Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 33-26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings:
After a short week with the Christmas holiday at the end, it appeared the Redskins left their focus in the Meadowlands. Against a 2-win Minnesota team that had lost six straight, this was the first time since early November that the Redskins played like a 5-win team. It was a sloppy performance that makes me wonder whether they checked out for the season after beating the Giants last Sunday.
In the five games after the Redskins’ 20-9 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 13, they played inspired, relatively-sharp football that belied their woeful record. Talent deficiencies and breakdowns still resulted in losses, but they were competitive against division title contenders Dallas and New York. They won in a hostile environment in Seattle, and they had chances to beat New England and the New York Jets, both playoff contenders. Focus and commitment are not the only two reasons why the Redskins played better in those five games, but they were major factors, considering the absence of postseason hope.
Just as I praised those attributes in recent weeks, so must I highlight the lack of focus, sharpness and discipline in Saturday’s defeat.
FB Darrel Young committed two penalties that resulted in a negative 14-point swing. QB Rex Grossman threw an interception against a defense that hadn’t had a pick in nine games. Grossman and C Will Mongtomery had a breakdown in communication on the final drive that cost the Redskins a 10-second run-off and five yards. TE Mike Sellers missed a block that resulted in a sack-fumble. Defensive players missed tackles and took bad angles. The effects of a long, trying season appeared to finally take their toll.
In contemplating QB Rex Grossman’s future with the organization, it should be difficult – perhaps impossible – for coach Mike Shanahan to look past his turnovers. Grossman knows the scheme and can move the ball at times, but knowing that Rex turns the ball over twice per game, Shanahan cannot feel comfortable beginning next season with Grossman as his starter.
Grossman threw his 19th interception of the year, tied with three others for the NFL lead. Grossman’s 24 turnovers this season are tied for most in the NFL with San Diego QB Philip Rivers, and Rivers has played in three more games. Grossman’s turnover rate, then, is greater. Of course, 24 turnovers in 12 starts works out to two turnovers per game. There’s no way to describe that other than unacceptable.
Not all of Grossman’s turnovers have been his fault. TE Mike Sellers missed a block against Minnesota that resulted in a sack-fumble. But you don’t lead the NFL in turnovers without major problems protecting the ball. Grossman’s interception simply sailed over WR Santana Moss’ head. “It was high,” Grossman said. “I could elaborate, but it’s pretty simple.”
This is who Grossman is as a player. His entire career has been plagued by turnovers. If the Redskins are willing to let him compete for the starting job next season, they’d have to accept his staggering turnover rate. I’m not sure why Shanahan would be willing to do that.
The Redskins can’t draft higher than fourth overall or lower than 11th. All the strength-of-schedule variations make their draft order scenarios extremely difficult to figure out, but that gives you an idea of the possibilities entering the final game.
ILB London Fletcher deserves to be voted to the Pro Bowl, and I’d have no objections if he were voted All-Pro. His 17 tackles against the Vikings tied his second-best total of the season. He also knocked QB Christian Ponder out of the game with a ferocious hit – although that ended up working against the Redskins because of how well backup QB Joe Webb ran the option and zone-read runs.
Fletcher has an uncanny ability to shed blocks and finish tackles. Some of that results from pre-game film study, and it’s also the product of superb technique. I’ve enjoyed watching him fly around behind an upgraded defensive front this season.
Donté Stallworth has been the Redskins’ second- or third-best receiver since the Redskins brought him back for the Dallas game in mid-November. It’s worth exploring with coaches this week why they thought cutting him was the right move and what, if anything, has been different since he returned.
He converted another third-and-double-digits against Minnesota on a shallow cross with RB Evan Royster blocking for him down field. He also caught a touchdown pass on a quick slant. QB Rex Grossman said he knew he could rely on Stallworth’s physical strength to beat the safety to the inside. That strength and quality route-running are why Stallworth has emerged as a significant contributor.
Speaking of Royster, he did quite well with his opportunity to start in RB Roy Helu’s absence. His feet were as quick as we’ve seen in his nascent career, and he appeared to do a good job diagnosing cutback lanes. There were several stretch runs on which he cut off the back side of the line. Helu hasn’t done that as frequently. He also gained significant yards after contact.
Royster obviously doesn’t possess the same burst as Helu, and he struggled to keep his balance on a handful of runs. I don’t believe the Redskins intend to enter next season with either Helu or Royster as their starter, but at least those two have demonstrated they can be productive if called upon.
Along those lines, RB Ryan Torain has fallen so far since playing at a 1,180-yard pace last season. He was hesitant with the ball and not explosive. It appears the organization has moved on.
Props to FB Darrel Young for showing his strong character and speaking to reporters after the game. Young received plenty of positive media coverage, including from me, after his exceptional game against the Giants last week. But Young knows it works both ways. Players can’t talk only when things are going well. He accepted responsibility for his offsides and holding penalties that significantly contributed to the loss. It was a standup move that earned the respect of reporters - and hopefully his teammates noticed.
By contrast, I was beyond disappointed by veteran FB Mike Sellers, who urged Young not to speak to reporters. Sellers supposedly is a mentor to Young, so Young gets even more credit for ignoring Sellers and doing the right thing. Sunday’s game against Philadelphia could be Sellers’ last as a Redskin.
We saw more growing pains on Saturday from the Redskins’ young defensive pieces. S DeJon Gomes was rotated out of the game early after taking some bad angles in run defense. ILB Perry Riley was beaten in pass coverage for a touchdown – again. If they can get those out of the way now and build on them for next year, then they’re worth it.
How QB Joe Webb beat the Redskins with his mobility was reminiscent of what Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton did to them back on Oct. 23. I’m interested to re-watch the game and see how some of the misdirection affected the Redskins’ linebackers and safeties, but upon first glance it appeared to open passing lanes.
Preparation was an issue in that loss to Carolina, according to coach Mike Shanahan. NT Barry Cofield after Saturday’s game said the Redskins were prepared but simply didn’t execute. S Reed Doughty, for example, thought Webb was going to bounce outside on his option keeper, but he cut back inside for a touchdown. Dual-threat quarterbacks obviously are a problem for the Redskins’ defense, and it will be tested in that regard by Philadelphia’s Michael Vick next week.
K Graham Gano’s strong performance bodes well for his chance of being brought back to compete for a job. The soon-to-be restricted free agent connected on field goals of 53 and 47 yards, in addition to attempts from 25 and 26 yards. I didn’t note all of his kickoffs, but he did place one in the corner in the second half.
Coaches are concerned about his mental toughness, and Saturday’s game was evidence of strength.
Merry Christmas to those celebrating Sunday, and happy holidays to all of you.