Washington Redskins, from Robert Griffin III to the defense, are an easy feast for 49ers

The Washington Post's Mike Jones analyzes what a tough loss to the 49ers means for the Redskins and coach Mike Shanahan. (Mike Jones & Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist November 26, 2013

After the way the Washington football team played on national TV on Monday night, they may have to change their nickname to the Thickskins.

After this 27-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, you can baste Coach Mike Shanahan; roast Jim Haslett, who hasn’t fielded a good defense since the 20th century; stick offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his goofy fourth-down call on a spit to rotate; and definitely leave Robert Griffin III in the oven a whole lot longer because he’s clearly not a fully cooked NFL quarterback yet.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

You can’t use the Redskins’ offensive line for stuffing because they’ve already had that knocked out of them by the 49ers’ pass rush. The only thing the Washington linemen picked up all night was RGIII after he was knocked down. And after a while, they didn’t even bother to do that, wandering away from their fallen leader as if they didn’t want to be captured in any photographs of the crime.

Everything that football America may have heard is wrong with Washington was on display. This is what you can say about their pistol offense: Figured out and shooting blanks.

Washington’s first three possessions were three and out. Facing an actual top 10 NFL defense, Griffin looked confused all night, almost helpless at times, unsure if the play that was called had already been anticipated or how to change to another one.

Last week, the Redskins had four net passing yards at halftime and a pathetic 57 after three quarters in a loss to the Eagles. This time, they had 78 net passing yards after three quarters and the announced crowd of 79,773 was exiting en masse. With six minutes left, you could waltz down to a front row seat to get a look at the new FedEx Field sod. It looks better. The team on it doesn’t.

“When you get embarrassed tonight like we did . . .” said Coach Mike Shanahan, looking as out of both fire and answers as he ever has in Washington. “We haven’t gotten dominated like that since I’ve been here. We could have coached better. . . . Did we have a poor game? Yes, we sure did.” All this was, of course, interspersed with the mandatory, “Tee it back up and see what you are made of” and “we can’t dwell on this too long” truisms.

But the clearest truth is that Shanahan, 24-35 with Washington, and his team are on the ropes as the franchise decides whether to stick with a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach or fire a man who has only left one ripple on the NFL — last year’s 7-0 run — since the ’90s.

This is a 3-8 team on merit. As for morale, generally acceptable this season despite several huge deficits and garbage-time respectability “comebacks,” that seemed to sink in this defeat as well.

The offense was uniformly feeble, but the defense was little better, especially the work of cornerback Josh Wilson, who was picked on all night. Whomever he covered, be it Anquan Boldin (five catches for 94 yards and two scores) or Vernon Davis (four for 70 and one touchdown), he was generally open or else out-fought Wilson.

In back-to-back defeats entering this game, the 49ers (7-4) hadn’t even mounted 200 yards. The Redskins’ defense is a universal solution to such problems, allowing Colin Kaepernick 235 yards on 15-for-24 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions. This, perhaps, is the mark of Haslett, whom Shanahan hand-picked four years ago to change Washington from a generally efficient 4-3 defense to a 3-4 that is allowing more than 30 points per game this season.

That, unfortunately, fits Haslett’s pattern. As either a defensive coordinator or NFL head coach, his last 12 defenses since 2001 have had these gruesome rankings in points allowed: 31st this season, 22, 21, 21, 31, 31, 28, 28, 27, 14, 26 and 27. One mediocre defense, three poor and the rest lousy out of his last 12. Even if his players are bad, wow.

The progress of the season rests on the development of Griffin as a long-term franchise quarterback as much as it does on any eventual won-lost record, especially since Washington’s chances of repeating as NFC East champion can now only be seen with a microscope. The 49ers provided a fair, but tough test of RGIII’s growth as a pocket passer and reader of defenses, as well as an athlete capable of improvisation.

What became clear, in this game as in several others this season, is that the primary task of both Mike and Kyle Shanahan over the past two years — develop Griffin for the long run and build an offense that suits his talents — was a one-year success but, in Year Two, shows serious signs of being a failure. In the 26th start of his career, Griffin hardly seemed “developed” at all, but rather more like a victim of events, getting sacked four times, fumbling once to take over the NFL lead (with 11) and rushing for only 22 yards in six carries.

Grffin finished the night 17 for 27 for only 127 yards, most of them short dump passes. He missed long, short and low and away. Almost the only man he hit in the numbers all night was his interception to 49ers safety Donte Whitner. If Washington wants to give backup Kirk Cousins a couple of starts, to see what he can do in the same offense that sputters with RGIII — and to give Griffin a chance to rest his body and clear his mind — it would probably be the better among poor alternatives.

You can’t look much worse. If you can’t win, why not at least gather useful information. That’s what left of this season.

If the Redskins stick with RGIII, and who knows what benching him even briefly would do to his confidence or his relationship with the franchise, at least everyone who saw the beating he absorbed from the 49ers knows that he’ll keep battling.

“I’ll fight with these guys any day,” he said afterward.

This game only had one key moment. Early in the third quarter, trailing only 10-6, the Redskins got a major break, standing up tight end Vernon Davis after a short reception, then stripping him of the ball. At the San Francisco 41-yard line, Washington went for it on fourth and two, a reasonable gamble. But they gave the ball to Roy Helu Jr., a tolerable third-down back but not a tackle-breaker or power runner, rather than human truck Alfred Morris who, at that moment, was closing in on 1,000 yards this season and had almost 2,600 in his first 27 NFL games.

If it works, Kyle Shanahan is a savvy gambler. If Helu is stoned a yard short, he looks like the total dope. Score one for total dope. And that decision transformed the game’s momentum instantly. The 49ers drove 60 yards to score as if they were entitled to the points by virtue of sinful Redskins strategy. Once again, the San Francisco theory was to identify which man No. 26 (Wilson) might be covering and throw it to him — first to Boldin for 32 yards deep, then to Davis for 20 yards to the Washington 6-yard line.

After a scrambling Kaepernick found Boldin in the end zone for a six-yard score and a 17-6 lead, the beginnings of a rout were on.

This is a game, seen by all and hard to defend by any, that will be remembered without thanks throughout this week. Questions — about anyone and everything — that bubbled last week will now come to a boil. Get those Thickskins ready. They’ll be needed.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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