Initial Thoughts: Panthers 21, Redskins 13

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Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday:

The competitive portion of the season basically is over. I’m surprised coach Mike Shanahan conceded as much in his postgame comments because he usually isn’t so candid, but he’s right. Only four teams in NFL history have made the playoffs after starting 3-6. Of course, the Redskins still are mathematically alive, but it would take a turnaround that’s quite unlikely without such injured players as OLB Brian Orakpo, TE Fred Davis and WR Pierre Garcon.

“When you lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come,” Shanahan said. “Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at. Obviously we’re not out of it statistically, but now we find out what type of character we got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.”

Let’s be clear: Shanahan didn’t say he will stop trying to win or won’t work as hard. He was telling the truth about his team’s postseason chances, and this truth hurts. Some players expressed surprise and disbelief when they learned of Shanahan’s assessment.

“I don’t want to say anything extreme like that, but I think what he’s talking about is when you get down, you need to find out who’s willing to fight and who’s just in it for the paycheck,” LG Kory Lichtensteiger said. “I’m not sitting here saying our season is over and we’re just going to treat this like an evaluation for next year. I think we still have a lot to fight for, and there’s a lot of pride on the line, too.”

But don’t freak out about the Redskins failing to make the postseason. Qualifying for the playoffs was an ambitious goal, considering they have a rookie quarterback and had extensive personnel problems last season that resulted in a 5-11 record. I picked them to go 7-9, which would fall short of the postseason every time in the NFC East.

The bigger problem is that losing to a 1-6 Carolina team at home exemplifies how the Redskins are not improving as a whole. They have the same problems every week: penalties, big plays surrendered by the defense, poor third-down conversion rate, an impotent pass rush. The narrative is predictable, even with QB Robert Griffin III.

Now is when you can cite injuries. Would the Redskins be 3-6 if they had Orakpo, Davis, Garcon, S Brandon Meriweather, etc.? We’ll never know for sure. But injuries hamper every NFL team, and the Redskins don’t have sufficient quality on the roster to limit big plays on defense, consistently generate a pass rush, convert third downs and score touchdowns on drives inside the opponents’ 20.

And so it’s natural to look to Shanahan, the one who has assembled the roster over the last two years and 10 months. I understand fans’ frustration. Indianapolis was 2-14 last season but on Sunday improved to 5-3. It’s fair to look at that situation and, in another case, Cincinnati last season and wonder why others can turn it around so quickly with a rookie quarterback and Shanahan hasn’t. In Year 3, should the depth be better? Should certain starters be better, especially ones this regime acquired?

Shanahan’s record of 14-27 says yes, with several exclamation points. Sure, there was the limited free agency in 2010 and the lockout in 2011, but every team faced those obstacles. The 2012 salary cap penalty is unique to the Redskins (and Dallas) and I sympathize with the team on that one.

Overall, though, it seems the Redskins aren’t as close to being a contender as Shanahan thought they were when he acquired Griffin, especially because of an underperforming defense Shanahan believed had the talent to finish in the top five. The overall record doesn’t reflect well on his stewardship.

“Everybody is disappointed in what happened today,” Shanahan said. “You’re looking for guys that step up – both offensively, defensively and special teams. Obviously, I’ve got to do a better job because we didn’t do that today. We didn’t do that as a team, so I take full responsibility for that.”

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I see on Twitter fans’ calls to fire Shanahan or fire defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. I suggest taking a deep breath and slowing down. I know that’s a lot to ask.

When it comes to Shanahan, all that matters is what the owner thinks. Does he believe injuries are a satisfactory explanation for why the Redskins will suffer through another December of irrelevance?

But even asking that is impulsive thinking. Seven games remain. That’s a lot. Let’s see what happens. If the Redskins get WR Pierre Garcon (sprained right foot) and S Brandon Meriweather (sprained right knee) back after the bye week, and those two make positive contributions, there actually could be optimism on Dec. 30.

As for Haslett, neither the performance nor the statistics acquit him. They don’t acquit the players, either. Players say they should bear the blame. Coaches say it’s both players and themselves. My thinking: it’s a collective failure. The problems are too complex to blame only the coordinator or only certain players.

I think we can all agree the Redskins’ defense has too many underachieving players. OLB Ryan Kerrigan will tell you he has to get off blocks quicker. NT Barry Cofield will tell you he has to win more blocks up front when rushing the passer. Josh Wilson, the Redskins’ best cover corner a year ago, has surrendered too many big catches. This regime acquired all three of those players.

 “To say it’s scheme, it’s the coordinator, that’s just too easy to make excuses,” defensive captain London Fletcher said. “Guys just have to make plays. That’s the bottom line.”

Sunday’s crushing loss, however, prompts the question: Will players continue to believe in the direction of this program despite its state in Year 3 of Shanahan’s tenure?

Fletcher, for one, cut Shanahan some slack.

“When you look at the NFL in some instances where you say third year of a program, third year of a head coach, and you would like to see that team starting to ascend, but I think in our situation this is the first year we’ve actually had a quarterback, for the most part,” Fletcher said. “That definitely makes a difference, and you see with Robert he’s going to be a great player, and he’s going to give you a great chance to win. Now you just continue to build pieces around him to make sure. Because when you’ve got a guy who’s a franchise quarterback, you need to build pieces around him and make sure you’re going in the right direction and you’re competing for championships.”

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The offense for the second straight week failed to score 14 points. Meanwhile, injured TE Fred Davis is seeing dollar signs. Before the soon-to-be free agent tore his left Achilles tendon (including the first 15 plays of the New York game), the Redskins averaged 6.31 yards per play. In 186 plays since, they have averaged 5.26 yards. That’s the difference between being ranked first in the NFL and 21st.

It’s not a coincidence, of course. The Redskins’ offense was so improved this season because they increased their stock of playmakers (remember that, those of you who stopped calling for Kyle Shanahan’s head and starting calling for Jim Haslett’s). It’s apparent the offense is significantly less potent without Davis and WR Pierre Garcon, two of Washington’s top three offensive playmakers. That’s not to minimize TE Logan Paulsen’s contributions, but Davis so positively impacted the passing and running games before he got hurt. They miss that.

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Red zone offense was one of the Redskins’ major strengths at the beginning of the season, but not anymore. They’ve lost four of the last five games, and in those four losses, they have scored only two touchdowns on 10 drives inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

The quarterback draw that was so effective early in the season has not been a positive factor in those defeats. Washington ran one in the fourth quarter Sunday, only to have the touchdown negated by C Will Montgomery’s holding penalty.

The glaring failure on Sunday was a four-and-out that began at the Carolina 7-yard line in the second quarter. RB Alfred Morris carried on first and second downs, plays on which QB Robert Griffin III was under center and not in the shotgun/pistol. Morris gained a total of three yards. A screen to WR Brandon Banks gained only two yards on third down.

I liked Mike Shanahan’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2. Shanahan’s thinking: “There’s a lot of times when it’s fourth-and-1, I’ll take a chance – or fourth-and-a-yard-a-half, -2 yards – because if you can get them three plays and out, you have the ball at midfield and you’ve got a chance for another field goal.”

Or, perhaps more reasonably, the Redskins defense gives up so many points that Shanahan understands he’s not going to win kicking field goals.

The problem was the fourth-and-2 play – effectively a quarterback sweep to the right – was at a major disadvantage just from how Carolina lined up.

“They had numbers,” TE Logan Paulsen said of Carolina overloading the side of the field to which the Redskins ran. “I think you’d like to put that in with a [an option to run another play], but based on our formation and our personnel, I think we were kind of stuck with it. It’s not a bad play. I think the staff really liked that play, and you can understand why with Robert doing what he does. So I definitely think it’s just kind of one of those things where it wasn’t, like, maybe the most favorable look. We had to run it based on what the situation was. Unfortunately it didn’t work.”

The Panthers responded by marching 98 yards for a touchdown on a drive that featured three third-down conversions, the same amount the Redskins had all game (3 for 15). Instead of the Redskins taking a 10-7 lead, it was 14-3 Panthers and game over.

***

WR Armanti Edwards’ backbreaking 82-yard reception in the fourth quarter was another example of Carolina having a better play called than Washington’s.

The Panthers beat the Redskins 3-deep coverage with a switch route, as ILB London Fletcher described it. Edwards, from the left slot, ran a delayed go route that he widened to the sideline. CB Josh Wilson, who was responsible for the deep third on that side, ran with outside WR Steve Smith on a deep post. Slot CB DeAngelo Hall, meanwhile, did not play Edwards’ vertical route. He ran to the flat to cover TE Greg Olsen once Edwards stutter-stepped a few yards into his route. That left Fletcher to chase after Edwards, a most illogical play design. Without knowing for sure what the responsibilities were, it seems a stretch to think Fletcher, a linebacker, is supposed to be responsible for the slot receiver if he goes vertical. If Hall had recognized the vertical route, he had a better chance to defend that play.

“They ran a good route combination, kind of like what we call a switch route,” Fletcher said. “It puts your defense at a bind if everybody doesn’t see it the same way.”

Shanahan credited the Panthers’ play design, saying, “We got out-executed.”

***

The Redskins had a chance to win their first seven games because the defense forced turnovers to help compensate for giving up big plays. The Redskins have not forced a turnover in either of the last two games, which are their two lowest point outputs of the season. It’s not a coincidence.

Against Carolina, the Redskins were more aggressive in sending extra rushers on pass plays. They rushed five or six on several third downs, but still they did not sack QB Cam Newton. Linemen stunted, but still they did not sack Newton. Defenders just aren’t winning enough blocks.

***

Washington’s offensive line deserves its share of credit for the Redskins’ offensive success this season, but that unit is not built to come from behind. Carolina’s talented front four exploited some one-on-one matchups in obvious passing situations. QB Robert Griffin III can be extremely careful with the ball, and when a defense can drop seven or eight in coverage and still apply pressure by winning blocks up front – as Carolina did – he can get caught holding the ball.

***

The penalties are out of control. The Redskins entered the game leading the league in fouls (62) and yards (552), and they added 13 penalties for 97 yards. They continue to jump offsides. Starters – not substitutes playing because of injuries – were penalized for illegal formation and illegal man downfield. It’s the hallmark of a losing team.

“That’s what gnaws at you, when you stop yourselves,” Mike Shanahan said.

Through Sunday’s games, the Redskins have committed nine more penalties than second-ranked Baltimore and have 64 more penalty yards than second-ranked Pittsburgh.

***

The Redskins were on the wrong side of a botched call on Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams’ 30-yard touchdown run. On the FOX telecast, you can clearly hear the whistle blow when Williams is about at the 13-yard line.

“The line judge blew his whistle,” referee Carl Cheffers said. “We had a lot of discussion about it. We just felt when the whistle blew, that the player would have already scored a touchdown. We tried to piece together if we had to spot — by rule, we would have to put him down when the whistle blew, and we tried to decide where that spot would be, and we felt that spot would be in the end zone.”

That clearly isn’t true from the replay.

“I could’ve pushed him out of bounds if I hadn’t heard the whistle,” ILB Perry Riley said. It’s clear Riley pulled up as he pursued Williams.

***

WR Aldrick Robinson’s return to the starting lineup was a flop. He dropped a pass on the Redskins’ first play of the game, and they went back to Leonard Hankerson. Hankerson (four targets) played 44 of 81 offensive snaps. Robinson (two targets) played only 32, some after WR Santana Moss suffered a concussion in the fourth quarter.

***

SS Brandon Meriweather (sprained left knee) seems positioned to return after the bye when the Redskins host Philadelphia on Nov. 18. He at least has participated in practice each of the last two weeks.

WR Pierre Garcon’s status is more of a mystery. His availability was a coin flip, at best, and now that the Redskins are forced to play out the string, maybe he opts for surgery to repair his sprained right foot. We’ll see.

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Before the game, Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green shared his thoughts on why the Redskins secondary has struggled. Recommended reading, for sure: Click here.

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The throwback uniforms were pretty sweet. My only problem, players’ numbers were a bit difficult to read. I loved the look, though.

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For the record, the four teams to overcome a 3-6 start to make the postseason: Jacksonville in 1996, Detroit in 1995, New England in 1994 and Cincinnati in 1970.

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