The 2018 NFL season died here Sunday — finally, mercifully — and FedEx Field proved to be the perfect place to bury these Washington Redskins. For the supposed home team, the atmosphere was more sobering than embarrassing, with Philadelphia Eagles fans dominating the announced crowd of 63,188. There was so much green and black decorating the stadium that, by sundown, the vibe felt dark and ominous.
The play on the field reflected this mood. The Eagles pounded their injured and offensively challenged rival, 24-0, in a game that felt prehistoric by today’s innovative NFL standard. Across the NFL, in more fortunate cities with better owners, better plans for success and fewer player injuries, the league enjoyed a riveting season of evolution. Protests during the national anthem didn’t overtake the news cycle this time; creative offenses and emerging young stars ruled the season.
Thanks to Jon Gruden’s sovereign power and impatience in Oakland, there were even two trades — Khalil Mack to Chicago, Amari Cooper to Dallas — that changed the fortunes of two marquee franchises. From Patrick Mahomes’s 50-touchdown first season as a starter in Kansas City to Aaron Donald’s continued dominance to the proliferation of young and versatile running backs redefining the position, this has been the good, dynamic year that the NFL badly needed.
Well, in most places.
In Washington, a promising 6-3 start devolved into chaos and hopelessness. For the second straight season, injuries overwhelmed the team, with a league-high 24 players being placed on injured reserve. But bad luck wasn’t the only issue. The season exposed several holes on the roster even before the attrition, including a lack of speed on defense and very little explosiveness on offense. And then, in a series of typical but foolish decisions, the organization went into full Daniel Snyder-era dysfunction, starting with the controversial acquisition of troubled and freshly arrested linebacker Reuben Foster in late November and ending with the ouster of Brian Lafemina, the president of business operations and chief operating officer, along with three of his deputies after just eight months on the job.
Between those bookend disasters, multiple players took their unhappiness to social media. And safety D.J. Swearinger Sr., the most prolific mouth in the locker room, managed to get kicked off the team last week for taking his criticisms too far and unloading on defensive coordinator Greg Manusky after a loss to Tennessee.
Other than that, Washington was a scrappy, resilient little team that (almost) could.
By Sunday night, the madness ended with a 7-9 record, six losses in the final seven games and four different starting quarterbacks. Josh Johnson, the last signal caller standing, had turned back into Josh Johnson. He threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage and completed 12 of 27 passes for 91 yards against Philadelphia, which equated to a miserable 37.7 passer rating.
From the beginning, Washington performed as poorly as it had during this woeful offensive season. The Eagles outgained the Redskins 360 to 89. The Eagles had a 19-play touchdown drive and held possession for 43 of the 60 minutes. Nick Foles, football’s greatest backup quarterback, tied an NFL record with 25 straight completions.
Once 4-6, the defending Super Bowl champions won five of their last six to finish 9-7 and earn the NFC’s final playoff spot. As chants of “E-A-G-L-E-S!” filled FedEx Field, Washington had never felt more irrelevant.
It takes more than losing to sink so low. This is what happens a team doesn’t win on or off the field, no matter what team President Bruce Allen says. This is what happens when a franchise loses while displaying little integrity and having absolutely no feel for what its fan base wants. This is what happens when an organization has no trustworthy face of the franchise, when an owner and team president refuse to hold themselves accountable and when the team is constructed as if someone read from an outdated version of a “Team-Building For Dummies” handbook.
Washington pieced together a team that could have been even more competitive in 2013, right down to trading for quarterback Alex Smith, who was entering his prime back then. Big, physical defense. Ball-control offense. Slow the game down and win ugly. It’s a classic approach and not a bad one if you go all the way with the creation and add a few new-school touches.
But the NFC is ruled by teams such as the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams right now, brilliant offensive squads with defenses also built to play in space. In D.C., Allen led a front office that threw something together around two young defensive tackles from Alabama and a new, game-managing quarterback.
It worked until Smith suffered a gruesome broken leg. But let’s not romanticize those first nine games. This team was built to fall apart. It’s unfortunate that Smith suffered a possible career-ending injury. He was making an impact with his temperament and professionalism. He was becoming the leader this team lacked. But his actual performance was of a top 20-25 starting NFL quarterback, which wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t all his fault, either. The suspect receiving talent couldn’t help him elevate his play.
Smith deserves credit for helping to mask some of the problems with his low-turnover style of play. But if your conclusion is that the 2018 Redskins were just unlucky, you’re ignoring a lot of important details.
As it ended Sunday, the franchise seemed lost, even though there are some strong foundational pieces in places upon which to build. A more competent organization could turn this slow and incremental progress into a run of sustained success. But this team? I think Washington has learned nothing more during Coach Jay Gruden’s five seasons than how to fail less dramatically.
For that, don’t blame the coach. Blame Allen, the coach’s boss. And blame Snyder, who has put himself in some kind of strange owner protection program in which he seemingly doesn’t worry about anything other than getting a new stadium built.
Meanwhile, at the current stadium, the passion is dead. The offense didn’t convert a third down against the Eagles. Adrian Peterson, who revived his Hall of Fame career this season, had zero rushing yards. The burgundy and gold fans were outnumbered almost three to one, and they were given almost no reason to try to make noise.
“We took an L today,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “We really did. Took it on the chin. Yeah, so I think that pretty much sums up the year.”
Asked about how the season fell apart, offensive tackle Morgan Moses shook his head and said, “It’s heartbreaking.” Gruden, ever the defender of his players, hoped this last, lifeless game wouldn’t serve as the season’s lasting memory.
“Today was really an unfair assessment, in my opinion,” the coach said.
He’s right. It was an unfair assessment of the state of this franchise. But perception is powerful. And in the final weeks of this season, Washington reverted to being a messy and meandering organization.
Now it is charged with trying to combat the mounting apathy and needing to do something to inspire hope. There are only two methods listed in the handbook to handle this: firings or big-splash signings. The public has figured out those tricks by now, though.
They could do something bold and rename FedEx Field. It needs a more appropriate and shocking designation for what it has become.
The Crypt sounds about right.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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