Mike Shanahan's Washington Redskins revival bigger than RGIII

RICHMOND, Va. -- Outside of the Aaron Hernandez murder investigation, there hasn't been a bigger story in football this summer than Robert Griffin III's comeback from his January knee reconstruction.

That's why it's so easy to miss the other story at Washington Redskins camp, a few hours south of Washington, D.C.

Though just three full camps have passed since head coach Mike Shanahan was hired, the number might as well be 30.

"You can't even compare it. There's no comparison, now and three years ago," Shanahan said after a late-July walkthrough. "It's a completely different environment, completely different football team. Last year, we made tremendous strides -- six new starters on offense. And any time you have six new starters, there's a big learning curve. A lot of these guys stepped up and played extremely well, and we finished the season on a good note. Defensively, we got better the last seven games.

"First nine games, we had some chances to win a few more games, and we didn't take advantage of those opportunities. But I was impressed with our football team, the way we finished, the way we played, and hopefully, we can build on that."

Griffin unquestionably has brought hope back to this once-proud franchise. But amid the hysteria surrounding his rehab, the events of the past three weeks have proven he's not the only reason for those in the nation's capital to start trusting in the Redskins again after nearly a decade of losing faith.

Just consider the Redskins' other recent headline-generating stories. There's Kirk Cousins' emergence as a potential starter -- for someone, at least -- after shining in the preseason. There's the idea of getting Brian Orakpo locked up long-term. There's the development of two risk/reward defensive backs drafted in April. There's the return to health of receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis.

Compared to what used to go on around Washington, it all qualifies as a bushel of lollipops and rainbows.

Remember, Shanahan is the team's seventh coach in Dan Snyder's 14 years as owner. Norv Turner lasted less than two seasons under the current boss -- with Terry Robiskie serving as interim coach for the final three games of 2000. Marty Schottenheimer was there for a year, Steve Spurrier two, Joe Gibbs four and Jim Zorn two. Perhaps with that history in mind, Shanahan told Snyder before taking his current post that it would take five years to get the team where it needed to be. This wouldn't be like Shanahan's tenure with the Denver Broncos, who became champions with just a few tweaks.

Snyder listened. And now his team is reaping the benefits.

"From the beginning, we said, 'Let's do it the right way and not force anything,' " said Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, who arrived just before Shanahan was hired in 2010. "Of course, we forced it a little, trading up for Robert, but we thought that was wise, because we were gonna get Robert or Andrew Luck, and we needed that. And we liked how we'd built the rest of the team."

'There's a game plan'

In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Washington spent first-round draft picks on players it now considers to be part of its core (Trent Williams, Ryan Kerrigan, Griffin), while finding depth in the later rounds with guys like Leonard Hankerson, Perry Riley and Alfred Morris. The new talent has been supplemented with core players who were already in Washington, like Orakpo and London Fletcher, along with some who were picked up via free agency, like Garcon.

There were bumps along the way. This regime's first crack at finding a quarterback -- trading for Donovan McNabb -- was a disaster. And then there was the $36 million salary-cap penalty that cost the Redskins $18 million of space last year and another $18 million this year -- the fallout from which is sure to stretch even further.

"We're still trying to battle through the $36 million penalty," Allen said. "Nothing set back the franchise more than that, and you're still trying to manage through that. It'll affect us for two or three more years. You take $36 million away from any team ... Take $36 million, and look at any team's roster, and see how they would be without those players."

Asked where the hit has affected the club, the GM responded, "Everywhere. Thirty-six is a very large number. That's not a rounding error. That's a third of a salary cap."

Citing tampering rules, Allen wouldn't get into specifics about who he might've pursued absent the sanctions, but he did laud players who've sacrificed financially -- DeAngelo Hall would be one example -- to help the team make everything work. From a bookkeeping standpoint, meanwhile, the club is hamstrung when it comes to potential extensions for players like Orakpo, as it doesn't have much space currently available to make future-year cap numbers more reasonable.

"I've been pleased with the (handling of the) $36 million hit, that we've been able to keep the nucleus of our football team together," Shanahan said, simply. "That doesn't happen very often."

By the time that penalty came down, the Redskins had already pulled the trigger on the blockbuster deal that eventually brought Griffin to D.C. While that trade -- the Redskins sent a slew of draft picks to the St. Louis Rams for the second overall pick in 2012 -- helped Washington answer the quarterback question that every team must face, it also sapped the team of resources with which to bring in more affordable young talent. "We would still do the trade, because both the quarterbacks at the top of the draft were special," Allen says now, though he acknowledges that the cap penalties compounded the team's decision to shrink its margin for error.

In an effort to find value, Washington did take risks in this year's draft. Second-round pick David Amerson was once considered a first-round talent, but he was shaky as a junior, with his own coach questioning his preparation, and left N.C. State a year early. Sixth-round pick Bacarri Rambo came with off-field questions, having been suspended twice as a collegian.

"There's a game plan," Shanahan said. "People think you're rolling the dice, but they don't know these players like you do. You do your homework on all these players, and when a guy's available at a certain position, you've gotta feel good enough about that player to go and draft them. I feel very good about our draft class and where they're at. I've been very impressed with how they've handled themselves."

'Expect to be the best'

Thus far, the game plan has worked in Washington.

If Griffin comes back for Week 1, as is the plan, he'll have a roster around him that should be ready to take another leap forward. Things haven't been perfect, but the scene here is, again, a far cry from the circus that sprang up around Zorn. That's a credit, the guys here say, to an owner who was willing to get behind his football people -- something that hasn't been said much about Snyder in the past.

"He's been fantastic," Allen said. "In whatever we've wanted to do, he's been supportive. He's been very proactive when we've wanted him to be. He just wants to see this franchise win. From afar, we respected that. And now you can see his commitment is all in."

That's why, while the next step might be finding out what a healthy Griffin can do in the postseason, the future beyond 2013 seems bright.

Eventually, Cousins could help replenish the club's well of draft picks via the trade market; eventually, the effects of the cap hits will fade. For now, the Redskins look much deeper, stronger and more talented than they were when Shanahan and Allen arrived in 2010.

And sure, No. 10 is a vital part of what Shanahan calls the Redskins' "game plan."

"That's part of the game plan, when you draft a guy like Robert; it's hard to get a franchise quarterback," he explains. "You gotta make a decision, and pull the trigger if that's the direction you want to go. But there are so many first-round draft picks that come in and don't play right away, and it can be a crapshoot. We feel really good about Robert and what he's done, and what he's capable of doing. And you're hoping you can fill in a few pieces through the draft, and every once in a while in free agency."

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The Redskins have done all that. They're optimistic that the pains of rebuilding are now fully behind them. But that's about more than just having the right quarterback -- it's about having the right team.

Clearly, the guys who've constructed the current group can look out on these practice fields and reasonably believe they're getting there.

"I always say, 'Talk is cheap,' and you gotta do it on the football field. But our football team is confident," Shanahan said. "We've gotten better. We did some good things last year, and they come out here and improve every day. And your expectations, once you start winning, should be very high; you should expect to be the best at what you do. Our attitude, believing in each other, hopefully, we just continue to get better."

They already have, as has been apparent with Cousins piloting the group through the preseason. The hope now is that, with Griffin returning -- but not just because he is -- the best is yet to come.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.