The Shanahan System Is Broken

By Kelso Carpenter

I’ve never really been one to question coaching and/or playcalling.  The bottom line is that the players are the ones who are on the field responsible for blocking, tackling, and making plays.

A coach is only as good as his players.

Unfortunately, I’m finally beginning to believe that the opposite is true as well.

When Redskins owner Daniel Snyder fired Jim Zorn and hired Mike Shanahan in early 2010, it was reported that Shanahan demanded a five year leash to fully implement his scheme.

Who could blame him?  The roster had been completely destroyed over the previous ten years by the likes of Vinny Cerrato, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs (bless his heart), and the aforementioned Zorn.  Naturally, it takes time to get rid of the players who don’t fit and bring in new ones who do.  Additionally, Shanahan’s offensive system, lead by his offensive coordinator and son Kyle, would take two, three, maybe four years to be fully learned and perfected.

And that’s just the offense.

On defense, Shanahan brought in Jim Haslett and made the switch to the 3-4 scheme, a transition that would probably need more time and effort to fully deploy than the one taking place on the offensive side of the ball.

So here we are, 23 games into the Shanahan regime, and there’s little to show for it so far.  We’ve seen the departure of tenured Redskins like Clinton Portis, Andre Carter, Phillip Daniels, Mike Sellers (essentially), Casey Rabach, Carlos Rogers, and Jason Campbell.  And we’ve seen failed experiments involving Donovan McNabb, Albert Haynesworth, and Rex Grossman.  (I realize Haynesworth was signed by Cerrato and Zorn, but Shanahan chose to keep him the extra year).

So far in 2011, the defense has made great strides since being at the bottom of the league last season.  In this year’s draft, Shanahan ignored the glaring need at quarterback and, instead, chose to focus on the defense.  Initially, it paid off.  Through the first few games, the defense was on fire, racking up sacks, forcing turnovers, and limiting big plays.

It seems now, though, that opposing offenses have figured Haslett’s scheme out.  They’re countering his aggressive, blitzing style with short, intermediate passes and designed runs to the weakest parts of the defense.  All you have to do is watch the games against the Eagles, Panthers, and Bills and it’s obvious.  The result is an exposed defensive backfield devoid of much talent or depth.

DeAngelo Hall and Laron Landry are undisciplined and too risky.  OJ Atogwe has been a disappointment.  Josh Wilson is a third corner at best, and Kevin Barnes and Byron Westbrook or special teammers.  Meanwhile, Carlos Rogers is flourishing in San Francisco.  We’ll see him on Sunday.

In front of them at linebacker, we’ve got an aging London Fletcher, a severely out-of-position Rocky McIntosh, and two converted defensive ends, one of whom is a rookie.  And with the unfortunate early season-ending injury to rookie Jarvis Jenkins, they’re thin at defensive line.

I’m willing to give the defense somewhat of a pass though.  Switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 is hard, and it takes time.  And like it or not, the decision has been made so there’s no sense in fighting it.  Last year they were terrible.  This year they’re showing some progress.  Next year they’ll (hopefully) be better.

On offense, it’s a different story.  Sure there’s the same lack of talent and depth due to a decade of poor drafting, bad free agents, etc.  Like the defense, it will take another responsible draft class or two and a few strategic free agent signings to get this roster up to the talent level of say, the Green Bay Packers.  But I fear the true problem may be deeper than personnel alone.

No, friends, I believe the biggest obstacles we’re facing are ego, stubbornness, and pride.

It’s never been a secret that Mike Shanahan is quite fond of himself.  He has the utmost confidence in his ability to evaluate talent, run an offense, and manage a team.  The guy has won two Super Bowls (granted, he had John Elway).

It’s clear that he firmly believes in his system.  All he needs is the right players, and it will eventually work.  And why not?  It brought him plenty of success in San Francisco as a coordinator and in Denver as a head coach.

What I don’t think Shanahan, who took a couple years off after being fired by the Broncos, realizes is that the NFL is always evolving.  The plays that “always” worked in previous years might not work today.  This is largely a players league now, not a system league.  Sure, the Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Colts, and Packers have a “system,” but they also have a lot of talent, and those systems are established.

You can’t lean on your system 100% and expect all of your players to fit into it like nice, round pegs.  You have to make adjustments.  You have to play to your players’ strengths.

For example:  Tim Hightower showed signs of being the prefect guy for Shanahan’s zone blocking, stretch running scheme.  Ryan Torain and Roy Helu not so much.  Hightower got hurt and the Shanahans basically kept the exact same running plays for the other two guys, and it hasn’t worked (26 rushing yards against the Bills).  Torain isn’t a sideline to sideline, shifty back.  He’s a north and south pounding bruiser.  Why not design runs that play to his strength?  Same thing with Helu.  He’s got great straight-line speed, but he’s not as shifty as Hightower.  He needs to get the ball in space via screen passes or toss/pitch runs.

Another example:  Your offensive line is banged up.  The defense is sacking your quarterback left and right.  Why not move away from the five and seven step drops and switch to some plays that get the ball out quicker?  How about some quick slants or smoke screens?


That’s something Joe Gibbs was a genius at back in the day.

Other teams do it too.  We see it every week.  We saw it last night in the Cowboys/Eagles game.  Philadelphia designed plays specifically for the Cowboys defense.  And it worked.  We saw it in the Steelers/Patriots game too.

There has to be a little humility there.  You have to be willing to admit “hey, my system is not going to work the same way every week against every team.”

Week after week, regardless of who’s on the field, we’re watching the same plays fail.

Part of the reason for this is because the plays are just bad plays – either poorly designed or inconsistent (square hole, round peg) with the talent on the field.  But the other reason for this failure is because defenses aren’t stupid.

If you continue to come out every week with the same gameplan with the same plays, they’re going to figure you out pretty quickly.

I wrote an article last week about some changes I thought Mike Shanahan should make.  It now appears I was only scratching the surface.

The worst about this whole scenario?  Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator and reported-to-be-head-coach-in-waiting appears to be every bit as ego-centric, stubborn, and prideful as his dad.

We might be in real trouble here.



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