The Redskins were never going to blow anyone off the ball, that’s not the kind of roster Mike Shanahan built. Instead he went looking for “character players,” with the idea he could out-smart and out-discipline the opponent. But his team has looked more sloppy than sharp in consecutive losses to one-win teams. After Sunday’s 33-20 mortification by the Carolina Panthers, the most accurate criticism came from Shanahan himself: “I’ve got to do a better job of getting these guys ready to play,” he said, pointing the finger where it belongs.
Injuries don’t excuse three Redskins tacklers whiffing on Cam Newton on the first crucial play against Carolina, third and nine from his 21. Newton turned a potential sack into a 25-yard broken-field waltz, with hardly a glove laid on him.
Injuries don’t explain why Jabar Gaffney displayed all the concentration of a high school freshman at the end the first half. First he misjudged and butter-fingered a deep throw from John Beck along the sideline, and then he committed an unpardonable fumble at his own 34-yard line, practically handing the Panthers a 9-6 lead. Last we checked, Santana Moss was the receiver with the broken hand, not Gaffney.
Injuries don’t explain how the defense could allow three straight touchdown drives by the Panthers on their first possessions after halftime. Who delivered that pep talk, and made those strategic adjustments? “We should have had better balance, a better game plan in the second half,” Brian Orakpo observed.
Injuries don’t explain why the Redskins made an iffy decision to go for it at midfield on fourth and two, and then set Beck up for a sack with an ill-considered pass play. “We gave him a bad call,” Shanahan said.
The shame of it was that the misjudgments and missed plays obscured a significant development for the Redskins: Beck. He had every reason to be the most uneven player on the field on Sunday, starting his first game since 2007 behind an offensive line quilted together out of reserves. Initially, he resembled Chris O’Donnell trying to fill out a Batman suit. But then he found himself; turns out he’s a leader with a knack for answering, as he proved in the third quarter when he went 4 for 4 on passes, and then dove over to goal line to get the Redskins within 16-13. Everyone in the stadium knew Beck didn’t have Chris Cooley or Moss to throw to, and he got it done anyway. That could have been a “here we go moment,” according to fullback Darrel Young.
Except, the defense immediately let the Panthers walk all over them again.
The injury situation is one thing — the Redskins can’t do anything about their run of terrible luck. It’s no mean coaching feat to replace fully half their starting offense, after injuries to Kory Lichtensteiger, Trent Williams, Cooley, Moss, and Tim Hightower, while also transitioning to a new quarterback in Beck. “I don’t think I’ve ever lost so many on one side so quickly,” Shanahan said.
But at risk of sounding unsympathetic, all NFL teams have injuries — we just don’t notice them as much on teams playing well. The Redskins can let themselves be distracted and excused by the injury situation, but they would be better off examining why they seemed to be regressing even when they were healthy.
Two weeks ago the Redskins were 3-1 and feeling pretty good, fresh, mostly healthy and presumably coached up after a week off. But it was Shanahan’s fear that “sometimes when you got young guys you can forget what got you there.” They showed up against the Philadelphia Eagles flat, uninspired and mistake-prone, and fell behind by 20-0 in the first half. It was easy to dwell on Rex Grossman’s four interceptions as the cause of the loss. But don’t forget the Redskins also committed nine penalties for 95 yards, and yielded 128 yards to LeSean McCoy in that game.
This season was always going to be a middle-ground struggle. Shanahan has clearly improved the 53-man roster in a year and a half, retooled it to give it a sturdier and more professional foundation, but it’s going to take multiple drafts to build a powerhouse, and they still lack beef — Newton is a big kid and a big talent, and the Redskins made him look like Gulliver. But that doesn’t mean the Redskins lack the depth to compete this year, just that they don’t have much margin for error, and can’t afford lousy tackling.
Shanahan’s hope was to coach up a team that did all the little things right, and “to be in a position to win the close games,” he remarked a couple of weeks ago. Somewhere along the line, his performance, and theirs, started to slip in a number of small ways. That’s as big an issue as any injury.