How is a team that entered the season regarding itself as a built-to-last contender struggling so badly that Coach Mike Shanahan’s job security beyond this season is being debated? How is a club coming off an NFC East title, with a franchise quarterback in the fold and a roster kept basically intact in the offseason, suddenly unable to keep pace in even the NFL’s most underwhelming division?
The answers are not simple or obvious, but some observers point to a mixture of reasons that includes the fallout from the knee injury suffered by quarterback Robert Griffin III and the manner in which the team around Griffin has been constructed and put to use. The Redskins themselves don’t assign blame and continue to maintain that a turnaround is possible. Even so, they acknowledge that they deserve to be where they are.
“We’ve played 1-4 football,” linebacker London Fletcher said at midweek. “That’s really the reality of it. We haven’t played well enough in the five ballgames. The four losses, we haven’t done enough to win those games, in all facets of the game. That’s really the bottom line whether it’s not playing fast enough, not playing good enough in the first half of the football games, not scoring enough points in the beginning of football games, not stopping them defensively, different things, losing the turnover battle, taking the ball away, stuff that we were so good at [late] last season.”
To some who watch the team closely, the issues run deeper.
“Each offseason, you either get better or you get worse,” former Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said. “You can’t stay the same. We thought they stayed the same. They didn’t. They regressed.”
Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen were praised in the offseason for keeping the team together even while operating in the second year of the two-year, $36 million salary cap reduction imposed by the NFL for the manner in which the Redskins structured players’ contracts during 2010, when the league operated without a cap. The Redskins lost reserve linebacker Lorenzo Alexander in free agency but re-signed a sizable group of players that included guard Kory Lichtensteiger, right tackle Tyler Polumbus, tight end Fred Davis and cornerback DeAngelo Hall. The team retained other players such as cornerback Josh Wilson, safety Brandon Meriweather and wide receiver Santana Moss after they agreed to accept salary reductions.
But now, in retrospect, some wonder if the Redskins instead should have made some tough choices regarding a few of their higher-priced veteran players and moved on, freeing resources to bolster other areas of the team with young and affordable additions.
“They have some guys, especially on defense, who are clearly on the down side of their career,” said a front-office official from another NFC team, who spoke on condition of anonymity so that he could offer a more frank assessment. “You can’t make sentimental decisions. Continuity is good, in general. But you also have to be realistic and maybe a little cold-hearted at times, especially when you’re tight against the cap like that.”
Smoot said he wonders why the Redskins haven’t made a significant in-season move such as signing return man Josh Cribbs, who just signed with the New York Jets, or trading for Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt, who is reportedly available for the right offer.
“Everything starts from the top down,” Smoot said in a phone interview. “They’re very stagnant in terms of filling out the roster. It goes back to how Shanahan likes to fill out his roster. He likes to get his guys. Well, right now some of his guys are hurt, aren’t getting the job done, and there’s no one else to fill in.”
Shanahan and Allen have been credited with drafting well. They traded up last year to land Griffin and also unearthed a sixth-round draft heist in tailback Alfred Morris. But while two members of this year’s rookie class, second-round cornerback David Amerson and third-round tight end Jordan Reed, quickly have become contributors, there has been no late-round steal to make an immediate impact, no out-of-nowhere draft gem to further ease the pain of the bevy of picks sent to the St. Louis Rams in the Griffin trade.
Sixth-round safety Bacarri Rambo opened the season as a starter but was benched. Fourth-rounder Phillip Thomas, another safety, is spending his rookie season on the injured-reserve list. Fifth-round running back Chris Thompson was given, then lost, the punt-returning job.
Even so, Fletcher said the Redskins have the talent to win.
“There have been times [in the past] where I’ve felt like our talent wasn’t necessarily as good as some of the teams we were facing, for different reasons or another,” the 16th-year NFL veteran said. “But since Coach Shanahan has been here, he’s done a great job, he and Bruce Allen, of building our football team, getting some good young talent on the team, getting some veteran talent on the team as well and putting it to where we can compete with anybody in the league.”
Nose tackle Barry Cofield expressed similar sentiments, saying: “I just think this team is a world away from when I first got here [in 2011]. Even though the record might not show it . . . it’s just a way more talented team, a better focused team and a team that’s way more equipped to win.”
Cofield added: “I think it’s just gonna take one win, all three phases working together, and a little bit of luck and I feel like we’ll be right back in the race.”
The Redskins have had a reverse Midas touch of sorts with Griffin’s injury since he first hurt his right knee last season against the Baltimore Ravens. Whether the choices they’ve made regarding Griffin have been correct or not has been fiercely debated. But whether right or wrong, those decisions have had results that have been mostly unsavory for the Redskins.
Griffin attempted to play through what was described as a relatively mild knee injury last season and ended up with a major injury requiring surgery. He made it back into the opening-night lineup this season despite missing offseason practices, the heaviest portions of training camp and the entire preseason. But he was described, even by Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon, as being not the same player while the team limped to an 0-3 start.
“All the hype, I think that’s part of it,” Smoot said. “Before the season, everything was about RGIII. Nothing was about the Washington Redskins. I think some of the players got tired of that. . . . When Robert Griffin is healthy, he masks a lot of this team’s weaknesses. Such as the [offensive] line. Such as the receivers.
“The defense, I think they’re missing a few pieces, especially on the back end. The special teams, they’re missing a few pieces and that’s Lorenzo Alexander and [former special teams coach] Danny Smith. You look at the special teams, and they’re not playing for each other the way they did when Danny Smith was there.”
The Redskins led the league in rushing offense last season with Griffin and Morris leading the way. They say they hope to get back to that now, with Griffin coming off his most effective running game of the season in last Sunday night’s loss at Dallas.
“We haven’t clicked yet, but we’re right there,” Young said. “If we do that for a whole game, then the play-action [passing] will open up. You’ll see the Robert Griffin that everyone is expecting to see down the field. When you can run the ball, so many things open up. And right now we’re not able to run the ball, so [opposing defensive backs] aren’t respecting the run. They feel like their [defensive] front seven is doing the job so they can sit back and play the passes. That’s not what we do. So we’ve got to get back to our scheme, execute.”
The Redskins have followed the classic formula for losing teams, lamenting that just when one area of the operation pulls things together, another falls apart. The defense did its part in the Dallas defeat, but the offense failed to take advantage of its chances and the special teams came totally unglued. Yet even if others now regard the season as practically unsalvageable, they say they don’t.
“We still feel confident in ourselves,” Fletcher said. “We believe in what we’re doing. We believe in our coaches. We just know we need to get a win, string some wins together, to try to turn our season around.”