As the fourth quarter started Sunday at FedEx Field, with the Washington Redskins’ offense and the third quarterback of the Mike Shanahan era struggling mightily, the burgundy and gold clad crowd started to boo, and one fan in earshot of the press box yelled: “We want Norv Turner back!”
On the same day that the Redskins celebrated their annual “Homecoming Game,” and introduced stars of years past during the pregame celebration, the announced crowd of 78,032 found itself left wanting again. There was nothing even close to the glory Joe Gibbs directed in his initial reign as head coach, or the mediocre results Turner oversaw. Sunday’s 19-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers featured a performance much uglier than the score indicated.
At the 7-minute, 23-second mark of the fourth quarter, the already thinning crowd shrank considerably. Wide receiver Terrence Austin fumbled at the 34-yard line, San Francisco linebacker and Forestville, Md., native NaVorro Bowman recovered, and the mass exodus commenced.
“Right now you take a look at the offense and it’s tough to take. It’s tough to take for me,” Shanahan said. “But I understand how this thing works. We’ve got a lot of young guys with talent, and we’re not all collective on the same page right now. . . . Everybody wants wins. . . . Everybody wants the answer. I wish I had the answer, but that’s as close as I can get.”
On the field, Shanahan’s Redskins weren’t close to solving their problems. A week after they were shut out in Toronto by the Buffalo Bills, the offense wasn’t much better. Washington, which fell to 3-5, eked out three points on a 59-yard field goal by Graham Gano, the longest in team history, and eight more on a late touchdown pass from quarterback John Beck to wide receiver Jabar Gaffney that was followed by a two-point conversion.
But Beck struggled again in his third start. He couldn’t find receivers deep, he led receivers over the middle poorly (getting picked off on one such throw) and only had success on short screen and dump-off passes to rookie running back Roy Helu, who had 14 catches, a total that broke the team record for receptions in a game held by Art Monk and Kelvin Bryant.
For the game, Beck went 30 for 47 for 254 yards, a touchdown and an interception. None of his passes traveled longer than 16 yards. And a 17-yard gain came when Helu caught a batted ball and scampered up the field before he was run out of bounds.
The offense generated only 303 yards and did not get closer to the end zone than the San Francisco 37 until Beck completed his nine-yard touchdown pass to Gaffney with 1:10 left. Beck then hit Leonard Hankerson on the two-point conversion to give his team its 11 points.
“Looking back on the flow of the game,” Beck said, “we obviously didn’t get things going the way we wanted to in the first half and into the third quarter. . . . There’s a lot of things I can improve on as a player, that I can do better and that’s my main focus right now.”
Asked about the offensive struggles, Gaffney said: “It keeps the crowd out of it, and it keeps the confidence down on our sideline. We have to do something to keep that confidence up and stop playing like we’re seeing ghosts out there.”
Washington’s defense surrendered 100-plus rushing yards for a fourth straight week, allowing Frank Gore to run for 107 yards on 19 carries to lead San Francisco. The 49ers amassed 323 total yards. But the Redskins’ defense played well enough to win, according to Shanahan, limiting San Francisco to just 15 first downs, denying the visitors on both trips inside the red zone and forcing Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team to settle for four David Akers field goals.
Washington’s defenders refused to fault the other side of the ball for the team’s fourth straight loss. “We’re not doing the blame game,” said linebacker Brian Orakpo, who had five tackles and a sack, increasing his team-leading sack total to 51 / 2 this season. “There’s always things we can work on. A lot we can get better at defensively, and the offense will eventually get it going.”
Eight games remain, but on Sunday Shanahan started looking to the team’s future to produce answers now. For the first time all season, the Redskins started three rookies on the injury-riddled offense.
Fourth-round pick Helu, who previously had served as the change-of-pace back, started at running back. Third-round pick Hankerson, who until Sunday had appeared in two games, started at wide receiver opposite Gaffney. And seventh-round pickMaurice Hurt, who hadn’t taken a snap all season and opened the year on the practice squad, started at left guard.
Helu’s 146 total yards (105 receiving, 41 rushing) accounted for nearly half the offense, and Hankerson had four catches for 34 yards, but the Redskins needed much more. Their offense struggled from the start, and self-inflicted wounds proved crippling throughout the game.
On its third possession, Washington picked up three first downs, but on second and 10 from his team’s 38-yard line, Beck threw an interception to safety Dashon Goldson, who had tight end Fred Davis blanketed in coverage.
The 49ers cashed with a 52-yard Akers field goal that gave them a 3-0 lead with 12:43 left in the second quarter.
Another self-inflicted wound killed Washington’s chances on the next possession. On third and eight from the Redskins 49, Beck got cornerback Chris Culliver to jump offsides and fired a quick 10-yard pass to Gaffney. But as the play ended, left tackle Trent Williams drilled defensive tackle Justin Smith from behind in retaliation for Smith taking an extra shot at Hurt. Williams was flagged for unnecessary roughness, bringing on third and 23. Shanahan immediately yanked Williams from the game.
After another field goal by Akers — this time a 34-yarder — Washington needed to go 81 yards in 1:41 to reach the end zone before halftime. But on first and 10 from the 19, Williams jumped, backing up Washington another five yards. Two plays later, Helu reeled in a screen pass from Beck, but fumbled, giving the 49ers the ball at the 30.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith promptly fired a 30-yard touchdown pass to wide-open fullback Bruce Miller. The extra point extended San Francisco’s lead to 13-0 with 1:09 left in the half.
The Redskins managed to end the dismal half on a positive note. After back-to-back screen passes to Helu and two Beck incompletions, the team elected to go for a 59-yard field goal. Gano, who last week had a field goal blocked, drilled the longest field goal in Redskins history to put Washington on the board and end a string of more than six conscecutive scoreless quarters.