So while those watching saw The Game Nobody Wanted To Win — featuring a combined 15 punts and 10 for 33 third-down efficiency — Mike Shanahan’s team saw more than a sliver of hope.
While most viewers covered their eyes, Washington came back from a two-touchdown deficit and won an NFL game on a baseball infield that it had to win if it hoped to dig itself out of an 0-3 ditch.
“Oh-and-four — we didn’t want to be there,” said Barry Cofield, who had two of the team’s seven sacks. “One-and-three makes a huge difference, momentum-wise. There were some losses in the division, so we feel like we’re in the fight as opposed to fighting for our lives.”
After Jim Haslett’s defensive front finally got to a quarterback and Griffin delivered in the crucible of the fourth quarter, the worst thing anyone can do is calibrate this 24-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders, who started their backup quarterback, lost Darren McFadden to a hamstring pull for the second half and still managed to be in the game with less than eight minutes left.
No, this one is chalked up to win-or-else resilience.
It featured Roy Helu Jr. hurdling a defender, circa 2011, and scoring the clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. He picked up the slack after Alfred Morris was sidelined with a rib contusion.
Until the final minutes, when Griffin felt the rush, dodged trouble and threw a perfect dart to Helu — on what was probably the first genuine RGIII-esque play of the season that didn’t end with a dropped ball in the end zone — nothing about Washington signified ‘special team,’ or even average.
The defense did quietly bail the offense out, giving the Raiders and Matt Flynn nothing over the final three quarters.
And Pierre Garcon continued to play with an angry passion that almost makes you want to have Griffin and his No. 1 wideout play a two-man game for entire possessions.
Garcon’s five-yard touchdown on a quick slant with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter gave Washington its first lead. Afterward, he slammed the ball down maliciously, essentially telling some of the most intimidating fans in sports a few feet away in the stands to bring it on.
It’s that kind of serrated edge missing the last few weeks from this team, that kind of ornery ‘tude that often demoralizes crowds and opponents on the road.
“You can’t be angry without the ball,” Garcon said afterward, not complaining but merely making an observation. “They get me the ball and I’m out there breakin’ tackles and stuff like that, then I can be angry. But you can’t do it without the ball.”
No disagreement here.
Going forward, Mike Shanahan needs more Pierre Garcon.
It might have been just the fourth week of the season, but let’s be clear: This was a pivotal game in Shanahan’s four-year tenure in Washington.
To avoid his third losing season in four years in Washington, he still has to go 7-5 the rest of the way. But if his team had fallen to 0-4, the stark reality that he could have yet another losing season would have inched closer.
And while Washington has a long way to go to avoid that fate, the bottom line is Shanahan needs 8-8 or better. Because if not, then last year’s 10-6, NFC East-title season becomes the aberration, not the 11-21 record the first two seasons.
And he can say forever he has the franchise pointed in the right direction, but if there aren’t tangible results on the field, no one is going to listen.
With one year remaining after this year on a five-year deal and all the conversation about his relationship with the quarterback almost enveloping the offseason, opening 0-3 was toying with fire.
That defense and some late, timely play by Griffin gave everyone a reprieve.
Over 60 minutes of some real eyesore professional football, Washington won a game it had to have in order to be taken seriously during the bye week.
It’s not a very soothing balm when a fan base needs to point out how bad their division is to feel better about itself. But it’s also a reality at the moment.
The NFC East has almost overnight become the worst division in the NFL, with the Giants winless, the Eagles 1-3 and the Cowboys 2-2 after a loss in San Diego.
With Dallas facing Denver, the best team in the league, next week, the Cowboys could indeed be 2-3 when they host Washington after the bye week. Meaning, yes, Virginia, Shanahan could be leading the division two weeks from now after a satisfying victory over Dallas. (I think the Sports Bog called this, like, two weeks ago.)
It’s all conjecture at the moment. But Shanahan will take it. He is less than a month from going to Denver for what should be an emotional return to the franchise he coached to two Super Bowl wins.
Wouldn’t it be something if his team actually still mattered then?
Again, style points didn’t matter Sunday as much as the scoreboard.
“Big difference between 1-3 and 0-4 — you talkin’ about winning four straight games just to get back to .500,” Kedric Golston said afterward. “Learning how to win is something that’s contagious. No matter how much talent you have on football teams, you still have to learn to win football games. Obviously it wasn’t pretty, but how many of them are in this business?”
Al Davis fired Shanahan prematurely years ago, but the late Raiders owner did give the coach a mantra by which his team lived Sunday, facing the prospect of 0-4: “Just win, baby.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.