By Thomas Boswell
Monday, December 28, 2009; D01
Discipline isn't optional in football. It is the very core of the NFL enterprise. That sense of both self-restraint and dedication, as well as group accountability, starts at the top with ownership, flows through the front office and down through the coaching staff to players. And that is what the Redskins lack at every level.
As new General Manager Bruce Allen looks at the disorganized mess in front of him after Sunday night's 17-0 loss to the hated Cowboys -- that's back-to-back defeats to NFC East foes on national TV by a combined score of 62-12 -- he needs to cherish that sense of order and authority that was the trademark of his dad.
"If you go by the last two weeks, we look like a college football team," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "If you're going by this to decide who goes, who stays, there hasn't been a great case for anybody on this 53-man roster."
One play from this game illustrated the Redskins' problem. At the crucial moment, when physical conditioning or mental toughness or allegiance to the team and not yourself is absolutely vital, the Redskins never know what response they'll get. Sometimes, yes. But in far too many crises, the answer screams, No.
In this game, the moment may have come in the middle of the second quarter when the Cowboys' Tony Romo completed a short pass to Jason Witten, who raced 69 yards up the left sideline, directly past the Redskins' bench, all the way to the Washington 3-yard line. Already trailing 7-0, the Redskins were suddenly in desperate need of a goal-line stand. All hands on deck, especially those with huge hands, like 350-pound tackle Albert Haynesworth, the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
But where was Albert? Where was Haynesworth who, on Christmas Day, showed up late for practice, then jawed in public with his head coach and was sent home from practice for "disciplinary reasons?" Ah, "discipline!" Now they think of it.
Where was the former Titan who, the next day, blasted his coordinator Greg Blache and the whole Redskins defensive system, saying that he'd been promised when he signed a $100 million contract that the entire defensive philosophy would be built around him, allowing him to pass rush and "cause havoc."
Before Witten even ended his long run, Haynesworth jogged straight to the Redskins' sideline -- and took himself out of the game.
On the next snap, Marion Barber ran three yards over left tackle -- directly through Haynesworth's supposed position -- for a 14-0 Dallas lead. The 'Boys headed to the playoffs, thanks to a win in Washington, and the Redskins plummeted to a new 4-11 low.
At halftime, as the rest of the Redskins jogged off for intermission, Haynesworth stayed behind, needing minutes to get off the ground and walk to the tunnel.
With Haynesworth, you never know what you'll get next. In Detroit, he was carted off, usually a sign of a serious, perhaps season-ending injury, only to return before halftime. Sometimes, he blows up opposing lines like few NFL players ever have. And he claims, not without some reason, that he plays through injuries. His upper body is gigantic, his lower body merely big. This imbalance tends to lead to lower-body sprains and strains that heal slowly because of the huge tonnage above them.
When No. 92 is fresh, as he was in the third quarter, he can make a defensive line almost impenetrable. Three times in that period, the Cowboys ran in short-yardage situations -- third and one and, twice, fourth and one. All three times, the Redskins held. And all three times Haynesworth was in the center of the mayhem.
On plays like that, when he throws around Dallas interior linemen like flimsy folding chairs, no one doubts his talent. But the same question arises: Where was Albert on that other short-yardage stand -- not the ones near midfield, but at the 3-yard line when it meant seven points?
Haynesworth, the gigantic bauble of the offseason and the '09 symbol of the Redskins' annual July Championship, has never gotten in shape this season. Under Coach Jim Zorn, the Redskins have been light on conditioning, short on rigor. However, that's long been Albert's reputation. And a deal with $41 million guaranteed didn't help his motivation. He has repeatedly taken himself out of games for exhaustion and missed entire games with a chronically sprained ankle. All of this was also the book on him in Tennessee. The Redskins knew.
Haynesworth, though an easy target, has played far better than many Redskins. Of course, with his proven talents and his price tag, he should. Still, he's not the source of the Redskins' profoundly deep problems. He is a symptom of an organization that, from top to bottom, lacks every sort of discipline.
Pick your poison: the Redskins are physically, mentally or psychologically slack in every area from unfocused players who execute poorly to a New Age head coach who tolerates atrocious performances against bad teams without a ruffled feather to a front office that, in the Vinny Cerrato-Dan Snyder days, showed all the impulse control and even-keeled temper of kindergarteners.
Everywhere you look, there are Redskins blowing their own horns, defending their own agendas or opining on how the team should be run. Clinton Portis jokingly calls himself an "assistant general manager" and, in the past, when unhappy, has taken his pique straight to Snyder. Go through channels? The Redskins never heard of it.
As for assistant coaches, they too seem to do as they please. If Haynesworth was told by Cerrato that he'd be allowed to be a pass-rushing fiend in Washington, then why didn't Cerrato tell Blache to make it happen? And why didn't the famously crotchety Blache oblige? Is his zone-heavy, safety-first system really well suited to a defense with so many explosive hitters?
Isn't this sort of matching of material to scheme an absolute basic of an organization's internal discipline? Or does everybody defend his own fiefdom? Sorry, don't answer that. The Redskins constantly draft or sign players who change positions when they come to Washington, such as Adam Archuleta and Jason Taylor.
Being a Redskin since Joe Gibbs left town means a reversion to the near-chaos of the Steve Spurrier years when everybody seemed to make their own rules, say whatever came into their heads or refuse to talk at all for months. On Oct. 8, Blache got huffy and decided he wouldn't talk to the media anymore. So, even as his defense has played progressively worse, he's been mute on any matter of substance. Of course, Haynesworth has been silent most of the season, only to erupt last week.
Under both Spurrier and Zorn, the Redskins have often been a ship of loose cannons and self-infatuated soloists. When you hear phrases like "lack of focus," "bad execution" and "inconsistency from game to game," what is that but lax discipline?
The final result is a welter of confusion. "We're what, 4-13?" Zorn said after the game. No, the maroon and black only play 16.
As the team's new general manager watches, it's to be hoped he will recall his father's well-known passion for precision and team discipline. The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry, which seemed so moribund on Sunday night, despite a crowd of 88,221, came to life, walked and talked among us for the first time in the George Allen era, beginning in 1971. By Dec. 31, 1972, it was at full ferocity as the Redskins dethroned the powerhouse 'Pokes, 26-3, at RFK Stadium to go to Super Bowl VII.
Now, the Redskins can't summon a single touchdown in two games against Dallas. The whole franchise is in disarray, with Haynesworth's Christmas Day eruption merely the latest sad comedic distraction.
Nothing can be done now. But when the Redskins house is cleaned, and that enormous process will begin in a matter of days, let the Redskins remember one word -- when they sign a coach, when they draft a player or sign a free agent, when the owner feels tempted to stick his fingers in the pie.
That word is the quality the Redskins had under George Allen and under Joe Gibbs I. It is what every fine team in every era shares and that the Redskins lack. It is discipline, in all its forms.