Inside the NFL  

 

Shanahan practices patience as Redskins rebuilding continues

In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics including (click on the link to take you directly there):

» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 17
» How a random day in April has helped one particular 49er succeed
» Why January will be crucial for a city not wanting to lose its team to L.A.
» Which NFC Pro Bowl selection has barely scratched the surface on his potential
» And more, beginning with a look at how Mike Shanahan's rebuilding project is going in D.C. ...

Mike Shanahan is 11-20 in two seasons as head coach of the Redskins.
Mike Shanahan is 11-20 in two seasons as head coach of the Redskins. (Brad Mills/US Presswire/)

The Redskins aren't going to the playoffs this season, and they didn't go last year either.

And by the standards Mike Shanahan set in his championship years in Denver, the results in Washington certainly aren't good enough. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

But the situation the coach faced in Washington, when he arrived there two Januarys ago, was much different than the job he had previously. Then, Shanahan had a Hall of Fame quarterback in his mid-30s, John Elway, and a veteran roster dictating a quick retool and win-immediately approach. Now, he's overhauling a place that had been dysfunctional for a decade.

Thirty-one games into his Redskin life, this much is clear: If Shanahan needed a proverbial chisel in Colorado, he's had to pull out the jackhammer in D.C.

"We needed to get depth at all positions," Shanahan emphasized, over the phone from his office recently. "We had no depth at all. And now, with a good draft and run in free agency, we'll be right in the thick of things next year. I really believe that. I told the owner when he hired me, 'This is not gonna happen overnight. You hire me for five years, you're gonna have to give us that time.' We're getting there."

Here's proof: 21 of the 53 men on the active roster (and this isn't including suspended left tackle Trent Williams, or injured rookies Jarvis Jenkins and Leonard Hankerson) have two or fewer years in the league. The club had just two picks in the first five rounds of the 2010 draft -- part of that was the swing-and-miss on Donovan McNabb, part of it was the previous regime's free-wheeling ways -- and both the first-round pick (Williams) and fourth-round pick (LB Perry Riley) in that equation are starting.

Last year, Shanahan attacked the depth problem head-on by dealing his way into a dozen picks, and all 12 of those players remain on the team. Four are starting, and another two could be, but are injured. And on top of all that, the veterans that Shanahan has brought are young and not back-breaking financially. The defensive line is now made up of three such 27-year-olds -- Stephen Bowen, Barry Cofield and Adam Carriker.

Knowing that group will get rookie Jarvis Jenkins back and is bookended by Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan is enough to have Shanahan think coordinator Jim Haslett's unit has a big future. "You're looking at a defense that's going to be in the Top 10, for sure," Shanahan said.

There's more work to do offensively. While Roy Helu may have answered questions at tailback and the line has a foundation, the team needs more young talent on the perimeter and, most importantly, a guy to get that talent the ball.

But again, Shanahan knew this would take time. And he's not pressing to fill holes.

"I feel very good, especially going into next year with what we'll have back, especially having gone through some adversity," Shanahan said. "We're gonna keep building on it the right way. We're not gonna take guys just to get guys. Only one team is happy at the end of the year, and to be that team you have to build the organization the right way. To do that, you make sure you limit mistakes, especially with the cap, and bring in the right guys."

McNabb is one example of a player who didn't fit. Albert Haynesworth is another. Those guys were traded for sixth-round and fifth-round picks in 2012 and '13 respectively, and both have since been whacked by their new teams.

And while Shanahan wasn't pointing fingers at those guys in particular, he did say that his second team has developed far more of an all-in mentality than his first Redskins group ever could.

"You get rid of guys that don't want to be part of it. Every coach does that," he said. "You don't do that, you have no chance. You have to have guys who wanna do it, who pay the price, who aren't just collecting checks. You get rid of them in that first year, or the first couple years, and we may not have it nailed yet, but we're much closer."

Last Sunday's loss to the Vikings aside, they've been close against some pretty good teams over the past month, as well. They had the Cowboys and Jets on the ropes, and were on the verge of tying their game with the Patriots at the wire, before breaking through with a convincing win over the Giants in Week 15.

"We want to try to be able to dominate teams," Shanahan said. "I thought with the Giants game, we played very well, did what we had to do in the second half, and took it to them physically. What we have to do now is do it week-in and week-out. Sometimes, when you have a young team, you have to grow. We have to learn how to win, and we've been close playing against some very talented football teams."

So what does it add up to? Shanahan has certainly changed the mentality at Redskin Park, and a load of the ancillary pieces to a team that should contend going forward are in place.

The elephant in the room remains the quarterback position, but Shanahan was in position to take one last year and passed, proving that he's willing to wait on the right one. On the surface, it appears to have been the right move. The team took the pick that wound up being Blaine Gabbert, who's been shaky in Jacksonville, and parlayed it into Kerrigan, receiver Leonard Hankerson, tailback Roy Helu, and safety D.J. Gomes, who have all started games.

When I asked Shanahan if he'll be in the market for a young signal-caller this spring, he said coyly, "I think everybody's in the market for one." But he promised, too, that he'll take the same measured approach with that position that he's taken with every other one.

The coach has already been through 20 losses in Washington. He suffered just 17 in his first four years in Denver.

Different challenge here, sure. But the ultimate hope for Shanahan is that the end result will be the same.

Niners just getting started with Smith

The 49ers have the league's seventh-ranked run game and fourth-best defense, and that combined with Alex Smith's prior failures has led to the implication that the San Francisco quarterback is along for the ride during this 12-3 run. So at the end of our conversation the other day, I presented 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman with the moniker that has replaced the idea of 2005's first pick as a colossal bust -- Alex Smith, game manager.

"I don't know what to say," Roman responds, addressing the idea. "I think he's a winner. And that's what we're looking for. When we're behind at the end of the game and we've got to go the length of the field, there's a lot of evidence to that. And if we have to throw the whole game, like we did against the Giants, that's what we do. I almost don't want to answer that. It almost doesn't deserve an answer."

To know the whole story here, you have to rewind back to January 2011, when Roman and Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco from Stanford, and Smith was a free agent quarterback heading into a lockout. Without much ability to go hands-on with Smith, Roman and Harbaugh instead did their homework.

What Smith's tape showed, according to Roman, was a quarterback who played a rushed game, but also rode out a lot of problems created outside his own control. But simply that he still was standing after all the upheaval of six coordinators in six years (Smith had Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, Jimmy Raye and Mike Johnson previously) and still wanted to return said plenty.

"You could tell he was taught a lot of different things," Roman said. "We felt if we tightened down his fundamentals and just let him relax out there, he'd benefit. A lot of things were just a little bit off, because he's been told five different ways to do it. We thought if we could narrow his thought process, the benefits would show. Everyone else playing better would give him a better chance, too. But specifically with Alex, this is a guy that could do a lot of things well."

And one of those things that Smith did well was work. During that short sliver of April between a Minneapolis district court issuing an injunction to lift the lockout and a St. Louis circuit court issuing a stay that reinstituted the work stoppage, players could go to facilities and meet with coaches, something that was particularly important for teams with new regimes. Smith showed up in Santa Clara, all right, going through an 18-hour cram session with the Niners coaches despite not having a contract.

"It was a crash course," Roman explained. "We had been meeting but we hadn't been coaching, so I think we were all ready to go, and it was a full spring. (QB coach) Geep (Chryst), Chris (Coordinator of football technology Michael Christianson), Jim, (WR coach) John Morton, myself -- just rotating through the room, tagging off almost an hour at a time, going through different elements of the offense, different processes. It was definitely a full day."

He continued that, "It was huge, that day. … It was very big in the context of this season, with so much information crammed into this time. It was enough to get them started, and it paid dividends."

Smith took what he learned that day and, at player-only workouts at San Jose State in June, with the lockout still going full steam ahead, the quarterback put together presentations for his teammates and started installing the offense.

It's not why the 49ers are 12-3. There's more to the team's renaissance than that. But it does shed light into how things got started, and it was particularly important for Smith, under his seventh offensive coordinator and, since he was signing a new deal in the summer, forced to miss the first week of camp.

The result is Smith, who'll start all 16 games for the first time since his second NFL season, hitting career highs in passing yards (2,931), completion percentage (61.0) and passer rating (90.1), with a shot at a personal best for the touchdown passes (with 16, he needs 2 more) against just five picks. He's not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, but he's been good enough for the 49ers. Provided Smith returns, Roman sees a lot of room for growth from here with stability around the QB finally in place.

"It's not gonna be any big explosion, he just has to keep getting better 1 percent a day, or even 0.1 percent a day," the offensive coordinator said. "It's understanding the offense better, understanding where people are. You're just tapping into his potential in this system. Put it this way -- Mike Holmgren always said it takes three years in this system to really play it fast.

"In four, five months, he's doing it at a pretty good level. But this is an offense you wanna be in over time because so much of it is based on rhythm and timing. You get better over time. We expect he will, and just we're learning about him, he's learning about us. It's definitely just getting started."

Now or never for Minnesota?

The Vikings' lease with the Metrodome ends once the season is over.
The Vikings' lease with the Metrodome ends once the season is over. (Jim Mone/Associated Press)

At about 3 p.m. local time on Sunday afternoon, the Vikings will effectively become a free-agent franchise, with their Metrodome lease expiring. The expectation is the wheels will be spinning quickly to rectify that situation as the Minnesota legislative session begins Jan. 24.

And my understanding of this situation now is that Zygi Wilf and his family are cautiously optimistic on where things stand. The trouble is that they've been close before, and watched things fall through. With groups from two cities courting them -- one being Los Angeles, the other a yet-to-be-identified suitor -- they're looking for clear answers soon with their patience having worn thin.

So while there's plenty of reason to be optimistic that a new stadium will get done in Minneapolis, this remains a critical time. If it's not now-or-never, it seems to be close to that.

I asked Vikings vice president of stadium development Lester Bagley how he'd characterize the situation. His response: "I'd say we're encouraged, and we're hopeful. There's energy and a critical mass behind this project now to bring it to fruition."

A few things have pushed the process along, according to Bagley. First, in October, NFL CFO Eric Grubman traveled to the Twin Cities to meet with the governor and state leaders imploring them to take command of the issue before the expiration of the lease. Second, the new governor Mark Dayton has been far more receptive to the idea of public financing than his predecessor. Third, the lease's expiration has created a sense of urgency.

Grubman's strongest point to the state was that the Wilf's proposed private contribution of $425 million would be the third largest by an owner in league history, behind only what the Cowboys put into Cowboys Stadium and the Jets and Giants sunk into MetLife Stadium.

Bridging the gap between that number and the $1 billion needed through public means is the issue. The state piece of the financing is being handled by a bipartisan legislative working group, which is shooting for approval at that next session to make its part of the money through some form of gaming, whether it's a casino or through the state lottery. Then, there's a local finance contribution, which will be steered by the site -- and whether it's at the Wilf's preferred Arden Hills location or one of two downtown spots.

If it's downtown, funding from a hospitality tax earmarked for the convention center will be redirected for the team, which would play in a new stadium either on the current lot (the team would blow up the Metrodome and play at the University of Minnesota for three years during construction) or near the Twins' Target Field. If it's in Arden Hills, a new hospitality tax will need to be established.

"One fundamental point here -- the team is taking on a lot of risk," said Bagley. "Being responsible for $425 million, which is the proposed contribution for Arden Hills, or a little less downtown (because there wouldn't be as many revenue streams for the team), clearly, this is going to have to work for the owner and the team. But this is a $1 billion project, and the public is putting in almost 60 percent. And if the public is putting in that much, the public's going to have a significant say in the location."

My guess is that most of those folks, in the end, will be OK with the site as long as it's in Minnesota. The league, too, has been involved because of its belief in a place that's been good for pro football and features an outsized number of corporate headquarters and wealth for a mid-sized market.

But it's probably important, too, to remember the lessons of Cleveland from 1995, when it was unimaginable that the Browns could leave. Until they actually did.

"We've never threatened to move, but the consequences are clear here," Bagley said. "This is a football state. There are five million people in Minnesota, and even with the team struggling, we've had one of the Top 5 TV ratings locally in the NFL. The last two years, we've averaged a 68 or 69 share, and that translates to 2.5 million viewers. You have three-quarters of a million listening on the radio, 68,000 in the dome -- more than half the state follows us every Sunday.

"This is the one thing that brings everyone together. The team belongs here. We know that."

Barely scratching the surface

Wyche: JPP key in 'Boys-Giants
Jason Pierre-Paul was dominant the first Cowboys- Giants matchup, and Steve Wyche writes he'll be the key Sunday night. More ...

Three weeks ago, when the Cowboys and Giants faced off for the first time, one New York pass rushing great, Michael Strahan, tweeted this about a guy who may be the next one in line: "… wait til he figures the game out."

Jason Pierre-Paul isn't there yet, just a few days shy of his 23rd birthday. But he's been good enough this year to register 15.5 sacks and make his first Pro Bowl. And so when I asked some of his teammates on Monday about that, there wasn't much gray area in their feelings.

"JPP knows nothing about football, other than, 'See ball, go get it'," Justin Tuck told me. "And that's absolutely working for him right now. And he's gotten smarter, too, to know what we want him to do. But when he starts figuring out how to look at formations and down-and-distance, and knowing to play the odds of football, I mean, it's kinda scary. Right now, he's just playing off pure talent, pure … I call it pure freakiness. He does stuff on the field I've never seen a 285-pound guy do."

Here's what they all mean: Pierre-Paul played just two years of high school football, and a single season of FBS college ball, meaning that he's still seen as an awfully raw prospect.

And Pierre-Paul himself has no problem hearing that. He knows he's got a ways to go.

"I think I'm growing into the game, and still learning. I'm not at my peak yet, not at all, nowhere near reaching it," he says. "Wait til I figure out how to play, it's gonna be crazy. I'm giving people trouble now and I barely know what I'm doing."

So I figured I find out just what folks think he's capable of, once he gets it figured out.

What came back was that some of this if, of course, hyperbole. There's not a whole lot of doubt that he'll become more polished. But the real variable seems to be whether or not Pierre-Paul ever develops the instincts some of the greats have.

"He has some inconsistencies in his technique, but not his motor," said one personnel man from an NFC rival. "He's inconsistent to find the ball and shed blockers on runs at him, but he has the athleticism to get to runs away from him. He's not a great edge rusher yet, in beating tackles off the edge. Most of his success comes on bull rushes and inside counters, more than nifty, explosive edge rushes. But he's still pretty damn good."

The biggest hole, the personnel man said, is Pierre-Paul's "inconsistent awareness." Sometimes he can make up for it. Sometimes he can't. And this kind of area where a player's feel for the game is vital and is hard to coach, and it's difficult to forecast whether or not a player will develop that.

But, as Strahan said, the sky remains the limit for this guy. His teammates are in unison on that.

"Strahan, he knows all the ins-and-outs of an offense, he's seen everything from an offense, so he knows how to break down everything," said Antrel Rolle. "[Strahan] playing defensive end, and perfecting the defensive end position, he knows things that JPP could be doing, maybe is not doing, and whether or not he's just going out there and playing football."

So I asked Rolle the same question I did the rest, on what it'll look like when Pierre-Paul gets the game down. He smiled and said, "Honestly, I think I'd rather keep him this way, rather keep him honest and just let him destroy anything that comes his way."

Four things I'll be looking for this weekend

1) The home stretch of the race for the No. 1 pick. The final week is here, and there are just two horses are left. It's fascinating to take a look at how this could all flesh itself out. No team knows the value of a franchise quarterback like the Colts do -- without Peyton Manning, it's iffy on whether they'd even be in Indy anymore -- and, while Jim Caldwell's bunch has proven it won't lay down, it's hard to argue that the team wouldn't be better off long-term with the first overall pick. On the other end of that equation, you have the Jacksonville Jaguars, who know the pain of having a QB like Manning in the division, and could save themselves another decade-and-a-half of heartache by losing Sunday. If Indy doesn't get the pick? Well, I laid that out on Tuesday. St. Louis, with a 24-year-old franchise QB in tow and a potential 22-year-old franchise QB's rights on its hands, would be in a pretty unique -- and enviable -- spot.

2) AFC scoreboard watching. Every level of the playoff race is in play in Week 17. What really interests me, however, is how the deployment of important players could be different for New England and Pittsburgh. The Patriots, playing an early game, risk losing the No. 1 seed if they manage their roster against Buffalo, so chances are the foot won't come off the pedal there, and that means a nicked-up Tom Brady playing through whatever is ailing his left shoulder. For Pittsburgh, however, Ben Roethlisberger's situation could get interesting in the latter stages of the late games. If say, Baltimore pulls away from Cincinnati, the Steelers game against Cleveland would become meaningless and, chances are Roethlisberger could get pulled -- if he plays at all. But if Baltimore falls behind, the Steelers could well jam on the accelerator in pursuit of a bye or even, if New England were to fall to Buffalo, the No. 1 seed.

3) NFC scoreboard watching mixed with NFL history. The race for the first pick is part of this -- with San Francisco playing St. Louis. The other ancillary piece is the NFL single-season passing record. Drew Brees stands at 5,087 yards, with Tom Brady behind by 190 yards, and we got a good picture of how significant the record is to the Saints on Monday night. The twist here comes if San Francisco gets up big on St. Louis early, which would lock the Saints into the third seed. Then, the question becomes what approach Sean Payton would take, with his team in a game with little meaning and another one with all the meaning in the world just six or seven days away. If Brees gets yanked with 130 or 140 yards in the first half, Brady then would have a legitimate chance at passing him, and my sense is Bill Belichick wouldn't mind rewarding his all-time great quarterback with a chance to pursue that mark. Anyway, all this shows you the game within the game being played here.

4) Lions vs. Packers. This could be a strange one. Start with Detroit, who has every reason to go all out in this game. A loss, and an Atlanta win over struggling Tampa Bay, would likely add up to another trip to the Superdome for Detroit, not a favorable matchup by any stretch. Now, if you take the next step, and say the Lions win that game, there's a very good chance that their divisional playoff game would be at Lambeau. So the Packers not only have motivation to get their players healthy this week, but they also have reason to avoid showing too much to the Lions with a potential rematch 13 or 14 days down the line. It is, of course, no certainty that the Lions and Packers would play in that game. Still, the possibility might be enough for Mike McCarthy not only to play Matt Flynn, but also play his cards close to the vest.

Three conclusions

1) This Brady/Brees/Rodgers dynamic won't become an annual thing. And I type that with the acknowledgement that big numbers will continue to come. I just don't think they'll be quite as outrageous as they were this season, and, yes, I believe that it's a circumstance of the lockout. The numbers aren't totally out of whack, but 44 percent of the passing yards both Brady and Rodgers have compiled came in the season's first six games, and that makes me think back to a talk I had with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in October. He and some evaluators noticed that offenses were taking advantage of defenses that weren't at the level they need to be from a communication standpoint. Those teams were trying to do too much, and it wasn't allowing guys to react as quickly as needed. That, they said, let to the offensive explosion. My feeling is it's skewing the numbers. So while there's plenty of reason to count on high-octane offenses continuing to produce, it's also likely that the video-game figures we're seeing will come down.

2) Mike Munchak's decision to stay in the pros is a good sign that NFL coaches know the challenges of going to college. There's been some perception out there that college coaches simply aren't at the level of pro coaches, and in some areas, there might be truth to that. But my belief is that the two jobs are massively different, and that's why you see folks try and fail to make the transition, in both directions. There's a long list backing up the point, a virtual graveyard of NFL types at the college level -- Bill Callahan (Nebraska), Charlie Weis (Notre Dame), Chan Gailey (Georgia Tech), Mike Sherman (Texas A & M) and Karl Dorrell (UCLA). In the end, I heard one reason Munchak wasn't ever expected to bolt Tennessee, outside his loyalty to Titans owner Bud Adams, was because he knew it'd be tough to learn recruiting and all the ins and outs of being a successful college coach after spending all his time on the sideline in the pros. Smart thought, by Munchak.

3) The Cowboys played this season the right way. What a lot of folks who wonder about Jason Garrett's job security forget, among other things, is that this year was seen as a season of "renovation", as one team official termed it. The Cowboys jettisoned veterans Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Roy Williams and Igor Olshansky, and worked to infuse youth in those spots. That led to inconsistencies and some issues late in games, but my belief is, as was the case in the above example of Washington, all this was done with a purpose. Several players have told me over the course of the year that the "accountability" of the Bill Parcells era was back at Valley Ranch. My sense is the Cowboys' conclusion at the outset was that this was the year, with a new coach and a roster aging in spots, to quietly overhaul certain areas. The good news would be that the dirty work now appears to be done.

Two pieces of business

1)The Raiders GM job will be a challenging one for whomever gets it. Sources say that Ken Herock and Ron Wolf are advising, and Green Bay's Reggie McKenzie is the early front-runner, but folks with the team maintain that this process really hasn't even started yet. Plenty of people are interested, that's for sure, but this isn't a perfect situation. Any GM coming in, first and foremost, will have to be comfortable with Hue Jackson as the coach and Carson Palmer as quarterback. After that, there's the issue of draft picks and cap room -- Oakland has no picks in the first four rounds in 2011, and it is already over the cap for next season. It's not untenable, of course. There's already a raft of offensive and defensive talent on the roster, and the financial structure of things is manageable. But there's plenty of work to be done.

2) The Packers stock sale is not a scam, at least not in my mind. And I've heard a lot about that, because the stock isn't "actual" stock. But I spent 10 days in Green Bay earlier this month, and part of it was investigating the connection between the town and the team. What I found is that these stock sales have, historically, bailed the Packers out of some bad spots, and that the owners of these "shares" see them as being anything but worthless. Instead, the citizens I talked to thought they were symbols of their own "investment" in a team that's survived in a town that's barely over 100,000 in population and a couple hours away from any other city of significant size. The folks I talked to were well aware of what they were buying, and were OK with it, almost like a booster would be fine with a $250 donation to his school athletic department. In the end, I think way too much was made of the "worth" of that stock.

One prediction

The potential availability of former head coaches Josh McDaniels and Norv Turner on offense, and Steve Spagnuolo and Raheem Morris on defense, could lead to coordinator changes in a number of locales.

While McDaniels might have a soft landing in Kansas City, the other three are sure to have opportunities in a number of places. And if a head coach is on the fence about his coordinator, the names on the market could push him to pull the trigger.

Much of this will depend on the playoff fortunes of certain teams, but I'd bet we have a surprise or two coming down the pike in this department, which adds to the normal spinning of the coaching carousel.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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