A locker room, when a team is losing, becomes a cramped domestic drama. There is no such thing as a chance remark; anything you say will be interpreted by the person next to you as charged, highly personal, and even accusatory. It’s Newtonian law: When tension is compressed in a small area with no escape, it becomes more powerful. Married people know that, and so do football players.
You could hear the short-wave crackle of contention in Robert Griffin III’s comments after Washington fell to 3-7. Griffin first leveled criticisms directly at his coaches: The Redskins got outschemed by the Eagles, who “knew what was coming before it was coming.” Then, Griffin made more indirect, passive-aggressive suggestions: Because “all that stuff” wasn’t working, it was up to him to salvage the situation with “a lot of broken plays, a lot of scrambling around trying to make things happen.” Translation: It wasn’t his fault he completed just seven passes through three quarters; it was the fault of the lousy offense — “all that stuff” designed by Mike and Kyle Shanahan.
The remainder of the season is going to be an interesting exercise in diagnostics, a MRI exam of the guts and bones of this team. They will find out how certain people behave in crisis, and who has real leadership. Who will stay true to the platitudes they mouthed when things went well? Who will bow to external pressure? Who will behave straightforwardly, and who will not? Who will confuse ego and control with actual command? Who will be more interested in being right, than in doing right?
It will be a referendum not just on whether the Shanahans have enough managerial agility to survive, but whether they have cultivated enough team loyalty. It also will be a referendum on whether Griffin has actual leadership, or just mouths it. We will find out who this kid, so heavily lacquered with talent and glamour, really is.
Plenty of organizations endure losing streaks without coming apart. The most immediate example is the New York Giants, back in playoff contention and on a four-game winning streak after starting 0-6. The Giants somehow continued to behave decently to each other in the midst of their early season disasters, thanks to the leadership of Eli Manning on offense and Justin Tuck on defense. Those leaders held the team together even when they personally weren’t playing well. Also, supportive management didn’t panic. Let’s listen carefully to what good leaders in a stable organization sound like in crisis.
With the Giants winless, and critics restive for a firing, General Manager Jerry Reese gave 67-year-old Coach Tom Coughlin a vote of confidence, based simply on the fact that his team showed cohesion under duress.
“When you’re 0-6, your team can just say, ‘You know what? I’m throwing in the towel,’ ” Reese observed to the New York Daily News. “But our players have continued to play hard, continued to battle . . . They come to work and work hard. I have total respect for that. For [Coughlin] to keep this team together, I think that shows how much respect the players have for him and what he’s done for the organization.”
Coughlin was asked during a radio show how the Giants managed to regroup in the face of so much external criticism. He observed that the Giants still liked going to work with each other every day, even though they were losing. He said, “People can say what they want to say. You’re in this because you love it. You’ve got a bunch of guys together with you that want to fight and want to battle.”
The question Washington’s players have to ask themselves is, do they still enjoy going to work with each other? Do they still like collaborating with their coaches and the guys next to them?
On defense, ironically, the answer seems to be yes though they are the poorer unit performance-wise. London Fletcher, indisputably a great leader, said, “There’s not going to be any division in our locker room.” Brandon Meriweather echoed him, with feeling. “I’m still confident. I love the guys I play with . . . I love them guys to death. I see them and I know what everybody’s capable of and what I’m capable of, and I feel like we still have a great chance to do what we’re supposed to.”
But judging by Griffin’s tone, it’s not at all clear the answer is a unanimous yes on the offensive side of the ball. Just listen to the difference between Manning and Griffin on the subject of interceptions last weekend. Manning threw his league-high 17th pick of the season against the Packers. Asked what happened, Manning said simply, “I threw it to the other team,” taking the blame with a self-effacement that explains why the Giants stand by him. In fact, what happened was that seldom-used wide receiver Louis Murphy broke off his route too early. But Manning protected his teammate.
Now here is Griffin, explaining his patently horrible blunder on the final offensive play against the Eagles, when he threw the ball up for grabs under pressure: “We had a certain concept with running and nobody got open so I was backing up, and in the situation where you get a sack there, it ends the game,” Griffin explained. “I was trying to throw the ball to the back of the end zone. It didn’t get to where I wanted it to go.”
Good leaders understand that sometimes you can’t control outcomes amid rapidly evolving, high-intensity events, but you can at least control your standard of behavior. The forest fire of dissension is contained because the makers of manners in the locker room, when confronted by reversals, don’t turn on each other. Griffin clearly wants to be the kind of guy his teammates will climb the mast in a hurricane for — and at 23, he still has plenty of time and good enough habits to become that. But these were the manners he showed on Sunday: After his worst personal performance to date, he criticized the coaching staff. It’s not enough to voice the right sentiment; you have to feel it.
Washington is still a team with fight in it. The team has lost its past two games by single-digit margins, with valiant surges in the fourth quarter. Win those games, and the players look and sound like the Giants. “Now everybody would be talking in the other direction,” Shanahan pointed out. “It’s a fine line.” That’s a self-serving observation, but it’s true.
But what happens from here on will depend entirely on whether Griffin and the Shanahans like and trust each other enough to fight for the right to work together again next year. That the Eagles knew where Griffin wanted to throw was undoubtedly true. But Griffin’s response wasn’t the sound of a leader trying to hold relationships together, or who believed in what the team is doing. It was the sound of an unhappy player, possibly even of someone trying to force a change at the top.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.