ATLANTA — They were both division champions last season, playoff teams that figured bigger things were in store for 2013.
Instead, when the Redskins and the Atlanta Falcons meet on Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, the wreckage of a lost season will haunt them both.
But one organization is imploding amidst the chaos of complicated relationships between its head coach, offensive coordinator, franchise quarterback and owner. Meanwhile, the other is quietly plotting a return to the NFL’s elite with limited drama.
The circus resides in Ashburn, Va., where national networks and prominent writers eager to put their own spin on what’s gone wrong routinely visit Redskins’ headquarters. The Falcons became irrelevant long ago after a surprising 1-4 start. But their losses don’t lead SportsCenter and their press conferences aren’t broadcast to a national audience. Atlanta loses in anonymity.
“The easiest way to really get derailed is to feed into the negativity,” Falcons left guard Justin Blalock said. “Granted, staying positive hasn’t turned out a bunch of W’s this year. But it has produced an environment where guys can be positive in here and be able to look forward coming into next year.”
Few Atlanta players wanted to talk about Washington’s struggles. To them, Mike Shanahan’s decision to bench quarterback Robert Griffin III and deactivate him for the rest of the season just means they have to prepare for backup Kirk Cousins.
They care little about the behind-the-scenes machinations: Whether owner Dan Snyder will fire Shanahan; if the coach himself wants to return or if he’s decided that the relationship between Griffin and Snyder isn’t conducive to building a winning organization.
“Media always put out what they want to put out,” Atlanta defensive end Jonathan Babineaux said. “Everything could be different on the inside than what’s happening from the outside. So we don’t know exactly what’s going on in their locker room. But it’s none of our concern. We have our own issues here and the things that’s going on with our organization here.”
But it brings up an interesting question: How did the Falcons avoid the drama that has enveloped the Redskins? Why do they appear in a better spot heading into 2014? This is a team that was 13-3 last season and among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl. Instead, the Falcons have the same 3-10 record as the Redskins.
Whether it’s wishful thinking or not, Atlanta believes this year is a blip. That confidence comes from a level of stability the Redskins have never achieved during Snyder’s 15-year ownership tenure. The Falcons had five consecutive winning seasons before this one and reached the playoffs four times. That included two NFC South titles and the only non-playoff year (2009) they still won nine games.
And while Atlanta is just 1-4 in playoff games during that stretch, it did reach the NFC championship last season and held a 17-0 lead at home over the San Francisco 49ers at before losing.
Washington, meanwhile, has had just four winning seasons under Snyder and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005. The Redskins were 10-6 last year and won the NFC East. But it took a seven-game win streak to close out the season to get there. Even one more loss after a 3-6 start and Mike Shanahan would have had nothing to show for his first four seasons as coach.
Washington’s players have spent the past six weeks insisting they have stayed together despite their struggles. There have been impassioned defenses of Griffin and support for the coaching staff. But recent events, with distracting stories in the national media preceding each of the last three games, have made it increasingly difficult for players to believe their organization is holding together.
That hasn’t been the case in Atlanta. Owner Arthur Blanks has already said coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff will be back next season. Multiple players, including veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, took pains to say the Falcons are angry about their own plight. None expected to be tied for the worst record in the NFC. But there’s also been a limit on internal strife – or at least none has reached beyond the confines of the locker room.
There’s a down side to that, too, of course. Atlanta has dealt with injuries to star players, like wide receiver Julio Jones, but hasn’t had the depth to deal with them. The challenge has been keeping younger players, who will need to take leaps forward next season to bring the Falcons back to prominence, from simply accepting the losses. They aren’t imploding like the Redskins. Six of Atlanta’s losses have been by a touchdown or less. But, in the end, the record is the same.