If, as Joe Gibbs always contended, “You’re just three weeks away from disaster” in the NFL, then the Washington Redskins right now are standing on the precipice, staring into the abyss. A hopeful 3-1 start has been followed by injury-inundated losses to Philadelphia and Carolina, making this week’s game against Buffalo in Toronto an exercise in disaster avoidance. Do the Redskins really want to come home 3-4, with the meat of their schedule still ahead of them?
Coach Joe, by the way, wasn’t trying to be melodramatic when he said that. He was merely stating the obvious: Once things start rolling downhill in the Not For Long League, it can be hard to put on the brakes. A three-game losing streak opens up all kinds of questions - about the coaching, the quarterbacking, the organizational philosophy, everything. And that questioning isn’t necessarily done just by the fans; it can be done by the players, too.
The latter - the prospect of turning a losing streak into a lost season - is the real danger. As Lorenzo Alexander said Monday, “Whenever you lose, it takes something out of you.” To which Stephen Bowen added, “[Beating the Bills] is very important to the morale of the team. … A three-game slide, that’s not good.”
No, it isn’t. And yet, the Redskins have specialized in three-game slides in recent years. Every season since 2000 - Dan Snyder’s first full year as owner - they’ve had at least one, and sometimes more than one. The sordid details:
• In the past 11 seasons, the Redskins have had 16 losing streaks of three games or longer.
• Six of the streaks reached four games, and one dragged on for five.
• In 2003 (under Steve Spurrier) and again in ‘09 (under Jim Zorn), the Redskins had three losing streaks of three games or more.
• Gibbs had only two losing streaks that long in his first term as coach (1981 through 1992). But in his second term (2004 through ‘07), he had at least one every year.
• And finally: If the Redskins lose to Buffalo, it will be the fifth straight season a Mike Shanahan-coached team has dropped three in a row (three in Denver, two in Washington).
Three-Game Losing Streaks R Us, in other words.
The Redskins‘ current crisis has been worsened by injuries to five offensive regulars - left guard Kory Lichtensteiger (out for the season), left tackle Trent Williams, tight end Chris Cooley (long term) and, Sunday in Charlotte, running back Tim Hightower (also out for the season) and wide receiver Santana Moss (also long term). That’s a lot to get hit with at one time.
But it doesn’t explain why the defense, the healthy side of the ball (and previously the more reliable), had a horrendous first half against the Eagles and equally horrible second half against the Panthers. With the offense ailing, Jim Haslett’s unit needed to raise its level of play, but if anything it went in the other direction. This is how losing streaks are born.
The Redskins‘ various hurts wouldn’t have quite as much of an impact, of course, if the franchise wasn’t in rebuilding mode. Let’s face it, on a well-put-together team, the loss of these five players shouldn’t be catastrophic. It should be felt, sure, but it shouldn’t send the club into a death spiral. After all, none of them made the Pro Bowl last year, and none was expected to make it this year.
But the absence of Lichtensteiger and Williams affects the Redskins more than it should because Shanahan hasn’t built up much line depth. And the absence of Moss affects the offense more than it should because Shanny doesn’t really have a No. 2 receiver, just a bunch of No. 3s and No. 4s. See? It’s not just the injuries; it’s the lack of alternatives.
It’s also the fact that the quarterback, whether it’s John Beck or Rex Grossman, isn’t the kind who makes everybody around him better. Tom Brady can go to the conference title game with Reche Caldwell and, yes, Jabar Gaffney as his main wideouts. Are Beck and Grossman capable of doing that? Of course not. They’re essentially the product of the talent around them. And if the quality of that talent drops off because of injuries, the offense is going to suffer.