When players filed into the auditorium at Redskins Park for a final time Monday, they spotted a man at the front of the room who was about to share quite a story — one that had nothing to do with the disappointing season, an offseason that promises plenty of change or what the next year might hold for a beleaguered franchise.
Each NFL organization handles its final team meeting of the year differently. In St. Louis, Steve Spagnuolo said goodbye to his Rams players and was fired Monday. In New York, the Jets’ Rex Ryan broke into tears addressing his squad. In Washington, Coach Mike Shanahan wasn’t even in the room, choosing to watch the meeting on a screen in his office.
Rather than address his team one final time, Shanahan instead allowed a small group of Navy SEALs and a Marine to lead the meeting. That meant that rather than recap how a 3-1 start imploded into a 2-10 finish, players learned how Marine Cpl. Todd Love, at the front of the room, had lost his legs.
“I thought it was amazing,” said tight end Chris Cooley. “They did a fantastic job. It was very inspiring. It really puts into perspective what we do.”
Not everyone was impressed with the way the Redskins handled the players’ final day at the team facility. Tackle Sean Locklear was not available for an interview in the team’s locker room, but he took to Twitter on Monday afternoon to say: “Worst exit meeting ever! No coaches, no front office, just physical’s and goodbye to teammates! We did just spend 5 mos together, WOW!” (Locklear later deleted his tweet and apologized.)
By design, Shanahan said, there was a lot left unsaid Monday, as players packed up their lockers and went their separate ways. No one talked about how a team with aspirations for a division title instead sputtered to a 5-11 finish. They didn’t talk about how the Redskins turned the ball over 35 times in 16 games or how they struggled to run the ball for much of the year or the special teams gaffes that plagued the team down the stretch.
They certainly didn’t talk about the uncertainty at quarterback, the myriad holes the team must address this offseason or what Washington might do with key free agents, such as linebacker London Fletcher, tight end Fred Davis, safety LaRon Landry, running back Tim Hightower and defensive end Adam Carriker.
“I never address the team on the final day,” Shanahan explained later. “As we talked about before, I talked to the team after the game.”
So the troops instead talked about the themes that thread through both a military unit and an NFL locker room. When the players walked into the team’s auditorium at 10 a.m., they were by the unfamiliar sight at the front of the room of Love, 21 years old and three feet tall.
On the morning of Oct. 25, 2010, in Sangin, Afghanistan, Love was a point man on foot patrol for the First Reconnaissance Battalion, Bravo Company. He was about six weeks away from the end of a seven-month tour when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. He lost both legs and half his left arm.
“We talked about how similar NFL players are with warriors in our military,” Love said later. “So we went into detail about that and how we prepare for things and how they prepare for things. They’re coming towards the end of their season, and how they’re coming to their vacation. We talked a lot about how important it is to train, to keep it up and remember what your mission is.”
The meeting was arranged through the NFL by Bobby Crumpler, the Redskins’ director of player programs, and was similar to ones held at most team facilities earlier in the year.
“Bobby knew it would be very motivational, very informative,” Shanahan said, “and we thought they did a great job.”
While Shanahan didn’t share his feelings with the team as a whole, he did hold a series of private meetings with some players Monday and addressed the media for a final time later in the afternoon. He stressed that he believes the Redskins are pointed in the right direction, despite just 11 wins in two seasons.
“It’s not going to happen all in one year or two years,” he told reporters. “You know, I’m still disappointed we didn’t win 10 or 11 games. I really believe if we would have stayed healthy — that’s not using it as an excuse because we didn’t have a lot of depth — I think we could have gotten there.”
Shanahan said it’s difficult to struggle through a second straight losing season — “It’s like somebody sticks a knife in you,” he said — but his players learned Monday about a different type of adversity. Love shared his story, fielded questions and met with many Redskins after the team meeting concluded.
Carriker said one of the SEALs compared football and the military, re-framing the sense of loss many players felt following Sunday’s season finale in Philadelphia. “He said, ‘We’re both really competitive in what we do, but the difference is, we mess up, we lose a game. They mess up, somebody gets hurt.’ So to me, I have the ultimate respect for them,” Carriker said.
Added defensive end Stephen Bowen: “His message wasn’t about the playoffs. It was just about being accountable for your teammates and putting it on the line, and you always have somebody depending on you to do your job, so you don’t want to let anybody down.”
It wasn’t delivered by the head coach, but that’s the final message many players say they will carry with them into the offseason.