Are The Redskins Still Haunted By The Ghost Of Shanahan?

The offseason for the Washington Redskins has been an unmitigated disaster to date. They’ve lost both Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson to free agency. General manager Scot McCloughan, who has overseen the winning records of the last two years, was fired. And the team was unable to work out a long-term deal with Kirk Cousins, instead choosing to franchise tag him for $24 million a year.

All of this is bad enough. The worst of it is that it seems painfully obvious that this organization is still haunted by the ghost of Mike Shanahan and his falling out with RG3, something made manifest in the botched handling of the Cousins situation.

For the sake of this blog post, I have to assume the reader is familiar with the particulars of the Shanahan-RG3-Cousins love triangle. It’s a subject that is fraught with layers of intrigue—everything from power to fame to race to football strategy. It would make for a heckuva soap opera, which is to say it’s a uniquely Redskins tale.

We all know that it started when Redskins owner Dan Snyder wanted to trade up in the 2012 NFL draft to RG3. Shanahan, entering his third year as head coach with a team showing no signs of life, wasn’t enthusiastic. He preferred to stay at the #6 overall spot.

Revisionist history written by pro-Shanahan media forces have made it out that he wanted Cousins all along. In reality, the rumors of the time were that the coach (who doubled as GM) also had his eye on Ryan Tannehill (who eventually went ninth overall to Miami). Either way, the point is the coach wanted a more traditional NFL pocket-passer. The owner wanted the electric Griffin, who brought a new style of play.

At this point, most sane people in Shanahan’s position would have chosen one of two options…

Option 1: Remind the owner why he brought you on board—to have a football man making football decisions and that he was paying you $7 million a year to make these decisions. If all else failed, remind him of the ironclad language in your contract that gave you complete authority over personnel decisions (a perk very few coaches enjoy). Tell him you’re picking Tannehill/Cousins and to judge you by the results.

Option 2: Defer to the owner’s wishes and do everything in your power to make it a success.

Somehow Shanahan found a Door #3 in this seemingly simple binary equation. It was to give the owner what he wanted—trade up to get RG3. And also take what he wanted—pick Cousins in the fourth round. Then work to steadily undermine the owner’s preferred quarterback through a series of steady media leaks, build up Cousins beyond all reasonable expectation, and then leave RG3 playing on an injured knee—an act so egregious that any conventional employer would have been sued for culpable negligence.

Cousins ended up in the middle of all this. By the time his backers were done building him up, he became the second coming of Dan Marino. His detractors pounced on every failing. And for the sake of honesty, I was in the latter group—especially after the four-interception atrocity against the Giants on a Thursday night in 2014.

It was a poisonous debate that ripped apart Redskins Nation and the result is that even after two years as the starter, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground on Cousins. Some of that is understandable—on the one hand, he puts up big numbers and the team has gone 17-14-1 over the last two years—a virtual golden age in the Snyder era. On the other hand, the team spent heavily on an extremely good group of receivers and Cousins still has a tendency to play down at the biggest moment—how about another atrocious performance against the Giants at home, this one in Week 17 last year that cost a playoff berth?

My ultimate point is not to make a case for or against Cousins. My bigger question is to wonder how much the opinions of the Redskins—most importantly, Dan Snyder and righthand man Bruce Allen—are being influenced by anger at Shanahan and not wanting to prove him right by giving Cousins a long-term contract.

If that’s the case, it’s misplaced bitterness. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of opinion regarding Cousins, there’s no doubt he’s one of the twenty or so legitimate starting quarterbacks in the NFL. And there’s no doubt that the market on such quarterbacks is headed upward—witness the $15 million Mike Glennon got from the Bears, making him higher paid than Aaron Rodgers.

A contract given to Cousins now would, strictly speaking, be overpaying him. But by the time the contract ran its course and the market finished its correction, it would probably be reasonable. Keeping him on the escalating franchise tag costs is grossly inefficient and makes winning in a salary-cap league to be virtually impossible.

Mike Shanahan’s handling of Robert Griffin III will never be vindicated and I consider the treatment of the Griffin family as a whole to be one of the most embarrassing episodes in a recent franchise history that has all too many embarrassments.

But whatever the questionable means Shanahan used to get and promote Kirk Cousins, the fact remains that Cousins is a viable NFL starter. And if the Redskins refuse to sign him to a long-term deal because they don’t want to give their former coach a perceived win—well, then it’s just letting Shanahan bleed this organization one last time.