Commentary

The stakes in Mike Shanahan's leverage

Skins' coach is more right than wrong about Albert Haynesworth, but has more to lose

Originally Published: August 3, 2010
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Players and coaches must be accountable in sports. But for a coach, managing personalities and knowing the line between motivating players and losing them is critical.

Phil Jackson, winner of 11 NBA championships, figured out how to stay on the right side of that line a long time ago -- which is why, for the most part, he's been able to coach some of the biggest stars in NBA history with minimal hiccups.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterAlbert Haynesworth can look, but he can't touch the Redskins' practice sessions just yet.

I'm unconvinced that Redskins coach Mike Shanahan will ever find that proper balance with Albert Haynesworth, the hefty defensive tackle who Shanahan has all but made hop on one leg and chew gum simultaneously to prove he's fit enough to join the Redskins' practice sessions.

On Monday, Haynesworth tried and failed for the third time to pass the team's mandatory conditioning test. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he skipped it altogether, which means Haynesworth has now missed Redskins' practices numbering in double figures, and somehow developed a sore left knee in the process.

I get what Shanahan is trying to do. This was never really about Haynesworth completing two 300-yard shuttle sprints in 25-yard increments. There has been an ongoing power struggle between Haynesworth and Shanahan ever since the latter became Washington's coach in January. What's telling is that Haynesworth's teammates have mostly taken Shanahan's side.

Haynesworth lost some of his teammates when he was a no-show for the Redskins' offseason minicamps and workouts and made it clear he was disgruntled about the team switching from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4. This all came after receiving a $21 million bonus.

You can't blame Shanahan for trying to exert some control over Haynesworth and show the Pro Bowler that he won't let his tantrums undermine the foundation that the new coach is trying to build. But at what point will Shanahan's attempts to humiliate Haynesworth subvert his authority rather than fortify it?

[+] EnlargeShanahan
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterRight now, Mike Shanahan is still a fan favorite in Washington. But playing hardball with Haynesworth could eventually cost him some of that favor.

If he hasn't already, Shanahan seems on the verge of completely losing Haynesworth, the Redskins' highest-paid player.

In the uniform world of professional football, that seems like a justifiable gamble. It's hard to argue that Haynesworth didn't deserve Shanahan's wrath.

But with the acquisition of perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb and the hiring of Shanahan, the Redskins have so much at stake this season that a feud with a player of Haynesworth's stature seems like a very steep price to pay just to prove a point -- one that might not be made, anyway.

Like it or not, the Redskins need Haynesworth to perform like an All-Pro this year. The last thing this team needs is a distraction of this magnitude before the season even begins.

The Redskins recorded just four wins in 2009, haven't won an NFC title since 1991 and haven't made the playoffs since 2007.

Haynesworth, though an extremely large man, is small potatoes in a much bigger picture.

This is not to say that Shanahan should have let Haynesworth's behavior go unchecked. But there had to be a quieter, more diplomatic way to get his message of conformity across.

Haynesworth came to training camp already a step behind Shanahan. If skipping the offseason workouts was a ploy to force a trade, it didn't work. That effort went absolutely nowhere with Shanahan and the organization.

[+] EnlargeHaynesworth
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterHaynesworth is a distraction for the Skins, even as he looks for his own distractions during practice.

Instead of building on that leverage, Shanahan backed himself into a corner with his conditioning demands. It's possible that Haynesworth won't meet the standards anytime soon, and if Shanahan is forced to acquiesce in order to get his star lineman assimilated into the defense before the season is too far along, then whatever lesson he was trying to teach Haynesworth is lost. He'll be stuck with the perception that he lost his first significant battle as coach.

Many coaches eventually find themselves in a standoff with a star player, but there's a fine line between discipline, stubbornness and pointlessness. The Broncos' Josh McDaniels may soon find that out the hard way if Brandon Marshall hauls in 100 catches for the Dolphins this season.

Shanahan doesn't need to enhance his reputation as a coach -- that already was cemented with his two Super Bowl wins -- with this confrontation. And the standoff doesn't get arguably his best defensive player any closer to feeling like he's a part of the team. Can the Redskins expect to get the best out of Haynesworth after this?

What this ordeal does is put even more pressure on Shanahan to deliver. The Skins' players are standing with Shanahan now because they haven't lost any games. But if the rabid fans in Washington are subjected to another disappointing season from their favorite team, it might not be just Haynesworth who Shanahan will have alienated.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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