WASHINGTON (AP) - Mike Shanahan has put the Washington Redskins on notice: The last seven weeks of the season will determine who is worthy of sticking around with Robert Griffin III.
Shanahan was referring to the players. The way things are going, he might want to add himself to that list.
Not only have the Redskins (3-6) just passed the midway point of the season, but Shanahan has also just hit the midpoint of his five-year, $35 million contract. His record is 14-27 in Washington, and he hasn't taken a team to the playoffs since the 2005 season with the Denver Broncos.
He is the only coach hired by Dan Snyder to make it to a third season without a playoff appearance to show for it, an unusual show of patience from an owner who doesn't have an endless supply. Riding a three-game losing streak, the Redskins entered their bye week still in rebuilding mode - even as they've watched other franchises trend from worst to respectable on a speedier timetable.
In fairness to Shanahan, he inherited a mess. The Redskins had become dysfunctional with Vinny Cerrato running the front office, and Jim Zorn looked overwhelmed as a head coach. That's a good place to begin Shanahan's self-defense of his record.
"I didn't think we'd have a whole new football team going into my third year," Shanahan said. "That's a little unusual."
Only 12 players on the current 53-man roster pre-date Shanahan's arrival.
"We were an older football team," he said. "We didn't have a lot of draft choices, and when you don't have a lot of players, and you don't have depth through the draft, and you cut all those old players, that means you're starting over again. And that's what we did - we started over again."
Shanahan also notes that each of his three Redskins offseasons has been hindered by unusual circumstances. There was a smaller free agent pool in 2010 because of the rules in place in the uncapped final year of the collective bargaining agreement. The 2011 offseason was thrown askew by the lockout, and in 2012 the Redskins learned with little notice before the start of free agency that they were being docked $18 million in salary cap money this year and next because of overspending during the uncapped year.
"Obviously that's very strong, when you talk about $36 million," Shanahan said. "And you find out 10 minutes before free agency starts. You plan something for 2½ years and you find out 10 minutes through the newspaper that you just got hit with $36 million."
The counter argument is that every NFL team had to deal with the uncapped year as well as the lockout, and that the salary cap penalty merely helps to balance the advantage the Redskins gained with their above-average spending in 2010.
Besides, it's not as if Shanahan hits the bull's-eye with the players he chooses. He wasted a year trying to get Donovan McNabb to fit into his system, then rashly staked his reputation on the duo of Rex Grossman and John Beck. He hit the jackpot this year by getting into position to take Heisman Trophy winner Griffin, who initially was thought to be one of the final pieces of the rebuilding puzzle.
Instead, Griffin looks like one of the first. The Redskins' list of needs runs the gauntlet: cornerback, safety, linebacker, receiver, right tackle. Griffin is already an elite-level player on a team that has very few of them, and it won't be easy to get help for him next year because of the second half of the $36 million penalty as well as the lack of a first-round draft pick from the trade that allowed the team to move up and select the rookie quarterback.
"I think when you look at the NFL, some instances where you say third year of a program, third year of a head coach, you would like to see the team starting to settle," linebacker and defensive captain London Fletcher said. "I think in our situation, this is the first year we have actually had a quarterback for the most part. That definitely makes a difference. You see with Robert, he is going to be a great player and is going to give you a great chance to win. Now you just continue to build on it and build pieces around him."
From the day he arrived in Washington, Shanahan has been all about control. He has final say over the roster. He's a man of routine and organization. He demands discipline. He's installed rules and restrictions never before seen at Redskins Park. He won't let the media-savvy Griffin mingle freely with the media.
But he can't control the growing apprehension over his record from a Washington fan base that owes no debt to him over his pair of 20th Century Super Bowl titles with the Broncos. He can't control Snyder's thoughts and actions. Shanahan sometimes even has trouble controlling his own message - he had to backpedal last week and declare that he hasn't given up on making the playoffs, a necessary clarification a day after he baffled his players by saying the rest of the season would serve "to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come."
Shanahan says he's seen "tremendous strides" with the team and that he has it going "in the right direction." He also feels he's made the culture change necessary to create a championship mindset.
"There's only one way you win the big one - and that's what we're after," Shanahan said. "It's not just winning - it's winning the Super Bowl. It's just not going to the playoffs or winning a playoff game. It's what do you do to get to the highest level. You'd better have certain standards that you go by."