For the sixth time in the past seven seasons, the Washington Redskins will finish last in the NFC East division. With four wins against 11 losses, the team has little at stake in Sunday’s season finale against the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys.
But unlike last season, when a poisoned relationship between then-Coach Mike Shanahan and quarterback Robert Griffin III undermined the Redskins, no single relationship or failing explained Washington’s futility on the field in 2014. Instead, a series of shortcomings proved insurmountable: injuries, instability at quarterback, poor discipline among players, ill-advised play calls and friction in the locker room, to name a few.
Such hurdles are routinely overcome by better NFL teams, but they proved too much in Washington, where losing has become ingrained in the environment of a once-proud franchise.
Interviews with roughly two dozen current and former players and staff depicted a team that suffered from a variety of ills on any given week — inexperience, a lack of leadership, tension among players, coaches who never settled on a consistent, winning formula — and felt its struggles were exaggerated by local and national media bent on sensationalism.
“It’s easier in a place where you win a lot because you don’t have to deal with things like losing back-to-back games or losing streaks,” said veteran safety Ryan Clark, in his second stint in Washington after spending eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It’s easier to handle a loss because you know you’re going to bounce back when you have a consistent, recent history of winning. When you don’t, it becomes an ‘Oh, here we go again. Same old thing’ attitude.”
Repeated requests to speak with team owner Daniel Snyder and team President and General Manager Bruce Allen were denied by a team spokesman. Allen is expected to address the media after the season ends.
Thrown into such a culture, first-year Coach Jay Gruden was dragged down, just as Shanahan and Jim Zorn had been before him.
Just four games after seeming stunned to hear reports that some star players were joking in the locker room after a loss — “When you lose, you want people to be sick about it,” he said at the time — even Gruden had begun to rationalize, describing the 3-6 Redskins at the bye week as “a play here, a play there” from being 7-2.
Under Gruden, losses didn’t make the workplace at Redskins Park miserable. Losses didn’t make practices more difficult. If losses prompted a re-examination of methods, there was little evidence of a change in approach.
Losing did, however, cost Griffin his starting job for a three-week span for poor performance, just as it had sent second-string Kirk Cousins back to the bench before him.
Washington’s revolving door of quarterbacks, with Gruden cycling through all three on the roster in search of the prototype best suited to his offense, irked a gifted receiving corps that had expected greatness from Griffin. It also undercut Griffin’s already shaky command of the locker room, with the coach publicly declaring him a reclamation project after just four games together.
The challenge of what Gruden inherited was evident early. During training camp, a three-day joint practice with New England highlighted the stark contrast between the teams’ approach to practice.
Attended by thousands of Redskins fans daily, Washington’s camp started and ended to screams and chants of “RGIII! RGIII!” from fans who regarded Griffin as a rock star, pleading for him to look their way. Griffin and his teammates obliged as time permitted, signing autographs and posing for pictures afterward.
Meanwhile, the Patriots, under three-time Super Bowl champion Coach Bill Belichick, were a study in efficiency and teamwork. Their jerseys had no names on the backs. With No. 12 (two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady) at quarterback, the ball rarely hit the ground. The moment each day’s work ended, the entire squad ran wind sprints the width of the field, as orderly as Blue Angel pilots, while the Redskins looked on.
Griffin’s deification — whether the result of media attention, fans’ adulation or upper management favoritism — warped any semblance of functionality. The hyperfocus on an individual in a team game was tolerable when Griffin was at the peak of his abilities as a rookie in 2012. But once his performance waned, so did many of his teammates’ patience with his marquee role.
Washington’s Aug. 23 preseason loss at Baltimore was disastrous for Griffin. In his final and most extensive test before the regular season opened, he completed just five passes, none for more than seven yards. He was also sacked three times, intercepted once and didn’t throw a touchdown pass.
In critiquing his team’s performance during a closed-door meeting the next day, Gruden halted the projector on a sequence in which Griffin, gripped by indecision, was sacked for a six-yard loss.
“That’s never going to happen again — my quarterback taking a six-yard loss when he could throw it away,” Gruden said, dressing down Washington’s star quarterback in front of a hushed room of his peers.
“Yes, sir,” replied Griffin, the once-explosive Heisman Trophy winner who was clearly struggling in the traditional pocket-passing role Gruden wanted him to play.
Concerns grew after Washington’s offense scored just six points in the season-opening loss at Houston. Two years after Griffin’s receivers and teammates viewed their dynamic quarterback as a meal ticket, players started grumbling privately that his ineffectiveness could cost them a chance at lucrative contracts in the future. “Man, this guy’s going to wind up taking food off our tables,” one receiver worried.
Washington’s front office had decided in the offseason that one way of helping Griffin reclaim his rookie form was to surround him with more receiving talent. Griffin lobbied for Arizona’s Andre Roberts. The quarterback also helped recruit DeSean Jackson, the speedster from Philadelphia. Both were excited to join a stable that already included Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL in catches in 2013, and tight end Jordan Reed. Griffin assured all of them he would spread his throws around and scoring opportunities would abound. But patience soon wore thin.
Griffin’s disappointing start lasted just five quarters. He dislocated his left ankle early in a scoreless game against Jacksonville. Cousins took over, and the offense erupted for a 41-10 victory.
With Griffin sidelined for an estimated six to eight weeks, Washington came up short in a 37-34 shootout at Philadelphia. Self-satisfied with their offensive potential, the Redskins were then humiliated by the New York Giants.
The national spotlight didn’t focus on Washington until Oct. 6, when defending Super Bowl champion Seattle visited FedEx Field for a “Monday Night Football” telecast. Though in the midst of his rehabilitation, Griffin stunned his coaches by taking the field for pregame warmups in team-issued gear, staging a passing demonstration for the TV cameras. It played as yet another egocentric move to shift the focus from Cousins and the team to himself.
Several teammates were already annoyed by the media circus that surrounded Griffin. Many didn’t see what all the fuss was about, given the injuries and losses that had dogged his pro career.
“As players, you get tired if everything about what we do as a team is directed at one person,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss explained in a recent interview. At 35, Moss said he doesn’t begrudge Griffin any attention but understands why many young players might. “When you keep giving all that attention to one person and you have 50-some other guys out here playing, as players, they get to feel some type of way. That’s only being human.”
Cousins was eventually benched in favor of Colt McCoy, who rallied the 1-5 franchise for a victory over Tennessee and followed that by engineering the game-winning drive in an overtime upset on the road against the red-hot Dallas Cowboys.
Griffin had lobbied to make his return in that game, yet another “Monday Night Football” telecast with national exposure, but Gruden refused. Now, with McCoy delivering Washington’s first victory against a team with a winning record, Gruden faced a thorny decision about who would start the next week.
“I don’t think there was a decision that could have been made there that I wouldn’t have been hammered,” Gruden said upon reflection. Consulting with the team’s front office, he started Griffin at Minnesota. And Washington’s two-game winning streak ended with a 29-26 loss in which Griffin acquitted himself reasonably well but made two poor throws that killed a potential game-winning drive.
Griffin lost his next two starts as well, extending his drought of victories in complete games to more than a year. His performance in a 27-7 loss to Tampa Bay, a team that had won just one of its nine previous games, was a low ebb.
Gruden held nothing back in enumerating the quarterback’s failings during his news conference the following day, citing errors in judgment, footwork and mechanics. Griffin was “nowhere near good enough,” the coach said. Gruden also rebuked him for expansive postgame remarks that were blown wildly out of proportion, saying Griffin should worry about his own job and leave coaching to him.
The public criticism was a harsh side of a first-year head coach who, at times, had seemed “one of the guys” to his own detriment.
Given a chance to set an early, authoritarian tone when rookie Bashaud Breeland was cited for simple marijuana possession in Richmond the night before training camp ended, Gruden chose not to levy punishment.
Redskins players were often loose in the locker room, shouting down senior vice president of communications Tony Wyllie in one incident, yelling and blaring music to disrupt television interviews when they tired of the media’s presence.
Gruden defended their right to unwind after practice, including the appearance of a toy basketball hoop in the locker room, with their record at 3-7, for games of H-O-R-S-E.
But a lack of discipline too often spilled onto the field as well. Redskins players committed foolish penalties — for taunting, false starts and an illegal formation because a receiver lined up on the wrong side of the field. In a Dec. 7 loss to St. Louis, defensive lineman Chris Baker celebrated a teammate’s sack, oblivious to the fact the fumbled ball was rolling around behind him, there for the taking.
Behind closed doors, Gruden did attempt to instill discipline, taking away Jackson’s cellphone during one team meeting after the star wide receiver persisted in fiddling with it rather than listening. He also benched starter David Amerson, one of his dwindling supply of cornerbacks, for missing a meeting and much of practice after oversleeping.
But because of its subject, Gruden’s public dismantling of Griffin drew national comment. Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, a commentator for NFL Network, said it was “like nothing I have ever seen before.” Others doubted the coach-player relationship was reparable.
Asked in a recent interview whether he felt he could work with Griffin next season, Gruden sounded neither enthused about such a prospect nor fully empowered that the decision would be entirely his own.
“We’ve got to work with somebody,” Gruden said. “We need a quarterback. We have three in the building. All have done some good things. Moving forward, there is a lot that goes into these decisions as far as contracts. I don’t think anything is etched in stone right this second.”
Eight months after taking the job as Washington’s 29th head coach, Gruden acknowledged his team was still searching for an identity as the Sept. 7 season opener approached. On Sunday, Gruden will end his season still searching.
The questions about Gruden go beyond his tactical expertise. Is he capable of creating a winning culture? Are there factors within the Redskins’ locker room that can’t be changed simply by coaching decree? If success breeds success, then what have six last-place finishes in seven seasons bred?
“This job is hard to start with,” noted Clark, who was part of the Steelers’ 2008 Super Bowl championship squad. “And as a first job for a head coach, it’s a very hard job. Not only do you deal with losing, you deal with our quarterback situation.
“I can’t say whether or not Jay did things right. But I’ve watched him grow as a head coach.”
Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams credits Gruden with keeping the team’s wide receivers from imploding in frustration, no small task given the depth of talent on a losing team. Like Clark, Williams rejects the suggestion NFL coaches must be feared to be effective.
What they need, they say, is to be respected.
Having continuity on the roster helps. So does having an established quarterback and a locker-room culture in which winning is the norm, not an aberration.
“The media here feeds off of negativity. Even the fans. As soon as one thing goes wrong, you see them going at players,” Clark said. “It’s not like that everywhere. I know for a fact it wasn’t like that in Pittsburgh. But there hasn’t been a lot of positives to build on here. And negativity is what people have gotten used to — whether it be the players, coaches, organization or media. And the only thing that changes that is figuring out ways to win games.”