The Redskins defense in between plays during the game against the New York Giants at FedEx Field. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Columnist

It doesn’t matter whether the writing is on the wall or in a private message. The Washington Redskins are an irritable bunch right now, and some players are making it clear that they would rather break up than grow up.

Their behavior has gone beyond the expected grumpiness of a team on a four-game losing streak. Somehow, no matter how the franchise assembles the roster, no matter how many character guys and Alabama-bred winners it brings into the fold, it can’t eradicate this losing, front-running culture. When things go bad, they escalate to the extreme. On every football team, even the best ones, dozens of players are mad about something. The difference in Washington is that resentment spills into the public with stunning ease.

This time, we’re talking about linebacker Mason Foster — or a cousin representing him on Instagram, he says — sending angry private messages to a fan who decided to make them public. They included: “[Expletive] this team and this fan base.” And: “I’m not [expletive] it or being a scape goat to make fans feel better about all these big money ppl who ain’t playin or getting dogged out.”

It’s an embarrassing situation for Foster, 29, a team captain who is usually a voice of reason during media interviews. I’ve known him for 11 years, since he arrived at the University of Washington as an unheralded recruit and became an all-American. He is a great teammate, and he is still a solid NFL player. It’s an unfortunate situation, having his supposed privacy betrayed, but he’s responsible, at minimum, for not overseeing his social media account properly. And even if his cousin actually did type those words, he got the sentiment from somewhere, and Foster can’t hide from having those feelings.

But you know what was more alarming than the bizarre news itself? It was the way that other players in the locker room, in the middle of a touchy controversy and in trying to support Foster, couldn’t mask their frustration, either. When sought for a reaction, linebacker Zach Brown used the news to express his own disappointment after not starting last week and all but said goodbye with the words: “You see the writing on the wall.”

Safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. gets emotional after every loss and talks about the team’s shortcomings. When asked whether the team was prepared during a 40-16 home loss to the New York Giants last Sunday, Swearinger paused before saying, “No comment.” Cornerback Josh Norman — who rarely bites his tongue and already went several rounds with the fans earlier this season about the atmosphere at FedEx Field — gave a terse “next question” when asked the same thing.

It’s crazy to remember that Washington had a 6-3 record and a healthy Alex Smith at quarterback before all the madness. It’s even crazier to realize that, despite all the drama and injuries, this 6-7 team is still in the playoff conversation. But the situation seems dire because it’s clear that the players’ competitive spirit is waning. Even with all the offensive woes, it’s unacceptable to be down 40-0 at home to the Giants (5-8), especially when the defense is relatively healthy.

With three games remaining on the schedule against Jacksonville (4-9), Tennessee ­(7-6) and Philadelphia (6-7), there’s still an expectation to be competitive. If the Redskins lose because the offense stinks, that’s understandable given their situation. If they don’t come to play in one or more of these games, then there’s a huge problem. We often talk about that issue by scrutinizing the motivational ability of Coach Jay Gruden and his staff. But it’s on these players to be more professional, too.

If there’s anything still there — meaning chemistry, winning character, unselfishness, resolve — they had better show it these three weeks. The way this season ends isn’t merely a test of where Gruden stands after five seasons. The players should be under evaluation, too. More than that, this is a test of what the entire franchise has built and how much surgery needs to be done in the offseason to correct the roster (again). Right now, Washington is somewhere between needing a roster carve-out and a full gutting that could involve players, coaches and management. The proper decisions should become clear soon.

Over the past five seasons, the franchise has operated better and followed the basics of proper team-building. It has been patient. It has tried to build through the draft. It has minimized risky, high-priced free agent signings. There’s this notion that the front office has done a better job of defining what a Redskins player is and seeking the right people with whom to grow.

But if Washington doesn’t rally, it will be the fourth time in five seasons under Gruden that it has missed the postseason. The offense has gone from a top-five unit in 2017 to one of the league’s worst and most injury-prone. The defense, despite major draft and free agency investments, is only marginally better. This is a much deeper team, but it is full of C-plus players and lacking true superstars at the top of the roster.

And now those players are griping, making veiled complaints about the coaches and showing few signs of cohesion and effort? Who do they think they are? The Wizards?

They still have something to play for, and they’re acting like a team playing out a 3-10 season. It’s a bad look, not just for Gruden’s job security but also for the belief that the franchise finally had identified a core worth keeping together.

There’s still time to salvage hope for next season. But it seems like several players have gone into endgame mode by letting their discontent show.

“We have to get in the right frame of mind,” Gruden said. “We can’t lose any confidence, but we have to understand we’ve got to work. We have to work harder than our opponent. We have to practice harder. We have to be up on our fundamentals. We have to be up on our assignments. We have to be focused in on every play. When you’re playing against very talented players on the other side of the field, no matter who you play, they’re going to have players that, if you lack in focus for one snap, it’s going to cost you.”

To play that way, the Redskins need to prove they still believe in what they’re doing. I’m not sure that level of faith exists anymore.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.