ATLANTA — The coach tried to be indignant and, really, that’s all Mike Shanahan has left.
He faced the lights from eight television cameras in a tunnel underneath the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon and screwed his face into a scowl as if any of this mattered.
Not the workmanlike performance by backup quarterback Kirk Cousins in his first start of the season.
Not the failed two-point conversion by the Redskins in the final seconds.
Not the 27-26 loss to the hapless Falcons.
The season is over, even if another two games remain on the schedule.
The 60 minutes of ugliness between two of the NFL’s dregs served as a reminder of how far the Redskins are from becoming anything approaching a perennial contender. They aren’t close. They aren’t a couple of players away. They bumbled their way through four mistake-choked quarters against a team that’s won once since October. The rot creeps through the 53-man roster constructed with Shanahan’s final approval. That much is clear as Atlanta’s sprawl.
In the makeshift interview area, the coach, though, seemed content to spew the cliches about fight and effort that follow losing teams on their spiral to the bottom. That’s where the man given $35 million to restore this franchise’s long-faded luster has led these Redskins.
The on-field reality is as unsightly as the organizational soap opera that Shanahan has stoked in recent weeks.
In a ritual as predictable as the losing, leaks to national media outlets started flowing around the sieve-like Redskins before footballs did Sunday. More anonymous sources. More passive-aggressive maneuvering around Shanahan’s dying regime.
“I’m done talking about this,” he said of his job status.
The coach spit out words with all the gentleness of a machine gun.
Losing precipitates these questions. A coach as experienced as Shanahan understands as much. In the previous week, he benched his healthy starting quarterback for the remainder of the season (for the stated purpose of protecting him for what really matters: the offseason program) and conducted a series of meandering, emotional press conferences that raised more questions than they answered. He couldn’t distance himself from the deluge of leaks. And, in the midst of the circus, Shanahan pledged to speak honestly, something he admitted to not doing doing regularly with the media. The pledge lasted as long as a sneeze.
A moving truck waited a short distance down the tunnel to be filled with the team’s gear, an unintended picture of the transition this troubled organization is rushing toward.
“We’re a football team,” Shanahan said. “We’d sure like to concentrate on that.”
OK, then. Let’s concentrate on the field, for a moment, in a game that carried less significance for the half-full stadium than your average preseason contest.
The group Shanahan assembled is nothing if not consistent: they’re just as capable of being embarrassed by an upper-division team as one with nothing left to play for save draft position.
Sure, Cousins actually hit receivers in stride and zipped through his progressions in the first start as bubble-wrapped quarterback Robert Griffin III watched from the sideline in sweats. But what success Cousins enjoyed came against the NFL’s No. 20 pass defense. That group appeared lost much of the game, and turned the Redskins’ erratic — to be charitable — group of receivers to play like a gang of All-Pros.
You may want put those fantasies about swapping Cousins for a variety pack of high-round draft picks to rest; this wasn’t an afternoon from which to draw meaningful conclusions.
The coach didn’t care to speak about Cousins’ two interceptions or, for that matter, his three touchdown passes.
Oh, wait. Shanahan insisted on discussing what happened on the field. Except when he won’t.
The coach considers turnover ratio the most important statistic in football, but the slippery-fingered Redskins turned the ball over seven — yes, seven — times. The team finally discovered something it does better than drama: give away the football. In one cornea-searing sequence, the teams turned the ball over on three consecutive plays.
Last season, the Redskins turned the ball over 14 times. All year.
None of the ragged play and drive-crushing mistakes should come as a surprise to anyone who has watched these Redskins. Some teams find ways to win. They find ways to lose.
They’re 3-11 in a season that’s been defined as much by off-field dysfunction as on-field futility, crawling to a divorce with Shanahan that feels inevitable.
In what would’ve been the middle portion of Shanahan’s postgame press conference, a reporter asked if there’s anything the coach can do to stop the relentless media leaks that have become as much a part of Sundays as the Redskins losing.
“OK, thank you gentlemen,” Shanahan said before the question was finished.
Then the coach walked away.