Early in the season, it looked like the Washington Redskins could be special. They won at New Orleans and might have been 2-0 if not for a Joshua Morgan personal-foul penalty and some other mistakes.
Morgan’s penalty — and 10 more against St. Louis — revealed an underlying problem. Still, coach Mike Shanahan assured that the Redskins “are a very disciplined football team” and guaranteed “at the end of the day we won’t have those penalties.”
Seven games later, they still do. Penalties are one of the reasons why the Redskins are 3-6 as they continue to beat themselves, and trying to find a way to turn the troublesome trend around is one of the biggest questions coming out of the bye week.
“It’s really kind of disheartening because you work on that, and that’s always been a phase that we’ve been pretty good at,” Shanahan said. “But we’ll get better at it. I know we will.”
With a razor’s edge being the margin of error the rest of the way, the Redskins don’t have much choice but to improve in a lot of areas, including penalties. Through the first nine weeks, they’ve committed 82 penalties, 75 of which have been accepted for 649 yards. That’s the worst in the NFL.
“I think we can be more disciplined: the pre-snap penalties, the snap count, false starts and illegal procedures,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “I think we can be more disciplined in that field because the structure of this team is very disciplined. Mike runs a very discipline-structured team. We’re just not proving it when the time comes to show how disciplined you are. We’re just kind of off, man, and I don’t know what to put it on. We’re just off.”
Sunday was the harshest example in a while, as 13 penalties for 97 yards derailed the Redskins’ chance to make a game of it against the lowly Carolina Panthers.
Tight end Chris Cooley called it “an interesting game as far as penalties went.” and cornerback Josh Wilson declined to talk about “any ref calls.”
Duly noted. But it still showed the epidemic of penalties that has plagued the Redskins’ season and led to what players and the coaching staff need to do to fix it.
“Just focus in more. Being more disciplined, especially like the pre-snap penalties, whether it’s offsides or false starts, things like that, illegal formations — things that don’t take place once the ball is snapped,” middle linebacker London Fletcher said. “Once you get into the ball is snapped, obviously you want to play with great technique because a lot of times the technique is what gets you in trouble, whether it’s a holding penalty, a pass interference penalty, things like that. Just doing those things.”
The Redskins have committed 15 offensive holding penalties, 14 false starts and seven defensive pass interference penalties. Among the 28 different infractions called against them this year there’s a healthy mix of pre-snap, technique and aggression penalties.
Shanahan joked that whips could be used in practice to punish players for penalties. But what can he really do to cut down on the flags?
“We try to practice at game speed all the time, and usually you practice at game speed, usually it carries over to limited penalties,” he said. “This year, for some reason, has not gone like it has in the past for me.”
Shanahan’s methods have been successful. Last year’s 5-11 Redskins were in the middle of the pack leaguewide with 91 penalties for 897 yards. Counting 2010 and his last seven years with the Denver Broncos, Shanahan has not coached a team that finished higher than 12th in penalties or yards penalized.
As the head coach, Shanahan is blamed for this year’s problems.
“I would take more ownership of that,” Williams said. “The head coach is going to get the blame just like if the team’s not going, it’s either the head coach or the quarterback, that’s just the nature of this game, and we understand that.”
If players are to take ownership of the Redskins’ penalty problem, then the solution goes beyond practice.
“I think it’s about focus. It’s about not overwhelming yourself with what’s going on and being able to focus from play to play,” Cooley said. “You can practice it, but I think at the same time, we’ve all played football for a long time, and it’s about focus.”
Interpretation can be a problem, too, even after the regular officials returned earlier this season.
“It’s really tough because there’s such a fine line between what a penalty is and what a penalty isn’t. I think you see that in a couple of the pass interference calls that get called on us, some of the holding calls,” linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “It’s a fine line, but it’s minor details that can make the difference between what’s a penalty and what’s not.”
Even considering the gray area that exists, the Redskins have a difficult enough grind down the stretch that they know the penalties need to stop. If they don’t, the already steep climb becomes more treacherous.
“You take a look at some of these other teams that won [Sunday] and you say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to overcome those penalties.’ A lot of teams won with more yards than that,” Shanahan said. “There’s a lot of things that are going to be good and bad in a game. But you’ve got to find a way to win. You’ve got to overcome those mistakes.”