Several former Washington Football Team assistant coaches have landed as head coaches with other NFL teams in recent years and most have found success.
That has left WFT open to some not-so-gentle mocking as three coaches on its 2013 staff alone -- Kyle Shanahan with the San Francisco 49ers, Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams and Matt LaFleur with the Green Bay Packers -- will coach their teams in the NFC divisional round this weekend.
Shanahan and LaFleur's teams meet at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday in Green Bay and McVay's Rams play at defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay on Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBC. All three men were on staff with the then-Washington Redskins from 2010 to 2013 under Kyle's father, Mike Shanahan. That each ended up elsewhere has become a topic of derision and mirth, but deserves to be placed in the correct context.
Given that WFT has featured mediocre results since 2013 with a combined 52-76-1 record in six years under first Jay Gruden and then two more under Ron Rivera, the relative success of Shanahan, McVay and LaFleur has led to storylines about why the franchise did not keep them on staff.
This hasn't come from just random fans on Twitter. Even ESPN's Adam Schefter, arguably the league's biggest media insider, chimed in with a tweet of his own on the topic.
Hindsight is 20/20, though. In the context of a disastrous 3-13 season in 2013 that got Mike Shanahan and most of his staff fired, it's pretty obvious why none of the three ended up as Washington's head coach. There is plenty of fuel for critics to use against WFT for its decisions on and off the field dating back 30 years. But not hiring McVay, Shanahan or LaFleur as head coach shouldn't be part of that conversation.
Let's travel back in time to 2013. Mike Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl winner and likely future Hall-of-Famer, was Washington's head coach, with Kyle the offensive coordinator. LaFleur was Washington's QB coach and McVay, at age 28, was the club's tight ends coach.
Despite all the talented offensive minds on staff for Washington that season, the team was a disaster. Quarterback Robert Griffin III rushed back from a torn ACL sustained late in his rookie year in 2012 and was largely unproductive in his second NFL season.
Griffin clashed with the coaching staff, which led to larger issues between the staff and prominent people in the organization, including owner Dan Snyder. The team finished last in the NFC East with that 3-13 record, tied for the team's worst winning percentage in any season since 1961.
There was more to it than just that. The end of the 2013 season featured explosive media leaks late in the season that detailed the inner tension and turmoil. That combined with the awful record in their fourth season led to the Shanahans' firing. Front office and ownership certainly deserved blame, too. But relationships were fractured and in those situations the coaches usually go first.
And so with Mike Shanahan getting fired, let's be real: there was never any chance that Kyle Shanahan was going to remain with the franchise. At that point, the relationship between the Shanahans and Washington was over. Once considered the likely next head coach for Washington, the younger Shanahan instead took the offensive coordinator job with the Cleveland Browns.
"Kyle was never going to work here for one minute longer than he was required to," NBC Sports Washington insider JP Finlay said on the latest Washington Football Talk podcast.
It's not like Kyle Shanahan found immediate success after leaving Washington, either. He needed time to rebuild his own reputation as a coach on the rise. Cleveland's offense struggled in 2014. It finished 27th in points per game. Shanahan resigned from his position following the season, citing disagreement with Browns head coach Mike Pettine on how the offensive should be run.
Shanahan's rise in the coaching ranks began again at his next stop with the Atlanta Falcons. Shanahan served as Atlanta's offensive coordinator for two seasons, with quarterback Matt Ryan earning MVP honors in the second of those years.
The high-powered Falcons offense led the franchise to a Super Bowl appearance in 2016-17 and nearly a Lombardi Trophy before the infamous 28-3 blown lead against the New England Patriots. Following that season, Shanahan was hired as the San Francisco 49ers head coach and he's held that role ever since.
Although Shanahan has had plenty of success with the 49ers, it took stops at those two other places following his dismissal from Washington before he became a head coach. Washington knew that Shanahan was a talented coach, but following the firing of his father the relationship was severed. Griffin continued on, but left after two more ineffectual seasons with Gruden.
While the Shanahans left, McVay actually remained on Washington's staff. In fact, one of the first moves Gruden made as Washington's head coach was promoting McVay to offensive coordinator just before McVay's 28th birthday. They didn't give up on him. They promoted him.
McVay served as Washington's offensive coordinator for three seasons. In 2016, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins set a franchise record with 4,917 passing yards. Under McVay, Washington's offense was one of the best statistical units in the NFL.
Following the 2016 season, McVay started to get some looks as a head coach. Washington knew he would likely be a head coach sooner than later, but the franchise didn't think it would be so sudden. The Rams made the audacious move of making McVay, who was just 30 years old when hired in January, 2017, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history.
The question: Why didn't Washington fire Gruden in 2017 to keep McVay if they knew he'd be a star coach? Well, it's not that simple.
When McVay was hired by the Rams, Washington was not considering making a head coaching change. Gruden had just led the team to back-to-back winning seasons, the first time the franchise had accomplished that since 1996-97. It won the NFC East at 9-7 in 2015 and missed the playoffs by a half game (thanks to a tie) after an 8-7-1 season in 2016. Maybe not great, but certainly not something that gets a coach fired entering his fourth season.
The reality is that McVay, like many other successful assistants, had an opportunity to advance his career by becoming the head coach elsewhere. That's exactly what he did. And while many even inside the building in Ashburn believed McVay had the tools to be a successful head coach, no one knew he would be this successful, this quickly.
It's also worth noting that McVay has tremendous respect for Gruden, too. According to Finlay, McVay has gone on the record to say he's a product of Gruden's coaching tree, not Shanahan's. Gruden was the coach that first allowed him to become a coordinator. His brother, Jon Gruden, hired McVay on staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008 when he was just 22.
"Sean McVay actively tells people he's part of the Gruden coaching tree," Finlay said. "Jon Gruden is the first one that hired him in Tampa. It wasn't Shanahan [in Washington]."
LaFleur, meanwhile, left Washington with the Shanahans following the 2013 season. He'd long had a connection with Kyle Shanahan dating to their time with the Houston Texans. But with Kyle in Cleveland, LaFleur struck out on his own.
At the time, LaFleur was 34 and had never even been a coordinator. He searched for a new home and landed a college assistant job coaching the quarterbacks at Notre Dame. It would have been nearly impossible to predict that just six years later in 2019, he would be hired by the Packers.
LaFleur returned to the NFL in 2015, where he reunited with Shanahan in Atlanta as the Falcons' QBs coach. In 2017, when Shanahan moved on to San Francisco, LaFleur reunited with McVay and became the Rams offensive coordinator, his first time in that role in the NFL.
After one season with the Rams, LaFleur departed to take the offensive coordinator job with the Tennessee Titans where he'd have bigger role and the chance to call plays. Tennessee's offense was a middle-of-the-pack unit that season, but LaFleur impressed enough to earn the Packers head coaching job following the season. He replaced Super Bowl champion coach Mike McCarthy.
If many around the league questioned Green Bay's decision, LaFleur has quieted any critics with three straight 13-win seasons. The Packers have talent and a future Hall-of-Famer at quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, but Green Bay had missed the playoffs two straight seasons before LaFleur arrived. Since LaFleur took over, they've annually been one of the NFC's best teams and are currently Super Bowl favorites.
There's nothing different Washington could or should have done with LaFleur. When he left the franchise in 2013, he was still years away from being a head coach. In fact, it was far from a guarantee that LaFleur would ever become a head coach in the NFL.
The bottom line is this: Washington had a stacked coaching staff in 2013 with Shanahan, LaFleur and McVay all on staff. But the franchise also was one of the worst in the NFL that season and finished with just three wins. Shanahan and LaFleur needed multiple other stops before becoming head coaches, while McVay worked his way up in Washington before getting an opportunity elsewhere and would have had to take the job here from one of his mentors in 2017. That was never going to happen.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to point to for Washington's struggles over the past decade and beyond. Wondering how the franchise wasn't able to keep Shanahan, McVay and LaFleur should not be one of them.