A moment before, Washington was thinking of the mercies of its fourth win in a beastly year, of a victory in the second start by quarterback Kirk Cousins and a send-off celebration for retiring linebacker London Fletcher. Wounds would be salved, for a day.
“Man, I thought we were going to get it — fourth and 10. What better way to end [my career] than with a defensive stand,” said Fletcher, who has played seven of his 16 seasons in Washington and may end up in the Hall of Fame. “But that’s what makes [Romo] great — the off-schedule play. He eludes a sack to do that type of deal. He’s much maligned [for late-game interceptions], but today he made a play to win ’em a ballgame.”
Now, we know. This is a season when reality, not hope, is the final course on the menu. And the harshest reality, one that would have seemed unimaginable just one year ago when Washington won the NFC East, has become clear.
When Coach Mike Shanahan arrived four years ago, the team was 4-12 under then coach Jim Zorn, general manager Vinny Cerrato and owner Daniel Snyder, widely considered one of the least impressive trios to run an NFL operation. Now, after being given almost complete control, Shanahan has the franchise in worse shape than when he showed up.
This season Washington has been outscored by 130 points, the widest margin by this franchise in 52 years. When the team isn’t blown out early, it finds a way to lose late and close, as it has the past two weeks, by one point both times. They lose to backup quarterbacks and decimated foes with losing records (the Vikings). They are on pace to allow the third-highest point total in the NFL in the 16-game era that goes back to 1978. The glorious special teams allowed a 62-yard Cowboys punt return on the fifth play.
Shanahan’s creation, and this is still a fairly healthy team by Week 16 standards, now has a 3-12 record, a lack of talent at many positions, and no No. 1 draft pick.
If Washington loses its final game next week on the road against the New York Giants, Shanahan will end his tenure here with exactly the same winning percentage — .375 — as both Steve Spurrier and Zorn. But he had four years to install his system, they each had only two.
The best thing that happened in Shanahan’s time — the arrival of Robert Griffin III — he has managed to harm as much as any coach could. Shanahan admits that he left RGIII in too long in the Seattle playoff last year, allowing him to be seriously injured.
Now, as he leaves, Shanahan has benched a healthy Griffin for the final three games (for his safety) while leaked stories have attacked Griffin’s friendship with Snyder, his supposed diva behavior in the offseason and his ability to adapt as an NFL pocket passer. If Shanahan isn’t directly to blame for this scorched-earth exodus, he has certainly done nothing to mitigate it, including recent comments about the need for Griffin to have “more legitimate competition” at quarterback next year from Cousins.
To his credit, Cousins had another commendable game — by the standards of a good backup quarterback or a young passer who might be a second-tier NFL starter some day. Cousins completed 21 of 36 passes for 197 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 71.2 quarterback rating. In 154 career attempts, Cousins has eight touchdown passes, eight interceptions and a passer rating of 80.3. In three starts and backup duty, his turnover rate is at least twice the acceptable NFL norm.
In a sense, his progress has been perfect for Washington. Cousins is proving he has value, but probably not enough to entice the team to trade him. After all, with Griffin’s injury history, Cousins may someday inherit the team.
However, this game should help quiet quarterback controversies. When Romo faced a fourth and goal from the 10 with his team’s season likely on the line, he was ice. “Tony did Houdini, exactly what he did,” Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant said.
On Washington’s final desperate fourth-and-six play, Cousins barely got the snap off in time and then threw the ball far out of bounds in a situation where, whatever the risk, the ball has to be thrown in play. Griffin may need polish in plenty of areas, but he should have a lock on the 2014 job with any sensible coach.
On days like this, it is easy to forget that the best part of Washington’s football future is still the fellow in the knee brace who didn’t play, who bites his tongue and who waits for his next coach, his next season and a fresh start.
In just two years with Shanahan, Griffin has absorbed far too much unnecessary damage to his knee and his name. The height of his career arc may already have been fundamentally damaged. But we don’t know it yet. That future, Griffin’s future, the kind where one-point loses become one-point wins, is still the best hope this team has.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.