For the first time in five years, the Washington Redskins are not playing for their head coach's job as the season winds down. But they still have a tightrope to walk in their remaining six games, clinging to long-shot playoff hopes while looking to the future to ensure that their problems do not continue next season.
The organization desperately is seeking some stability but is staring nervously at the possibility of yet another offseason overhaul, so the Redskins hope to gather all the information that they can to help them make wise offseason choices.
For now, the Redskins say their main focus remains on winning their remaining games, beginning with Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams at FedEx Field. "We are where we're at," Coach Steve Spurrier said. "We all know that. [But] we're not conceding anything."
Said veteran defensive end Bruce Smith: "We have some older veterans on the team, Darrell Green and myself and Jessie [Armstead] and a few others. That'll be our job, along with some of the coaches who have been in this situation, to convey these thoughts to some of the younger guys that, strange as it may sound, we're still not out of this thing."
But the Redskins' playoff hopes may very well have ended with this past Sunday's 19-17 defeat to the New York Giants, and a loss to the Rams would all but extinguish them. They are three games behind the first-place Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East and 21/2 games in back of the Atlanta Falcons in the chase for the conference's final wild-card playoff berth.
"We can't afford to lose any more games, bottom line," guard Tre Johnson said.
Their precarious position has left club officials and players wondering how they are allowing another season to slip away, with two straight losses dropping their record to 4-6.
"I'm definitely disappointed," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "I really thought we were going to make big things happen this year. I'm not saying it's over with, but our backs are against the wall. We've got to play as hard as we can from here on out and try to win out."
The tension at Redskins Park does not seem as high this week as it was in the late stages of the previous four seasons, when head coaches Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie and Marty Schottenheimer were facing uncertain job security. Owner Daniel Snyder says he has complete faith in Spurrier, and Spurrier says he is committed to building a contending team no matter how this season turns out.
And the Redskins know that the focus soon could shift to next season. Upon announcing the benching of quarterback Shane Matthews on Monday, Spurrier said he will choose a starter based on which quarterback -- Danny Wuerffel or rookie Patrick Ramsey -- he thinks gives the Redskins the best chance to beat the Rams. Several team officials said they expect Wuerffel to start. But Spurrier also acknowledged the need to get some experience for Ramsey, the club's first-round draft choice in April, and said he hopes that Ramsey is more prepared to play extensively than he was when he made his first two NFL starts last month.
Several Redskins officials say the club needs to know entering the offseason whether it can count on Ramsey to be the starter next season. The Redskins have reached the playoffs once since former coach Joe Gibbs retired following the 1992 season, and instability has become the franchise's too-familiar refrain. The team has had 14 different starting quarterbacks in the past 10 seasons, and Spurrier has made four starting-quarterback switches this season. Snyder is on his fourth head coach (counting interim coach Robiskie) in the four seasons since he purchased the franchise, and Marvin Lewis is the club's fourth defensive coordinator in four years.
Lewis could depart for a head-coaching job following the season. But Ramsey could be the answer at quarterback, and the Redskins for a change know that their head coach will be returning next season. Spurrier is in the first season of a five-year, nearly $25 million contract, and he has said that he will remain on board and take an increasingly active role in forming the team's roster.
Spurrier has raised eyebrows all season with his unorthodox style, and his offense ranks 26th among the NFL's 32 teams. He acknowledged that he called too many passing plays in a loss at Jacksonville 10 days ago, and tailback Stephen Davis said following the defeat to the Giants that the Redskins should have been more committed to the running game. Asked this week whether the team's players have eliminated the mistrust of their coaches this season that was prevalent at times a year ago under Schottenheimer, Smith paused and said, "I can't answer that right now."
But mostly, the players continue to express strong support for Spurrier and their other coaches. "I'm staying behind him, and I also believe in every player we've got," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "I can't go in everybody's heads, but I hope it's the feeling that everyone has."
Said Samuels: "I think guys believe in what we're doing. It's just that, at times, they [the Redskins' opponents] might have a better defense on, or a guy gets beat here and there. That's just football, and we're not getting it done right now."
It soon could be playing-out-the-string time, but games never are meaningless when a team and its coach still are learning about each other and there are so many questions to be answered.
"We didn't think we'd struggle quite this badly," Spurrier said. "We've got hope we can play better. . . . You just try to do your best each week and have a go at it. This is our team, and we're going to coach them as hard as we can. We have to do a little bit better job coaching. We're not doing as well as I thought we would at this point. But, anyway, we are where we are. We're going to try to crawl our way up a little bit."