- Associated Press
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

ASHBURN, Va. | A few months after becoming coach of the Washington Redskins, Mike Shanahan gave a speech before the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.

After he finished, he started taking questions from the audience.

“I’m not sure how to phrase this properly, but I’ll try,” one woman began. “We know how passionate Dan Snyder is about his team and all the efforts he’s put forth over the years. How would you see yourself balancing yourself as a coach to him as the owner, and allow your team to work separately with you — without interference?”

The room echoed with nervous laughter, then the applause began. It grew louder. Some in the audience cheered.

Shanahan, ever the smooth communicator, made a quick joke and handled the question diplomatically, saying of Snyder: “He’s let me do my job completely.”

“I can’t tell you what’s happened in the past,” the coach added. “But I can tell you now, that we’re going in the right direction.”

Another round of sustained applause.

What a different vibe there is in the nation’s capital. Less than 12 months after the so-called Burgundy Revolution, when fans were urging boycotts, wearing bags on their heads and calling for the overthrow of Snyder and anyone associated with him, the franchise has completely reversed course.

In a way, the rebels got their wish: The owner essentially fired himself, giving contractual control of player matters to a coach who won two Super Bowl titles with the Denver Broncos. Front office executive Vinny Cerrato was sent packing in favor of new general manager Bruce Allen, likable but overwhelmed coach Jim Zorn was dismissed, and all is right again in the minds of the faithful.

And, for that matter, in the minds of the players.

“It’s a whole change of atmosphere here,” center Casey Rabach said. “It’s not just a change of coach. With Bruce Allen coming in, Vinny out, Mr. Snyder being more hands-off and letting these guys do it, I think that’s the biggest change.”

Should the arrangement stay in place, it could bode well for the long-term prospects of a franchise that has won only two playoff games in 11 seasons of Snyder’s ownership, but what does it mean for this year? Can a team that went 4-12 in 2009 compete for the playoffs in the tough NFC East?

First of all, it’s significant to note that the Redskins have made substantial upgrades at four vital positions: coach, general manager, quarterback and left tackle. In addition to Shanahan and Allen, Washington landed six-time Pro Bowl signal-caller Donovan McNabb in a trade with division rival Philadelphia, then chose blind-side protector Trent Williams from Oklahoma with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

Those additions alone should be worth several wins — assuming McNabb hasn’t totally lost his touch — but it will take more to make the Redskins contenders. There are question marks on the right side of the offensive line and at receiver, where 38-year-old Joey Galloway’s push for a starting job speaks volumes about the lagging development of the franchise’s young wideouts.

The offense’s strength is the tight end tag-team of Chris Cooley and Fred Davis, who will often share the field in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s line-up-anybody-at-any-position game plan. Clinton Portis may or may not have anything left as he returns from a scary concussion, but Shanahan lit a fire under him by signing veteran running backs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker.

The defense has also undergone a radical overhaul, with coordinator Jim Haslett installing a 3-4 scheme that promises to pressure the quarterback and produce more takeaways. Its success could hinge on the team’s biggest malcontent, Albert Haynesworth, who skipped offseason workouts because he didn’t want to play in the 3-4 but now has come to embrace it. All is not sweetness and light between Haynesworth and Shanahan after a showdown over a fitness test at training camp, but, as the coach said on the day Haynesworth finally passed the test: “He probably doesn’t like me very much right now, but I’m not here to be liked. I’m here to get him to play.”

Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter each had 11 sacks in a 4-3 defense a year ago, but now they are outside linebackers in a 3-4 and will have their coverage skills tested. The secondary looks stronger now that LaRon Landry is back to his natural strong safety position, and third-year player Kareem Moore has been a pleasant surprise at free safety at camp.

But success has to do as much with attitude as with Xs and Os. Every team with a new coach is always going to praise the new leader’s style, but the Redskins have done a 180 that perhaps could make a few heads spin.

At the chamber of commerce luncheon, the video screen proclaimed “The Future is Here,” a take-off of the old “Future Is Now” slogan from the 1970s. Mike Shanahan doesn’t plan on wasting any time.

So, while there’s no guarantee the Redskins will climb out of last place this season, there’s no confusion over who’s in charge: It’s the coach on the field, not the marketing millionaire in the corner office.

“Everything. Attitude. More discipline. Focus. All that’s changed,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “And that’s just by having a guy as your head coach that you really believe in, that’s been there, that’s done it, that really gets the most out of all his guys. Guys really want to play for him.”

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