Mike Wise

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - MIKE WISE wisem@wash­post.com

Be­ware, Mike Shana­han, of be­ing the lat­est to think the Red­skins are close to con­tention.

For the 19th con­sec­u­tive sea­son, the right to play in pro foot­ball's biggest game is be­ing con­tested in other cities by other teams this week­end.

This has led to the an­nual rite in­Wash­ing­ton each Jan­uary, where se­ri­ous delu­sions of Red­skins grandeur be­gin to em­bed them­selves and sprout. From the start of free agency un­til April’s draft, these dis­torted thoughts al­ways grow into hard-to-ex­ter­mi­nate weeds, muscling up through the cracked con­crete of a des­per­ate fan’s ex­hausted imag­i­na­tion.

We’re this­close to be­ing a bona fide play­off team.

The fact that there’s an Auburn quar­ter­back com­ing off an un­de­feated sea­son just wait­ing to be picked in the first round should trig­ger bad mem­o­ries, not hope. By pin­ning ex­pec­ta­tions to Ja­son Camp­bell with­out for­ti­fy­ing ei­ther side of the line, those Su­per Bowl dreams never ma­te­ri­al­ized.

For fans of the reign­ing, 11time off­sea­son cham­pi­ons, false hope is to be ex­pected. This off­sea­son, it’s the coach I’m wor­ried about.

Memo to Mr. Cul­ture Changer: The Red­skins are NOT one or two play­ers away. Even a six-time Pro Bowl quar­ter­back couldn’t help this team win now.

I un­der­stand this ad­vice is go­ing to be in­cred­i­bly hard for Mike Shana­han to heed, es­pe­cially when this post­sea­son makes it easy to feed delu­sional thoughts.

Af­ter all, in an over­all dis­ap­point­ing sea­son, Shana­han’s Red­skins still man­aged to beat both the Pack­ers and the Bears, the teams com­pet­ing in Sun­day’s NFC cham­pi­onship game. In Week 7, Washington won at Sol­dier Field, and both teams left at 4-3.

The last time the Bears made it this far in the play­offs, in 2006, Rex Gross­man was the start­ing quar­ter­back. Gross­man is, for the moment at least, Shana­han’s start­ing quar­ter­back. One of the rea­sons Chicago is host­ing Green Bay is be­cause of Jay Cut­ler, the quar­ter­back whom Shana­han drafted and groomed in Den­ver.

There are ad­di­tional rea­sons to be­lieve it wouldn’t take much. So many rea­sons the coach could cull to be­lieve the Red­skins are on the doorstep.

Look how quickly Kansas City, Tampa Bay and St. Louis turned their for­tunes around. Throw in Ari­zona mak­ing an im­prob­a­ble run to the Su­per Bowl in the 2008 sea­son and the Giants pulling off the un­think­able the pre­vi­ous year, the NFC in par­tic­u­lar feels like a 1-in-16 chance to win Power­ball.

Like mis­guided fans, Shana­han could even play with the statis­tics to keep him­self in de­nial. Yes, the Red­skins gave up 46 sacks this past sea­son. But the Bears gave up an NFLlead­ing 56.

Shana­han could write off be­ing sec­ond-to-last in team de­fense as merely grow­ing pains, an ex­pected tran­si­tion from the 4-3 to the 3-4 de­fense un­der JimHaslett. Be­sides, he could say, the Pa­tri­ots were only marginally bet­ter at No. 25— and they won 14 games.

Look­ing purely at re­sults, Shana­han could take heart in the Red­skins hav­ing been close in eight of their 10 losses.

Like so many of the dis­il­lu­sioned, he could keep play­ing up the “WeWere Com­pet­i­tive” an­gle.

In sol­i­dar­ity with a fan base de­prived of a con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game for al­most two decades, Shana­han could keep con­vinc­ing him­self that he’s a Cam Newton away from the Su­per Bowl— one pick, a cou­ple of sign­ings, a cou­ple of chal­lenges, a cou­ple of breaks.

Here’s hop­ing he un­der­stands the truth: The Red­skins need to con­tinue build­ing the foun­da­tion and worry about the color of the draperies later. They need to draft a line­man with their first pick and not trade away an­other pick to any­one to pro­cure some­one else’s star.

Let me make this clear: I don’t want Newton to be the start­ing quar­ter­back for the Red­skins. Not now. Not next year. Not in seven years, pro­vided Dono­vanMcNabb’s in­cen­tive-laden con­tract ex­pires. Newton is Vince Young in train­ing: a big, rangy kid with a na­tional cham­pi­onship — and more bag­gage than will fit in the over­head com­part­ment. Let him be some­body else’s project.

With ma­jor needs up front and on the edges, the Red­skins are not close.

They are what they are: 6-10, one game be­hind St. Louis and four games be­hind Tampa Bay in the NFC, still bring­ing up the rear of the NFC East, three years run­ning.

If that’s not enough to make Shana­han fi­nally say the word “re­build” with con­vic­tion, con­sider this: Fin­ish­ing 2-7 down the stretch as the Red­skins did in 2010, be­ing in five of those seven games, in­clud­ing one in Detroit, were the ex­act same num­bers of an­other coach who once worked in Ash­burn.

His name was JimZorn and he wanted to change the cul­ture, too.

Don’t be­lieve the lie about be­ing close. It’s gone on too long. Start over. Now.

JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Mike Shana­han, cen­ter left, went 6-10 in his first sea­son as Red­skins coach de­spite wins over the Pack­ers and the Bears.

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