The 10-6 Redskins were the NFC East champions, led by the sensational rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and a hard-nosed rookie running back, Alfred Morris, who stirred memories of the burgundy-and-gold’s golden era.
The 11-5 Seahawks, who had finished second in the NFC West, were led by a surprising rookie quarterback of their own in Russell Wilson and a beastly running back, Marshawn Lynch, who popped Skittles and spewed fire.
Seattle, of course, rallied from a 14-0 deficit in that meeting, while Washington lost not only the game but also Griffin, whose right knee, injured earlier in the season, buckled beneath him amid catastrophic damage to his anterior cruciate ligament.
From then on, the fortunes of the franchises diverged.
Washington, 1-3 heading into Monday’s reprise at FedEx Field, has won just four games since that playoff loss on Jan. 6, 2013.
In the tumultuous 20-month span that followed, the Redskins finished last in the NFC East for a sixth time in the last eight years, changed head coaches and have gone without the services of Griffin for five games and counting. Benched the last three games of 2013, the franchise quarterback is recovering from the second major leg injury (dislocated left ankle) of his young NFL career.
Meanwhile, Seattle has posted a 15-4 regular season record and followed its 2013 NFC West title with a Super Bowl championship. Wilson hasn’t missed a start while raising his passer rating each season (100.0 as a rookie, 101.2 in 2013 and 108.9 through the first three games this season). And Coach Pete Carroll has kept his staff largely intact while retooling his roster to add strength to strength.
No single factor explains the divergent trajectories of Washington and Seattle. Neither coach, understandably, is eager to weigh in.
But it’s glaring to Redskins players, particularly those who were on the field for that 2012 wild-card game.
“It’s unbelievable,” Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “We would have thought we would have been up there considering those two teams were on that rise at that point it time. It’s unfortunate. Those guys go on and win a Super Bowl, and we just digress as far as winning ballgames.”
In Orakpo’s view, Seattle’s front office and coaching staff have added talent shrewdly and honed the skills of its veterans.
“They’re almost building a dynasty over there by continually adding talent, continually growing as a team,” Orakpo said, alluding to acquisitions such as wide receiver Percy Harvin and the seasoning of starters such as Wilson and cornerback Byron Maxwell.
Fullback Darrel Young, who has near-total recall of every play in that 24-14 playoff loss, believes camaraderie among Seattle’s players has been a major factor in their ascent.
“Camaraderie, they have it,” Young said. “And I think they just were a little more hungry than us in terms of what they wanted to do.”
In comments echoed by free safety Ryan Clark, Young went on to credit Seattle’s coaches with identifying players’ individual strengths and maximizing them through their scheme. Moreover, Young noted, Seattle’s offense rarely gets in third-and-long situations, nor does the team kill itself with penalties. Both have bitten Washington the last two seasons.
ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, however, boils down the essential difference in the teams’ trajectories to one unit: Seattle’s secondary, composed of Pro Bowl safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas and Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, in addition to the fast-rising Maxwell.
“It’s pretty simple,” Jaworski said in a telephone interview. “If you look back and compare the teams in 2012 to where they are now, the difference is the secondary of Seattle. It starts there and ends there. They can shut you down.”
Off-the-field factors have contributed to the divergent fortunes, as well.
Washington’s roster has suffered for the $36 million salary-cap penalty the NFL slapped on the team for the way it structured contracts in the 2010 season, when a salary cap wasn’t in place. The league argued that the Redskins — and Cowboys to a lesser extent — tried to gain an unfair advantage. General Manager Bruce Allen called the penalty, docked in $18 million increments in 2012 and 2013, a “travesty of fairness.”
Washington also paid dearly for Griffin, both literally and in terms of opportunity-costs, trading three first-round picks and one second-rounder to St. Louis for the right to move up four spots in the 2012 draft to acquire the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner.
Griffin dazzled his rookie season, leading Washington to the NFC East title and playoffs. But after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery, he has appeared in just 15 games since, in which Washington went 4-11.
Through subsequent deals, St. Louis parlayed Washington’s four draft picks into eight acquisitions. Had Washington kept the picks and used them wisely, the team could have added four potential starters to beef up its defensive backfield and offensive line.
Seattle, by contrast, expended a third-round pick on Wilson, who has proved the more durable and productive quarterback to date.
And though it’s difficult to quantify, Washington’s decision to fire Mike Shanahan and bring in a fourth new head coach in the past nine years surely put any progress on hold, at least temporarily, even if the move pays long-term dividends.