If a team could be evicted from playoff contention for frivolous conduct, the Washington Redskins would be crying at their lockers right now. Well, that’s assuming they have it in them to care about an opportunity wasted. After such a lousy effort Monday night, it’s hard to know how they’re wired.
With everything to play for, they gave nothing. Their offense was pitiful. Their defense was pathetic. Their lack of urgency was astonishingly absent. It was a travesty of competitiveness, of will with so much left to win. They were so bad they awoke the Carolina Panthers, a Super Bowl runner-up last season whose golden carriage is a pumpkin once again.
The Panthers came to FedEx Field with a 5-8 record and only a prayer to make the playoffs. ESPN’s football power index put the odds at 0.0004 percent. If the rest of the NFC suddenly suffered from flesh-eating bacteria, the Panthers would still need more help to play past Week 17. Meanwhile, Washington had a 7-5-1 record and an enviable position knowing that it couldn’t be denied the postseason if it won its final three games.
Still, Carolina spanked Washington, 26-15, before a crowd of 76,689 that shivered through a frigid and sobering night. You could say the prime-time hex was back; Washington lost for the 16th time in its past 17 home games on “Monday Night Football.” Or you could ditch the witchcraft and keep it real: This humiliation was the result of a team that wasn’t ready to play, an inexplicable truth leading to a disastrous outcome that has been weeks in the making.
A month ago, Washington was 6-3-1 and celebrating a blowout home victory over Green Bay. Since then, it has lost three of four. In all of those contests, the players have been sluggish at the start. Coach Jay Gruden tried to wake them up with his postgame tirade in Arizona two weeks ago. It worked for one week, but then came Washington’s worst performance of the season: a flat, uninspiring snoozer against a battered and defeated opponent.
For sure, Carolina has plenty of talent, and it’s likely the Panthers will bounce back next season. But right now? This is a lost team that reminds you how quickly things change in the NFL. The Panthers aren’t the same team that won the NFC last season, and they’ve been without concussed star linebacker Luke Kuechly, their best defensive player, who should think long term and sit out the remainder of the season. The Panthers are good enough to present a challenge, but there’s no way a legit playoff team should get dominated by them at home. Not in December, not when the playoff path is so clear.
“We’re disappointed, there’s no question,” Gruden said. “First off, we were outcoached today, there’s no question about that. . . . It’s my responsibility to get these guys ready to play, and we weren’t as ready as we’d liked to have been.”
What happened? What didn’t happen?
The offense played its worst game and produced its lowest point total of 2016. It finished with 335 yards, almost 80 below its season average. Those numbers could’ve been much worse; the unit gained a lot of empty yards late in the game. It was uncharacteristic futility: dropped passes, quarterback Kirk Cousins missing big plays that he had nailed over the past month, five three-and-out drives. For the season, Washington had only 15 three and outs entering Monday.
Cousins, who managed to amass 315 yards, threw an interception and lost a fumble on his own 1-yard line after a sack by Carolina defensive end Wes Horton. The turnover led to a Cam Newton touchdown pass to Mike Tolbert in the third quarter, which gave Carolina a 20-9 lead.
A troubling trend for a Washington offense that had been good at limiting killer mistakes: For the third straight week, a turnover led directly to an opponent’s touchdown. The problem started in Arizona, when Calais Campbell destroyed guard Shawn Lauvao, leading to a Cousins fumble that resulted in a Carson Palmer touchdown pass. In Philadelphia last week, Cousins threw a pick six. The mistakes aren’t all on Cousins, but the bottom line is that this team isn’t good enough to spot opponents points.
Not with a defense this poor.
It’s pretty much a certainty that Washington will appear flat whenever its offense struggles because the defense is consistently terrible. On this night, Newton ignored his injured throwing shoulder and led the Carolina offense to 438 yards. Newton threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns. Jonathan Stewart rushed for 132 yards, including a leaping, spinning, tackle-breaking run that erased any lingering dignity for Washington’s defense.
Joe Barry’s unit didn’t tackle, didn’t cover, didn’t communicate and didn’t play physical. Aside from that, it was a quality effort.
One play epitomized the poor play. Late in the first quarter, Newton threw a 30-yard pass over the middle, between cornerback Josh Norman and free safety Donte Whitner Sr. There was miscommunication between the two defenders. Whitner got twisted up and was late to react. Ted Ginn Jr. caught the pass flat-footed for an easy touchdown.
It was classic Redskins, right down to the bad safety play by Whitner, who looks so old that he should go by Donte Whitner Sr.
But here’s the thing: You know this defense is bad. You know this offense, for all its production, is frustrating. And you’re supposed to know that this team – this odd, still-rebuilding bunch of mismatched parts – can overcome its flaws. Gruden uses every coach’s favorite word – resilient – more than any coach I know. It’s a simple way to explain the unexplainable, which is why some flawed teams have a knack for winning. All season, Washington has had that knack. But while resilience is a great trait, you have to wonder if Gruden’s constant message that all their games will be wild and uneven and decided at the end has created an air of nonchalance about starting games properly.
At its best, Washington attacks and plays from ahead. Everything is in order when it plays that way. Cousins is relaxed, the offense remains balanced, and the defense gets a head start. Even though they lose leads in record time, they’d rather be chased. They look awkward when asked to do the chasing.
Now, at 7-6-1 with two games remaining, their entire season is about chasing. They aren’t in control anymore.
“We’re not in the playoffs,” Gruden said. “It’s up to one game at a time.”
If the players compete like they have for most of this season, the ending might still be worth watching. But on Monday night, with so much at stake, they embarrassed themselves. After this sorry showing, they won’t be able to complain about their fate.