There is no single skeleton key that unlocks all the mysteries and miseries that have mortified Washington’s NFL team for the last 15 seasons. But one word may help us understand the pathology: desperation.
Not all the illustrations and explanations that follow can be true. But look at the stunning number of them and the plausibility that many or most are actually correct.
Since he bought the team, owner Dan Snyder has been desperate — to prove himself, to win, to defy or disprove critics, to convince himself all the millions he has wasted were worth the cost.
The overarching symbols of that desperation have been his lust to get the right quarterback and coach, no matter the price. So Snyder is now on his seventh coach and has spent high draft picks for seven failing quarterbacks.
Why did Snyder hire Jim Zorn as coach? No one else would take the job after Joe Gibbs unexpectedly quit a year ahead of schedule, and Snyder was so eager to save face that, after hiring Zorn as offensive coordinator, he elevated him to coach, then acted like it was all part of his master plan instead of . . . desperation.
Why did Snyder hire Mike Shanahan for $35 million and promise him control over major decisions? He was desperate to get a “name” after his disaster with Zorn.
Why did Shanahan immediately give up draft picks to grab Donovan McNabb? He was desperate to prove he was still a genius coach after being fired in Denver and wanted to make a first-season splash.
Two years later, why did Snyder and Shanahan keep offering more draft picks to the Rams until they finally got the No. 2 overall pick to use on glamorous Robert Griffin III? They were desperate to make everyone forget their 6-10, 5-11 start together (fewer wins than Zorn in his two seasons) and take focus off their fiascos with McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck.
Why did Shanahan and his son, Kyle, create a college-style offense for Griffin as a rookie? They were desperate for quick success, vindication, rather than more conventional development of Griffin. They were desperate not to fail with a supposed Superman talent. It worked — until Griffin broke.
Why did Shanahan keep Griffin in against Seattle when his knee was compromised until he collapsed, untouched, and needed a total knee reconstruction? He was desperate to win a playoff game and be the hero-coach who restored the team’s internal fantasy of being a glorious NFL brand that never tarnishes.
Why did Griffin rush back to start Game 1 of the 2013 season? He was desperate to please his corporate sponsors, his owner and his vast collection of social-media fans. And he was desperate to get the first shot at proving he could transition to a “pocket passer” — as he and his father preferred — and do it before system-savvy backup Kirk Cousins got a chance to show his wares.
When the team fell to 3-10, why did Shanahan bench Griffin for Cousins? He was desperate to prove, before he got fired, that Griffin was to blame, not poor coaching.
Why did Snyder fire the Shanahans? He was desperate to prove his precious franchise quarterback, bought at huge cost and now his personal buddy, was as good as the hype hawking tickets and gear.
Why keep Bruce Allen as team president and also make him general manager? More desperation: to prove that somebody, anybody, with Snyder’s fingerprints on him wasn’t a failure. A GM? Why, we got him right here. No problem. Need personnel people? We already have them right here in house.
Why hire Jay Gruden, a rookie head coach, for five years? Because Snyder and Allen were desperate. They were staring at a possible Zorn II calamity with no known “name” willing to touch their toxic job. At least Gruden’s brother was famous, just like Allen’s father. When you’re desperate, that actually sounds like a reason. Why five years? Snyder was desperate not to let Gruden get out of town to his next job interview, so he and Allen kept upping the contract offer.
Why did Gruden put Griffin back in the lineup as soon as possible after a serious ankle injury? Why not stick with Colt McCoy, who had won two games? Someone was desperate that Griffin not lose his job to a relative nobody. Snyder? Allen? Both? Or was Gruden trying to please them and not alienate Griffin? As usual, it felt desperate.
Why did Gruden blast Griffin with specific criticisms of his flawed fundamentals after a loss to one-win Tampa Bay? Was Gruden desperate not to look like a rookie coach with an undisciplined, poorly coached team?
Was he desperate to feed the central Snyder-Allen delusion, that the team was close to being 10-6, rather than close to 5-11 — again?
Finally, on Tuesday, why did Gruden name McCoy the starter Sunday in Indianapolis against the Colts’ young star, Andrew Luck, the player drafted directly before Griffin? Sounds like a national TV comparison you might be desperate to avoid.
Perhaps Gruden is desperate to get through his brutal first season with his reputation damaged as little as possible and his authority with his players still intact. Sometimes simple answers are also right.
Finally, why is Griffin now the backup quarterback on Sunday, not Cousins? Maybe everyone is desperate to avoid that disaster day when Griffin is traded, released — and labeled one of the biggest busts, in terms of price paid, in NFL history. Then that stinking package gets laid on Snyder’s desk.
Why not delay that day? What if McCoy, like Cousins, starts strong but fades as the NFL gets more film of him to study. Why not have Griffin ready at hand? The RGIII Comeback as desperate Hail Mary.
All NFL teams share a common ecosystem. What makes this team act more desperately? First possibility: Snyder. Does a sense of insecurity breed a culture of desperate panicky acts?
All these events, over many years, can’t possibly be driven by just one factor, force or flaw. But desperate men really are reduced to desperate measures — over and over. In Washington football, there’s one unvarying constant: It never works.