Writing this I'm aware that we are all focused on the Saturday game, but yesterday the most important news of the offseason may have happened. As we all know Washington Reskins owner Daniel Snyder has bagged a big fish in Mike Shanahan. as a long-time observer of the NFL, it gives me great displeasure to see such a great figure in pro sports defile himself by associating with this loathesome franchise. In my previous blog entry, I outlined the main causes of the disintegration of their season, and most of them had very little to do with outgoing head coach Jim Zorn. Executive Jerry Cerrato had been a key culprit, but he's also out.
The one positive derivative of this hiring may be that we will have a much more interesting divisional race than even the one seen this season. Truth be told, this year was a pathetic one for the NFC East rivalries: There was not a single split between any team. Dallas lost to the Giants twice, Philly beat the Giants twice, Dallas beat Philly twice, and Washington was completely swept. Many of the contests were thoroughly lopsided, example NYG 45-WAS 12 from Week 15. Conversely, the AFC North saw many close contests, including Baltimore's overtime 20-17 victory over Pittsburgh, Cleveland's 13-6 masterpiece against Pittsburgh, and almost all of the Cincinnati divisional contests. In the AFC West we witnessed two seemingly hapless teams, KC and Oakland surprise Denver in consecutive weeks. The NFC West featured San Francisco's stunning upsets of Arizona. The AFC East showed Jets and Dolphins teams that stood up to New England.
Ideally, all of us would like for Dallas to sweep divisional series. But that isn't NFC East football. In fact, that's hardly ever winning football. In 1998 the NFC East included Arizona, and Dallas swept the division for the last time with an 8-0 record, but a 10-6 overall record. In a stunning upset Arizona QB Jake Plummer guided his team to its first playoff victory since 1947 at Texas Stadium. Unsurprisingly, that was head coach Chan Gailey's only season there. Truth, be told, it is the high quality of NFC East divisional rivalries and races that have made each of the teams the social institutions they are today. It is one of only two divisions whose current members have been together in the same grouping since the 1960s, the other being the NFC North. If we take a look at the AFC South, for example, the underdevelopement of rivalries since its formation in 2002 has lead to a virtually dominant era by Indianapolis.
As my work and the Ohio broadcasting schedule limited my viewing of the Cowboys' games, I actually was able to see five Reskins' divisional games, and only three Dallas ones. By the time I was halfway through my fourth, the Giants-Washington game, I realized that I was dissatisfied. Watching blowout football simply isn't interesting, even when the score is working in your favor. Watching Dallas beat the Redskins the week after that, I realized that the accomplishment was bittersweet. It was obvious that Washington didn't have the incentive to make a real effort, and had suffered too many injuries to even try. Skins quarterback Jason Campbell was a real example of human misery that week, and I had to ponder whether his performance would have been better had been on a different team, like Kansas City. After all, in Week 17 we saw a somewhat meaningless game between Jacksonville and Cleveland morph into a real crowd pleaser, with David Garrard attempting a late comeback and the basement dwelling Browns snuffing it out.
This is why I for one view the Shanahan hiring as a positive long term development, if not for us specifically, then for the enjoyment of the public as a whole. NFL fans don't pay to watch losing football. In the past two years there's been discussion of stripping Detroit of its slot with Dallas as one of the two annual participants in Thanksgiving Day football, even though this year they played age-old rival Green Bay. There was a rumor circulating this week of Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson being offered a bid to bring he Bills to LA, in spite of them having performed for fifty years in Buffalo and leading the rise of professional sports in that city. During the Week 14 game between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, pregame local coverage featured scenes of throngs of Pittsburgh fans "conquering" Browns stadium, and local broadcasts have featured reports of Steelers merchandise outselling Browns gear in Cleveland. This may be uninteresting to the average NFL fan, but I am sure that the league as a whole suffers from it. Mike Shanahan can change the trend, if only by keeping the games close. Him and Wade Phillips, as I mentioned in the previous posting, served as Dan Reeves' assistants back in Denver, and can certainly add spice to the mix. Andy Reid will be an interesting opponent for Shanahan, as they're both offensive minded coaches, one of them an understudy of George Seifert's west coast offenses, the other a member of Mike Holmgren's 1990s Green Bay staff. If Shanahan's defensive staff can weld together the jack in the boxes on their defensive roster, Washington can probably compete with Tom Coughlin's Giants, who bulldozed the Redskins in Week 15 on the road.
Overall, I see this as an acquisition by Washington that only creates more questions, not more answers. Can Campbell really continue as their QB with all of the hits he's taken? Will Daniel Snyder and Bruce Allen give Shanahan the leeway he needs to help the team mature? Will there be any trace left of the staff Jim Zorn left behind? We have till August to find out. Meanwhile, we hope to enter next season with solid enough to fend Shanahan off.