ASHBURN, Va. -- When Mike Shanahan last changed jobs, he took over a Denver Broncos team that missed the playoffs two of the previous three years, was coming off a losing season and was quarterbacked by a 34-year-old who hadn't won a Super Bowl.
Fifteen years later, he's off to Washington, where he commands a club that missed the playoffs two of the past three years, is coming off a losing season and is quarterbacked by a soon-to-be 34-year-old who hasn't won a Super Bowl.
OK, so Donovan McNabb is not John Elway, but you have to admit: The job in front of him and his head coach today is remarkably close to what Shanahan and Elway stared down in 1995.
"I think it's very similar," Shanahan said. "John had been to three Super Bowls and had lost in all three and been embarrassed in all three. And all people said was, 'Hey, he can't win the big one.'
"It's very similar to Donovan losing one Super Bowl and being in five conference championship games. He gets a lot of the same things. There's only one way to silence critics, and that's to win one [Super Bowl]. I know that's his goal, and that's my goal."
It took Shanahan exactly two seasons to turn the Broncos around. After an 8-8 finish in 1995, Denver vaulted to 13-3 in 1996 and Super Bowl victories the next two seasons.
The hope, of course, is that Shanahan and McNabb can do for Washington what Shanahan and Elway did for the Broncos ... but solving the economy might be easier. For starters, Washington doesn't have running back Terrell Davis, who was a rookie when Shanahan took over. Instead, it has Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker, all of whom are descending stars.
For another, Washington is coming off a rock-bottom season, a 4-12 finish that was its worst since 1994. There is age everywhere, with 16 players on the roster who are 30 or older and another seven who are 29. Plus, it plays in the NFC East, the deepest and toughest division in the NFL.
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But the AFC West where Shanahan lived in 1995 was full of land mines, too. San Diego was coming off its only Super Bowl appearance, and Kansas City had been to the playoffs the year before. Nevertheless, Shanahan and his quarterback cleared all hurdles, with Elway having four of the best seasons of his career under his new coach -- throwing 52 more touchdown passes than interceptions (he had only 22 more until then) and clinching his place in the Hall of Fame.
The question, of course, is: Can Shanahan do for McNabb what he did for Elway? Or can the two of them do for Washington what Elway and his boss did for the Broncos?
"Can it happen?" McNabb said. "Absolutely. And that's my plan."
First things first. He and his head coach must turn around a franchise that has one playoff victory the past decade and a reputation for underachieving. Washington finished last in its division four of the past six years, including the past two, and is a popular choice to be there again this autumn.
But that is where McNabb and Shanahan come in. They're supposed to be the combination that does for owner Daniel Snyder what others, including Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs, could not, and that's turn Washington into a division bully.
Most people outside the 202 area code think it's improbable, but, as McNabb said, it is possible. Hey, New Orleans won a Super Bowl last season, and Cincinnati won its division. So anything can happen.
If it does, look for rewrite. McNabb and Shanahan will have restored reputations that were blemished by their recent dismissals. People around here like to say each has something to prove, and I'll buy that. But they have as much to gain, with both trying to defy critics by doing here what they did elsewhere.
"It really has been rejuvenating," Shanahan said of starting over. "I think you always have something to prove. When you quit thinking you have something to prove, you better get out of the business."
Shanahan's impact on the club ... and its fans ... has been immediate. Players not only talk about winning again; they honestly believe it happens. They see in Mike Shanahan someone who is confident, knowledgeable and forceful, and someone knows how to build teams, get to the playoffs and win Super Bowls.
What they see in Donovan McNabb is the perfect complement to their head coach, someone who excels in the offense that Shanahan runs and someone who is a proven winner. McNabb has been to the playoffs eight times in the past 10 years and won five division titles while he was at it. Maybe that doesn't cut it in Philadelphia, where he was a favorite target of talk-radio hosts, but it will play in Washington.
|Shanahan (left) and McNabb look to turn around a team with one playoff win in the past decade. (Getty Images)|
"But now everything is coming from within as far as the players go. With the presence of Donovan and the way he expects guys to play, and what he expects himself to do, there are expectations within the huddle to play through your teammates and to play at a high level -- and it's not just from above."
When McNabb launched a perfectly thrown bomb Monday to rookie wide receiver Terrence Austin, spectators roared and teammates applauded -- each confident they will witness the event again and again this fall. And maybe they will. But McNabb is nothing if not predictable, and as sure as he can nail the bomb, he can also bounce a pass at the feet of a wide-open target, which he also did Monday.
Nevertheless, fans here are grateful to have McNabb, and the quarterback seems happier than he has been in years -- stopping to pose for photographs after practice with appreciative fans and clowning around with teammates as he leaves the field. He also seems as energized as his head coach, and what he feels he passes along to teammates who sense that maybe, just maybe, he's the perfect choice to make the franchise respectable again.
"For me," McNabb said, "I don't look like I have to prove anything. I don't feel like that. Every time I go through an offseason, I train, I prepare myself mentally and physically to compete. And while I'm competing [I try] to show that everything I work on in the offseason is going to pay off. So I don't say it like, 'I'm going to come out here, and show you you're wrong.' I'm just going to come out here and be me."
And maybe that's enough. Maybe Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan make the difference in the Washington Redskins. Maybe they don't. All I know is that Washington is desperate to find the magic that Shanahan tapped into 15 years ago. It worked once with a veteran quarterback. It could work again. Washington fans are tired of waiting.
"I think it's the same scenario [as] when Joe Gibbs came back," Cooley said. "Absolutely, [Shanahan] has to prove himself. He has a new roster. He has a completely new staff. And everyone has something to prove.
"That's what it is in this league. It doesn't matter who you are. You have a limited amount of time to win football games, and Mike Shanahan clearly knows that. And we know that. And we're ready to do it. Now."