Mike Shanahan is a respected member of the NFL coaching community, having been a head coach in the NFL for 25 seasons and accumulating a record of 157-119. In addition, he has a record of 13-8 in the NFL playoffs and won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998. Accomplishments like that put a head coach in the Hall of Fame; no one can dispute the immense accomplishments Shanahan has had in the NFL. You do not coach for 25 years in that league if you are not a brilliant motivator and tactical schemer.
That is what makes the last few seasons so troubling. The last winning record Shanahan had as a head coach was in Denver back in 2006, when the team finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. The last time he won a division and won a playoff game was back in 2005, when the Broncos finished (13-3) and lost the AFC Championship Game. Since 2006, Shanahan is just 35-45, losing his job after the 2008 season with the Denver Broncos. He joined the Washington Redskins in 2010, where he has gone 11-21 in two seasons.
Shanahan used to be known for producing stellar running backs. His two best running backs in Denver were RB Terrell Davis and RB Clinton Portis. From 1996 to 1998, Davis finished second, second and first in fantasy points scored among running backs. Davis was not a sure fire starter coming into the NFL, he was drafted in the sixth round of the 1995 NFL draft thriving in Shanahan’s running back friendly offense. Portis was a second round pick that finished fourth and fifth in fantasy points scored in 2002 and 2003, but he was traded to the Washington Redskins for CB Champ Bailey. The Redskins had no problem replacing him, as RB Reuben Droughns finished 14th in fantasy points the following season. Then in 2005, RB Mike Anderson, who finished fourth in fantasy points among running backs in 2000 before Portis became the starter reemerged and finished 10th among fantasy running backs.
Dominant running backs used to be a given in Shanahan’s offense. That has not been the case since 2007. The last player to gain 1,000 yards for Shanahan was RB Tatum Bell, who had 1,025 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns back in 2006. In 2007, RB Selvin Young led the Broncos with 729 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns. In 2008, RB Peyton Hillis had the honor with 343 rushing yards and five touchdowns on a team that saw three running backs gain at least 300 yards eight players gain at least 100 yards rushing that season. A year layoff did not improve matters, in 2010 we saw Ryan Torain lead the Redskins in rushing yards in Shanahan’s first season with the team. He gained 742 yards rushing and scored four rushing touchdowns and looked to be a sleeper for a big season in 2011. He followed up 2010 with just 200 yards rushing last season. The Redskins had four running backs gain at least 200 yards rushing, with rookie RB Roy Helu earning the top spot with 640 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Four running backs had a game with at least 19 carries and three running backs had multiple games with at least 19 carries.
I am going to defend Shanahan a little bit by saying that part of the reason he is rotating backs so frequently are injuries. He wanted to go with RB Tim Hightower last year, but Hightower tore his ACL. Helu had a nice four game stretch last season, but he was hurt the last couple of weeks and that opened the door for Royster. Running back is a brutal position that sees players suffer numerous injuries. Shanahan cannot be blamed for injuries; he has to insert a new player if the starter is too hurt to play.
However, this is not just a one season aberration, Shanahan has definitely changed his approach since 2006; he has not had injury-depleted backfields for five consecutive seasons. Shanahan has always had a tendency to not stay with one running back too long, but the window used to be a year or two. Once you were his running back, he would stick with you for at least the season. That made it a nightmare managing your roster in a dynasty league, but at least it was very easy in seasonal league. Project the Broncos starting running back and he was going to be a RB1 or RB2. Now, Shanahan goes with a running back for about a half and he is on to the next one, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of impatience. It seems he no longer expects a five yards per carry average, he expects five yards every carry.
As fantasy owners, we often become self-centered and want head coaches to make decisions that benefit our fantasy team instead of their own team. An example of this is the New England Patriots. We complain about their cryptic injury reports, their tight end rotation that can be impossible to pick, their committee of running backs that changes by the minute. The last time the Patriots won fewer than 10 games was 2002 and they have missed the playoffs one time since 2003. Since 2001, they have appeared in five Super Bowls and won three of them. It is hard to criticize 139 wins and 53 losses. While head coach Bill Belichick may drive fantasy owners crazy, his job is to win football games for his team, not our fantasy team.
Shanahan on the other hand continues to post losing records, which is even more frustrating. Belichick delegates playing time based on match-ups; there is a method to his madness. There really does not seem to be logic to what Shanahan is doing, he does not have a receiving back, goal line back and between the 20s running back. Roles seem undefined or change from week-to-week.
Last year RB Ryan Torain figured to be the early season starter, but he lost that job to Hightower who dominated the carries the first two weeks. Hightower missed Week 3 due to injury, so Torain stepped in and had 135 yards rushing in a win against the St. Louis Rams. Torain had 65 rushing yards in his other 15 games combined; he never saw significant playing time after that big game. The Redskins lost six straight games after Week 3, although there was more to that than not playing Torain anymore. Unfortunately, they had Rex Grossman and John Beck at quarterback, which is a topic for another day.
Helu had a strong month down the stretch and figured to be in line to compete for the starting job. Now RB Evan Royster appears to be the front-runner to start the season, based on his two strong games that the Redskins lost 33-26 to the (3-13) Minnesota Vikings and 34-10 to the (8-8) Eagles. However, back in July the speculation was that Hightower would be the starter if he was healthy, which makes you wonder why they weren’t high on Royster in July, but suddenly love him now. There just is not any consistency to Shanahan’s thought process; a guy could be the starter one day and a candidate to not make the team the next.
I am not saying that I am a master NFL coach that knows how to do that job. Shanahan has forgot more about coaching than I will ever know. However, I know players need to find a rhythm if they are going to succeed and that no player is going to succeed if he is starting one week and buried on the bench the next week. It destroys the confidence and the continuity of the team. It is one thing to have clearly defined roles for several running backs; it is another to jerk running backs in and out of the lineup.
While I may not be a NFL head coach, I can study statistics as well as anyone. This new approach is not how Shanahan became a Super Bowl winning coach. As a fantasy owner, I am staying clear of the Washington Redskins and their running back situation. Helu appears to be the best running back to me and I thought he could be poised for a nice season. Since hearing that Royster has the inside track to the top job, I have lost all confidence in Helu seeing the field enough to make an impact. I also have no confidence that Royster will stay on Shanahan’s good side for more than three games to warrant picking him very high. I think Helu leads the committee for a second straight year while the Redskins shuffle running backs in and out of the lineup on a team that probably wins six games again with a rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III. Good luck picking which week each back is in favor with the coaching staff.
Shanahan used to be the mad scientist that could find a 1,500 yard running back anywhere on his roster. Now he is a mad man that will not let a player have enough time to succeed or fail. Before you can figure out if the player can be an every-down running back, he has switched to another option. It would be nice if we could pick team running backs like we do defenses, unfortunately that is not the case. The way Shanahan is managing his running backs requires that you stay clear of his rotation, regardless of the reputation he has built in the NFL over 25 seasons.