also had quarterback John Elway) arrived in Washington before the 2010 season and promptly won 11 of his first 32 games.
Both Jim Zorn and Steve Spurrier had 12 wins in their two-year runs with the 'Skins and neither had Shanahan's NFL pedigree. The price of the RGIII trade (two first-rounders and a second-rounder) only intensified the scrutiny on Shanahan, and although there were reports that the coach wouldn't be fired in 2012, it's reasonable to assume that another 5-11 season (or worse) would have pretty much sealed his fate.
So when the Redskins stumbled out of the gate to a 3-6 record and Shanahan talked about evaluating players for next year, you wondered if he would even be there. But then something clicked: Washington got red-hot, and now, five weeks later, they're tied for the NFC East lead and could clinch a playoff berth this weekend.
Suddenly, Shanahan looks like the quarterbackin'-friendly coach we all remembered from those halcyon Broncos days.
So what happened? Turns out, we all just needed a little patience.
“Like I told you the first couple years, I understood we were going to struggle the first couple years,”Shanahan said via the Washington Post. “I mean, we didn’t have the football team. And it was getting the right guys on the football team where we felt like we could make a run. And one of the reasons why I told our football team at the beginning of the year that, ‘You guys don’t know it. But you guys are a lot better than you think you are.’ And they’re obviously proving that now."
We don't want to keep harping on this, but Shanahan was sounding a completely different tune when the three-win Redskins were heading into their bye last month. Then again, Washington was awful. Now that's a distant memory.
“We lost a number of games that we should have won early, three that I can see specifically,” Shanahan continued. “And all of a sudden, we started playing our best football in the second half of the season. We’ve got a lot of character. We’ve got a lot of guys going in the right direction, guys competing every play. And when you do have that, then you start to turn. I think that’s what our football team has done. They believe in each other. Every game we go into now, we believe that we’ll win. That’s got to be your mindset. Once you start winning those close games, you expect it.”
It's easy to say Shanahan again lucked into a quarterback and that's been the difference, but it's been so much more than that. For starters, the defense has shown up the second half of the season after taking September and October off. Second, Griffin has played at a high level since his "Wait, where did that come from?!" Week 1 performance against the Saints, but he's not yet at the point in his career where he can beat teams singlehandedly. Third, remember when we were all pointing and gawking in Shanahan's general direction when he used a fourth-round pick on Kirk Cousins despite the team's myriad other needs? Yeah, that turned out to be huge.
And now the 'Skins are this close to returning to the postseason for the first time since 2007.