By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 12:35 AM
IN EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Early in the fourth quarter Sunday, Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb walked slowly off the field at New Meadowlands Stadium. He looked first at the ground, and then tilted his head up toward one of the giant video boards that show replays to the crowd. On the screen, McNabb watched the latest sign of why the Redskins will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years: one of his passes, easily intercepted in the end zone, another indignity on yet another long day.
The Redskins' over-by-halftime 31-7 loss to the New York Giants may not have mathematically eliminated the team from postseason play. But with a record of 5-7, the team that entered the season with considerable optimism - having brought in McNabb, a six-time Pro Bowler, as its new quarterback and Mike Shanahan, a two-time Super Bowl winner, as its new coach - is now an afterthought in the National Football Conference's playoff race. Washington has captured one victory since October, and on Sunday, the rival Giants - who are tied with Philadelphia atop the NFC East - appeared substantially better in every aspect of the game.
Thus, the Redskins' annual December lament: How does a team that regularly tries to recapture generation-ago glory days, when it won three Super Bowls, deal with the fact that it must once again place its hopes in seasons to come?
"I don't even know the fun it would be like to win 12 games in a season," said tight end Chris Cooley, who is in his seventh year with Washington. "It's so frustrating. I've done it all my life. It's a game I love. It's something that I love, and I've just never been on the winning side of it. . . . It's not fun to be part of a losing team."
In the past month, the Redskins have been humiliated by Philadelphia, 59-28, on national television, and then again by the Giants on Sunday. Shanahan was hired to restore respectability to a franchise that hasn't won a division championship since 1999. That revival, though, still appears to be a season or two away. Sunday's result means the Redskins must win their remaining four games to finish with a winning record. And the the players realize that if there are winning seasons to come, they likely will involve a radically different cast of characters.
"The proof's in the pudding," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a defensive co-captain. "It's going to take a couple years to get the right kind of guys in here, and until that happens, all Shanahan can do is work with what he's got. . . . You can only work with the talents you've been blessed with. This is the team he's been blessed with so far, so we'll see."
Sunday's list of calamities included six turnovers, 197 rushing yards by the Giants, and a blocked punt by the Giants' Devin Thomas - whom the Redskins cut in October.
But it began with another symbol of the franchise's ongoing problems - the decision to bench defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth because, Shanahan said, he was ill and did not practice Friday. By the end of this season, the Redskins will have paid Haynesworth $36.5 million over his two years with the club. Yet when he addressed his situation after the game, Haynesworth professed indifference.
"It's whatever," he said. "If they choose to sit me, they choose to sit me. This is their organization. I'm just a piece."
That raised a key element of the final month: Who will stay and who will leave?
"Everybody understands that if they don't play hard, then they're not part of the solution, they're part of the problem," Shanahan said. "And we're going to take a look at the guys that play hard, and the guys that play hard and do the things we ask them to do will be with us. The guys that don't, won't."
In his 14 years as the coach of the Denver Broncos, Shanahan had just two losing seasons. Now, he is trying to avoid one in Washington while simultaneously building a base for the future. His offense has been a shambles, and his defense tackled so poorly Sunday that Shanahan called it "embarrassing."
"It's not a perfect formula yet," Shanahan said. "It takes a while, doesn't happen overnight. You're judging all the positions, trying to put the pieces in place.
"But we'll get there. It's going to take some time, but we will get there. I promise you that."
Redskins players tried to seize on that theme, that the future will be better than the present. McNabb harkened back to his rookie season of 1999 in Philadelphia, when the inexperienced Eagles went 5-11 because players "just didn't understand about winning." The next year, a more comfortable team went 11-5, and McNabb endured just one losing season in his 11 years with the Eagles.
"Is it very similar? I believe so," McNabb said. "But, I mean, obviously as a player, I don't want to be back in that situation of waiting and seeing until next year."
That, though, is the Redskins' situation, once again, as they head into a final month of a season - a final month that is more about the years ahead than the one at hand.