By Thomas Boswell
Monday, October 12, 2009
Six years ago, before Joe Gibbs returned to restore adult supervision, the Redskins were the joke of the NFL.
Now, just 21 months after his retirement, the team is once again headed down football's greased slope toward mockery. The Redskins aren't quite there yet. But, after blowing a 15-point lead to the sickly Panthers, you can see full-scale disaster from here.
As the Redskins lost, 20-17, to the previously winless Panthers, memories returned of the Redskins' 2002-03 horror flick, the one starring Steve Spurrier in "The Ol' Ball Coach Gets Massacred."
This time, Jim Zorn is reprising the central role of an inexperienced and out-of-his-depth NFL head coach. But it is the names at the top of the dis-credits that truly identify this B-movie product: Directed by Daniel Snyder, produced by Vinny Cerrato.
"That was chaos," said all-pro tackle Chris Samuels, recalling the meltdown in Spurrier's second year, when great things were predicted but the Redskins went 5-11. "These are just tough times."
With due respect to Samuels, chaos isn't far off -- not when you bring in a bingo caller from a senior citizens center to look over the coach's shoulder and help him with his offense. It doesn't look like B-10 or C-32 was the right call when the Redskins went for it on fourth and three late in the third quarter and failed to make it, setting up Carolina in good field position to drive for a field goal.
If anything, after a first-half injury to Samuels, the Redskins' offense -- and especially the line Cerrato neglected to bolster sufficiently in the last two offseasons -- made the Washington attack look almost hopeless. If not for two turnovers that gave them the ball at the Carolina 13- and 1-yard lines, the Redskins might only have generated three points.
Total yards for Washington on Sunday: 198.
Will Zorn keep his job long enough to have a 30-point game? Ever?
Snyder and Gibbs had dinner here in Charlotte on Saturday night, according to a Redskins source. Since this is Gibbs's home, is that irony, intrigue or just appropriate? The day he left Redskins Park, Gibbs said he'd always be available if the owner ever wanted to talk. Okay, don't all scream at once: "Sell the team to Joe for a dollar." What Snyder ought to consider is offering Gibbs a piece of the Redskins if he'd just come back, not as a 100-hour-a-week coach but as some form of team president. Here's the job description: Do whatever it is that Dan and Vinny do. But better.
Since such borderline divine intervention is unlikely, the Redskins are left with less palatable tasks, such as evaluating their coach after a game in which he ran out of timeouts before the closing minutes, had a failed fourth-down gamble and had only one offensive play of more than 13 yards.
Zorn called this defeat the hardest of his tenure to take. "Oh, yeah, it hurts deeply. I feel sick myself," he said. "I know how hard these guys work to get ready. I've just got to discover within myself how to get this thing turned around."
Zorn commiserates, reflects and analyzes. But, after his high-priced team gives one flat performance after another against some of the NFL's very worst teams, you have to ask, can he motivate?
The coach's first words at the news conference were, as always, "Hi, guys." Win or lose, "Hi, guys."
Makes you want to run through a cardboard wall for him.
Inside the Redskins' locker room, the distinction Samuels emphasized -- between insipient chaos and merely tough times -- must be maintained. That's the professional's proper attitude. But it won't be easy, not even with pitiful 0-5 Kansas City coming to FedEx Field next Sunday. The Chiefs only lost by six in overtime to Dallas.
"Next week is a huge game," linebacker London Fletcher said. "You don't want to go 2-6. I mean 2-4."
For the fifth straight week, the Redskins will have to circle the wagons, pull out every motivational stop, just to beat a winless team. What on earth happens when they hit the real schedule? Including two wins over Washington, the combined record of the Redskins' last four opponents is 2-17.
Under Snyder and Cerrato, the Redskins are a franchise that has repeated the same mistakes and then suffered the same punishments. Perhaps we must revisit their embarrassing past to understand the present. Four seasons of relative sanity under Gibbs, including two trips to the playoffs, can obscure the real line of continuity in recent Redskins history.
This is the same owner that pushed out Marty Schottenheimer as coach, after he finished the 2001 season 8-3, because he wanted too much authority.
That is the same kind of ego clash -- between strong, established NFL personalities and the insecurities of the current Redskins' front office -- that led to the departure of Gregg Williams and Al Saunders two years ago.
They were the expensive state-of-the-art theoreticians that Gibbs put in place to run the Redskins' defense and offense. But when Gibbs quit a year ahead of schedule, they were pushed out. Where are they now?
Williams, whom Gibbs intended as his eventual replacement as head coach, now runs the resurgent defense in New Orleans. Would he have made a good head coach? At this point, after nine losses in the last 13 Redskins games, perhaps the question is whether he could have made a worse one. As for Saunders, he has been welcomed in Baltimore, where he's on the headphones helping with play-calling for the Ravens' revived offense.
After the departures of Schottenheimer and Gibbs, the Redskins replaced them both with head coaches who were boyish-looking, mid-50s ex-NFL quarterbacks with a spacey manner, an iconoclastic charm and a reputation for offensive fireworks. Neither had been an NFL coach or even coordinator. And neither was a threat of any kind to the authorities above them.
Then it was Spurrier, now it's Zorn. Who's going to play them in the movie? In 10 years, when he's old enough, maybe Tom Cruise.
For now, the Redskins are so stunned by the controversial and unlucky fourth-quarter play that turned this game against them that they almost seemed in shock afterward. In such a state, they should do nothing sudden or melodramatic. Certainly not change a coach.
After the game Sunday, the Redskins focused on the fumbled punt that gave the Panthers the ball at the Washington 12-yard line with less than 10 minutes remaining. Two plays later, the Panthers' Jonathan Stewart scored untouched on an eight-yard run to put Carolina ahead for good.
"Amazing," Cerrato said to me after he and Snyder stalked through the Redskins' locker room, grim-faced. "Their guy just pushed our blocker back into our punt return man."
When a franchise gets into a bad enough place, when it is rattled from top to bottom, with fussing teammates and an "outside consultant" reporting back to those who hired him, with a defensive coordinator who may be the interim-coach-in-waiting, then crazy plays are going to happen.
None of this was necessary. I said it them. I'll say I told you so now. When a coach like Joe Gibbs comes back to town for four years to fix your mess, you take his advice. You retain the people he put in place.
You don't put Williams through a ridiculous 10-hour job interview that is tantamount to "get lost." You don't hire a "West Coast offense" quarterback coach from Seattle and make him your offensive coordinator, then elevate him to head coach when nobody famous wants the position.
This is what Snyder and Cerrato deserve. They brought it on themselves. The Redskins and their fans, however, and Jim Zorn for that matter, don't deserve it. They don't deserve it at all.
Luckily, there's a light at the end of the tunnel -- the winless Chiefs. After that, comes the train?