The Mike Shanahan Effect
By Jeff Tefertiller
May 24th, 2010

After sitting out a year from coaching, Mike Shanahan was brought in by Daniel Snyder to turn around the struggling Washington Redskins. He is teamed with Bruce Allen to undo the mess left by Jim Zorn and a front office that tried to turn around the Redskins by overpaying for aging, underperforming free agents. Very few of the overpaid free agent acquisitions paid off and now the new regime is left with sub par talent at most positions. The new Washington decision-makers have made it abundantly clear that they prefer to build the franchise "their" way.

The biggest acquisition was the trade for Donovan McNabb. McNabb will instantly upgrade the play of the receivers. Jason Campbell was constantly missing open receivers by yards, not inches. McNabb also gives Washington a leader on offense that the team had been missing. He brings instant credibility to the locker room. Campbell was traded to the Oakland Raiders during April's NFL Draft. The Washington offense will be led by the former Eagle. He is the focal point of the offense. With no star ball carrier near his prime, all of the pressure will be on McNabb to move the Redskin attack. When comparing the two passers, their respective winning percentages speak volumes. Campbell has a 20-32 career record with only one non-losing (and it was 8-8) season out of his four campaigns in the NFL. Compare this to McNabb's 92-49-1 career as a starter. He only has two losing seasons out of eleven, with one of those coming as a rookie in only six starts. Yes, there is more to a team's record than the quarterback play, but there is no denying that McNabb knows how to win. He will give Washington a boost ... on the field and in the locker room. McNabb, alone, should add a couple of victories to the Redskins' record.

After the new Washington brass took over, it did not take long for the club to release every running back on the roster minus Clinton Portis, and then signed Larry Johnson at a fair price. Last year, Johnson enjoyed moderate success in Cincinnati after being released by the Chiefs during the middle of the season. In fact, Johnson's yards per carry average was a yard and a half better after signing with the Bengals than when he was with the Chiefs last season. A few weeks later after adding Johnson, the formerly fast Willie Parker was signed. Parker was released by the Steelers after two consecutive injury-plagued and ineffective seasons. Shanahan has made his mark with a history for a strong running game and the three aging ball carriers will look for a chance to turn around their declining careers. Johnson and Parker were not expensive and add depth to a Redskin offense that has struggled to run the ball the effectively recently. The three veteran backs each possess two Pro Bowls and could provide the Washington offense with an improved running attack after finishing 29th in average yards per carry last year. A productive run game is a Shanahan staple. His Bronco teams were able to run the ball effectively. In fact, throughout Shanahan's 14-year tenure in Denver, his teams finished in the Top 12 for rushing yards every season. Further, in nine of those years, the Broncos finished in the Top 5 of the league. Most of these great rushing seasons were anchored by low round draft picks. Only Clinton Portis, Tatum Bell, and Selvin Young were drafted before the later rounds. Can Shanahan do the same with the aging trio in Washington? Redskin fans would be happy with merely an average run game.

Which running back is the one to own in the Nation's Capital? Shanahan has shown that he is willing to ride his top back if he is finding success. Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, and Portis all were Top 10 fantasy backs in Denver under Shanahan. So, which ball carrier is the one to target?

It might be easier to first identify which one to avoid. Parker has not been productive since the 2007 season. It seems like eons ago since Parker put up three consecutive 1,200-yard seasons. The past two years, Parker has failed to exhibit the wheels that made him so productive in Pittsburgh. A speed back who has lost his speed is not a good bet to be effective as he ages. Parker will be thirty years old this year on Veteran's Day. At best, he will be a change-of-pace back in Washington, assuming a back like Brian Westbrook is not signed. If so, Parker could be shown the door.

This leaves Portis and Johnson as the prime candidate to get carries. Many are wondering what Shanahan thinks of his former player from their days in Denver. On one side, it was in Denver that Portis had the best two years of his career, averaging a whopping five and a half yards per carry each season. But, it was Shanahan that traded Portis to Washington after the 2003 season. Even though it seems as though he has been around forever, the ex-Bronco is still only 28 years of age. Portis is only one season removed from consecutive big seasons. In 2009, he only played eight games before being shut down for the season. Portis is an underrated receiver and could surprise if he gets the lion's share of the carries. He has averaged at least fifteen carries per game in every season of his career. Portis does have a ton of mileage on those 28 year old tires. He has 2,418 touches in only eight seasons, including two years where he played only half of the season (2006 and 2009). Can the re-uniting of Portis with his former coach reproduce those glory days from 2002 and 2003? It is doubtful, but he may still be able to be productive.

Which Larry Johnson did the Redskins sign, the one who looked slow and plodding his last three years in Kansas City or the one who showed a hard-running style in Cincinnati last season? Many think of Johnson as a bell cow running back, but he has carried the ball more than 200 times in a season only twice in his career. Most remember Johnson's monster seasons in 2005 and 2006. He amassed over 2,000 total yards and 19 touchdowns in year campaign. But, that was the last time Johnson was a force for the Chiefs. It was good to see him play well for the Bengals to close out the 2009 season. Maybe he should not be written off so quickly. In Shanahan's running scheme, Johnson's ability to get up the field quickly should be an advantage. He is at his best when running North and South. Johnson is a power runner. Age is an issue. Johnson will be 31 years old this November. If the success in Cincinnati carries over, he can provide a nice complement to Portis.

Being the youngest member of the trio, Portis has the most to offer the new Redskin regime. He has been productive recently, while Parker and Johnson have enjoyed limited success the past two seasons. The one worry for Portis is the concussion that ended his 2009 season. This is a major concern for any running back, much less an aging one. Portis might be a player to take late in fantasy drafts. He could be a steal if Shanahan gives him the primary ball carrier role and fifteen to twenty carries per game. The veteran coach has shown the ability to have a productive ground game with almost anyone toting the rock. Also, Shanahan's Bronco teams were in the Top 10 in rushing attempts ten of his fourteen seasons. The last two season, 2007 and 2008, were the worst rushing offenses of his tenure. The good news is that this trio of backs, especially Portis, are better than any ball carrier in Denver during those two years. An aging Portis is still a better option than the likes of Peyton Hillis, Mike Bell, Tatum Bell, Selvin Young, Travis Henry, and Michael Pittman who were the best Denver rostered during the last two seasons of Shanahan's Bronco career.

The changes at coaching staff and quarterback could leave Santana Moss as the biggest fantasy winner. McNabb loves to throw to his play makers and Moss is the lone big play threat in Washington. The new Redskin passer rarely had a receiver of Moss' caliber in Philadelphia, but still was productive. Moss knows how to get open down the field and McNabb will look to him often. He took advantage of the superior talents of Terrell Owens and DeSean Jackson. In eight of Shanahan's fourteen seasons in Denver, the Broncos had a wide receiver finish as a fantasy starter (Top 12). With Antwaan Randle-El now playing in Pittsburgh, the Redskins have little depth at wide receiver. Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly are now entering their third year and will be relied upon to take a step forward in their development. The two youngsters will be on the field often. Thomas has the size and speed to be a threat down the field, if he can find some consistency, while Kelly offers sure hands and the ability to make a tough catch. Shanahan and McNabb have each made due with less at the receiver position.

Chris Cooley and Fred Davis should also see an uptick in production. McNabb loves throwing to the tight end position. He made fantasy starters out of such notables as Chad Lewis, L.J. Smith, and Brent Celek. If he is healthy, Cooley could rebound back into the elite tier of fantasy tight ends. He is the type of athletic pass catcher that McNabb loves. Last year, Davis shined while replacing the injured Cooley. Washington has two good tight ends for their new passer. Add in the Shanahan influence and fantasy owners should love the outlook for Cooley and Davis. In Denver, Shanahan made strong fantasy tight ends out of several players like Tony Scheffler, Jeb Putzier, Shannon Sharpe, Desmond Clark, and Dwayne Carswell. Cooley and Davis compare well to all but Sharpe. He possessed talent that few have ever seen.

The Redskins will enjoy having Shanahan pace the sidelines and McNabb line up under center. The team should make an immediate improvement. The focus will be on developing a strong running game with the aging ball carriers. There are so few fantasy options in Washington, but fantasy owners should target McNabb as a lower QB1 option later in drafts, Portis as a RB4 for cheap depth, Moss as a WR3 with upside, and Cooley as a forgotten TE1 at a cheap price. None will anchor your fantasy team, but any or all could play a big role in a fantasy team's success under the direction of their new coach.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to tefertiller@footballguys.com.