ASHBURN, Va. — Mike Shanahan’s once-unquestioned legacy was fading rapidly.
Now, a seven-game winning streak has not only put the Washington Redskins back in the playoffs, it has ended the personal drought of the coach who won two Super Bowls way back when in Denver.
Seven weeks ago, Shanahan was 14-27 after roughly 2½ seasons in Washington. To fans with short memories, he had become associated as much with Donovan McNabb failures as with John Elway successes. Though often touted as a Hall of Fame coach by his peers, it had been seven years since he coached a playoff team.
Turns out, he still knows what he’s doing.
“You understand as a coach: unless you get it done, people forget very quickly what you’ve done,” Shanahan said Monday. “So that’s why I think a game like winning the NFC East, you get a game like that, you want to find a way to win it. Because once you do, that momentum starts again. ... Unless you take advantage of that opportunity, people forget very quickly.”
The Redskins (10-6), division winners after a 28-18 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the season finale, will play host to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since the 2007 season. It’s the first home playoff game since a 27-13 win over the Detroit Lions on Jan. 8, 2000.
In Shanahan’s history, the more relevant seasons are 1997 and 1998, when he won those Super Bowls with Elway and the Broncos. And 2005, when he made his last playoff appearance with the Broncos. And 2008, when he went 8-8 and was fired, leading to a year out of the NFL before the Redskins hired him in 2010.
Shanahan recalled some of that history Monday, pointing out that the 2006 and 2008 teams were in playoff contention until the final week. He also spoke of the way his current Redskins finally discovered the confidence to get on a roll when another losing season seemed inevitable.
“I’m very proud of this group,” Shanahan said. “Because there’s a lot of people, when you’re 3-6, and you’re fighting some adversity, they’re not strong enough mentally to really go out there and practice hard, and give themselves a chance to accomplish goals. You’ve got to have strong character to take criticism and keep on fighting, not worry about what’s being said, and just focus on your job. Players, as well as coaches.”
Shanahan certainly heard the criticism when he said the playoffs were no longer a realistic goal immediately after the record dropped to 3-6. He maintains his words were misinterpreted, and his attempts to explain them actually helped the players believe there was still something to play for.
That confusing week seems ages ago. On Monday, Shanahan was clearly in a good mood at his weekly news conference. He joked with a photographer that “my good side’s over here” and laughed when asked by a reporter whether any players were being suspended this week. The team has a habit of waiting until Shanahan has left the room to announce such bad news.
Asked about the state of quarterback Robert Griffin III’s sprained right knee, Shanahan joked: “I was a little disappointed yesterday because he only averaged 10½ yards a carry.”
On kicker Kai Forbath, who hit an upright to end a streak of 17 made field goals to start a career, the coach said: “We cut him since he missed that field goal. He’s gone.” Then he recanted with a smile: “We’ll allow him one miss.”
Seriously, Shanahan offered a clue on how he’s changed as a coach over the years. Talent, he’s learned, isn’t enough.
“When you’re younger, you’re always looking for the best athlete. You always think that athlete is going to get you that championship,” he said. “And through experiences you realize that everybody has to know their role. There’s only going to be so many great athletes on your football team, and those great athletes, you’re hoping that they’re your leaders.”
Obviously, Griffin tops that list: The Redskins are 7-0 since he’s been made a team captain. But solid locker room guys such as London Fletcher, Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, Lorenzo Alexander and a rehabilitated Trent Williams fit that bill, too.
And then there are those hard-to-grasp intangibles: confidence and momentum. The Redskins now have them both.
“I think that’s what separates teams,” Shanahan said. “Teams that play with a lot of confidence, you get used to winning. You expect to win. You’ve been in that situation a few times. Whether it’s a tough third quarter, it’s a tough first quarter or a fourth quarter, and you find a way to win. It’s a mindset, a lot of guys believing in each other, concentrating on their job, and in the end finding a way to get it done.
“And when you do that, sometimes you just get used to it. It’s one of those things that kind of separates really good teams from average teams.”