The Redskins might be playing to evaluate players, but it’s too early for Mike Shanahan to say so

November 4, 2012

You know what the real kick in the gut was Sunday? Not a one-win Carolina team handling the Redskins on their home field. Not fans high-stepping out in the fourth quarter as if they had been told to evacuate. Not almost 200 of the team’s most distinguished alumni — Super Bowl winners and Hall of Famers alike — witnessing their successors disgrace their memory.

No, the real blow came afterward, from the head coach. Of all the people to give up on the season, really, who knew Mike Shanahan would be the first?

“When you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come,” Shanahan said after his team’s third straight loss and ninth in the past 10 games at FedEx Field. “Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at. Obviously we’re not out of it statistically. But now we find out what type of character we’ve got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.”

Hear that, men? Seven games left to shore up job security. You’re not playing for the postseason anymore. You’re playing for the film room, to see if the decision-makers deign you worthy of a 2013 salary.

The last Super Bowl champion entered the postseason 9-7. That team, the New York Giants, stood 7-7 in December 2011, and the Eagles were 5-5-1 in late November 2008 before they advanced to the NFC championship game. Heck, the Jaguars, one of three teams to start 3-6 since 1990 and make the playoffs, advanced all the way to the 1996 AFC title game.

But for the Redskins, it’s time to pack in your playoff dreams. Goodbye hope, hello monotonous practice hell — that’s what My-Way Mike just told his troops.

Unbelievable.

Give up on the season if you paid good money to witness bad football. Go ahead. Between coaches calling stretch running plays near the goal line and defensive backs giving Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s wide receivers 10-yard cushions, you have the right as a disenchanted fan to quit on this team’s prospects for the year.

Throw in the towel if you can’t stomach your NFL team not mattering in late November and early December. At 3-6, with seven games to play, even your don’t-stop-believin’ friends would call you more a realist than a doomsayer.

As part of the beaten-down legions, you can rationalize away. Say that the worst thing to happen to the Redskins was to pile up all those points the first few weeks and make the slumbering masses rise triumphantly out of their warmed seats. Say it raised expectations in a season where really there were none.

Tell yourself 2012 was really only about developing Robert Griffin III, that anything else was gravy.

Just don’t say that publicly if you are the head coach of the Washington Redskins — because it’s disrespectful to people like London Fletcher, Lorenzo Alexander, Kedric Golston, Chris Cooley and any other person affiliated with the organization before you got here.

“You have a lot of guys that want to win now, people toward the end of their careers who have been here a long time, haven’t been to the playoffs in a long time,” Alexander said. “And ultimately that’s what you play for, to go to a Super Bowl.

“Bein’ 3-6 really [stinks] because right now we’re on the outside looking in. . . . I’m not thinkin’ about next year. That’s an offseason thing for me. But you know it’s hard when you see yourself in that type of position and your head coach is saying those types of things. It’s disappointing.”

Two players said on condition of anonymity that they were bothered by Shanahan’s comments. They said it is one thing to realistically believe it’s time to evaluate personnel; it’s another to say it to the masses.

If you publicly jump ship before your team, then you become the NFL’s Larry Brown, dissociating yourself from those lousy bums who couldn’t quite realize their potential playing for such a great leader and teacher like yourself.

From a guy who is 14-27 overall and 5-15 at FedEx Field halfway through his five-year contract, “evaluating” comes across as “it’s their fault, not mine.”

Shanahan was given an opportunity to explain his comments, but declined through a team spokesman, who said he would discuss them further Monday.

Everybody shoulders blame for Sunday, especially when you come in as one of the most penalized teams in the NFL and are flagged 13 times for 97 yards, when you play like dogs in front of Deacon Jones, Mark Moseley, Darrell Green, Art Monk, Eddie LeBaron and all the great ones who came to be part of an emotional alumni weekend.

Brig Owens stood in a corridor under the stadium before the game, chatting up Roy Jefferson and Mike Bass. “A lot of guys, a lot of lies,” Owens said, laughing.

Today, most would take those lies over this unsettling truth:

The Redskins, as composed, are a bad, undisciplined football team with a good rookie quarterback.

They have holes on offense and defense that cannot be filled with a first-round draft pick until 2015, because Shanahan traded them away for Griffin.

Their secondary is primarily made up of backups on other NFL rosters. They don’t have a bona fide No. 1 receiver. And even if you believe Pierre Garcon is that guy — and I don’t put him in the class of the best wideouts in the league — he is not healthy enough to prove it. He has played in just three of nine games so far.

Jim Haslett’s job will rightly be up for discussion. Lost in the rhetoric will be that he never wanted to play a 3-4 defense; he had it forced on him by Shanahan, who saw the future of the league moving that way. The problem is, you need four burners at linebacker to make that defense work and Fletcher can’t be that guy anymore.

Beyond a guy taller than 6 feet 3 who can outleap a DB in the end zone on a fade rout — think Plaxico Burress, 2007 — the Redskins’ needs are endless. New No. 1s at strong safety, free safety, both cornerback positions, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and right tackle starts to address the personnel upgrade required.

Maybe some will find what Shanahan said refreshing, authentic and brutally honest. But Sunday should have been hunker down time, not throw-in-the-towel day.

All that said, the bye week would be a bad time to give anyone his walking papers — including Haslett. The problem with the Daniel Snyder era is that too many decisions have been made out of emotion instead of logic.

Making changes now means you didn’t mean it when you said you had enough to win this year, not next. And after Sunday’s post-game news conference, Mike Shanahan has already acknowledged too much.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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