There was no definitive promise, no rallying cry, not even a misconstrued assessment Thursday night after the Washington Redskins squandered a 13-point second-half lead to lose to the Minnesota Vikings, 34-27.
Coach Mike Shanahan, in a cramped Metrodome hallway after the game, literally stood with his back against the wall. Somewhat defeated himself, sweat beading restlessly on his forehead, Shanahan’s dulcet tone seemed powerless as he pondered how the Redskins should proceed after falling to 3-6 for the third consecutive season.
“Same thing as a year ago, same things we did today: You have to take it game by game,” Shanahan said. “We fell short today, and hopefully, we take care of business next week.”
It was just over a year ago when Shanahan, confronted with another season slipping out of control, stood at a lectern deep within FedEx Field and seemingly changed course on his team’s future. Not an hour before, the Redskins had lost to the Carolina Panthers, who entered that afternoon with only one victory in their first seven games. Going forward, Shanahan said, the coaches would be looking at which players would be on the team in the coming years.
The statement, analyzed and shredded from all angles, seemed to make sense. Shanahan knew that the team, with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, faced a bright future. With little shot of glory over the next seven weeks and multiple decisions to be made during the offseason, it was time to take a critical eye to the roster and decide who could be of greatest use as a recovering franchise geared up for a playoff run perhaps as soon as the following season.
What happened afterward wasn’t at all expected. The Redskins responded to Shanahan’s public slight, which he backed away from and attempted to clarify over the coming days, and rattled off seven consecutive victories. They became only the fourth team since the playoffs were expanded in 1990 to reach the postseason after starting 3-6, and they did so by winning the NFC East for the first time in over a decade.
That achievement carried the Redskins into this season, where, they figured, another year in the system with an overwhelming number of the same players would only lead to greater success. As they learned steadily in recent weeks, and had reinforced again Thursday night, expectations can be fleeting.
“We just need it all to come together and get it all to click for us,” Griffin said Thursday. “The only way to do that is to keep pushing forward. What’s a man to do when he goes to work but put his all in every day? Sometimes, he comes up short.”
Last year, under the same circumstances, the Redskins‘ main question rested within the defense. The offense had been able to generate 381.7 yards and 25.1 points per game, which ranked seventh and 10th, respectively, after that loss to the Panthers. The other side of the ball, though, was in the bottom in nearly every major statistical category, including not only yards and points allowed but also in others such as sacks and third down percentage.
It was easy, then, to fix the defense – and the Redskins did, most notably holding opponents to fewer than 21 points in five of the seven victories.
This year, the questions are numerous, broad, and affect all three phases. Why can’t the offense sustain drives – and how come the defense does? Why are there so many miscues on special teams, especially on punt coverage?
“It’s disappointing,” said outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. “It’s so hard to get a win in the NFL. I wish people would understand that. It’s tough. This one hurts, but we’ll be all right.”
The schedule won’t be kind. While the Redskins can make up ground in the NFC East with four division games remaining, including two against the New York Giants, they also will face the resurgent San Francisco 49ers in a nationally televised Monday night game on Nov. 25, the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 8 and the underachieving Atlanta Falcons on the road on Dec. 15.
That stretch starts this Sunday with the Philadelphia Eagles, who defeated the Redskins 33-27 in the opener but, coincidentally, were their first victim during the winning streak last season.
“We’ve played some good halves over the last three or four games, but we’ve got to put complete games together to get where we want to get,” Shanahan said Friday, back in the confines of Redskins Park. “The bottom line is to be 4-6. When we were 3-6 a year ago, we had one goal, and that was to improve and become 4-6 – and to do that, we have to have a group effort. … You’ve got to do it collectively to get it done, and hopefully, we can do that.”