Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has often equated a positive turnover margin to team success, noting that the best teams in the league are the ones who give the ball away the least and take it away the most.
With only two games remaining, the Redskins stand at a paltry 3-11, the second-worst team in the league by virtue of the standings and tiebreakers. After turning the ball over seven times on Sunday in a 27-26 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons, they are the owners of a woeful minus-8 turnover margin, the sixth-worst mark in the league.
Bad teams play sloppy football. But what makes the Redskins’ deficiencies even more eye-opening is that they ranked No. 3 in the NFL last season in that very same category, finishing with a net differential of 17 turnovers.
Washington returned all but one starter from a year ago, and on defense, an emphasis was placed on acquiring players who had a penchant for forcing turnovers. Yet the lack of surehandedness, on both sides of the ball, is alarming.
“That’s really hard to put a finger on,” Shanahan said Monday. “That’s one of the reasons why we’ve had the record we’ve had.”
Robert Griffin III threw only five interceptions last season, displaying an acute awareness unbecoming of a player in his first year. Only 1.27 percent of his passes were intercepted — a rookie record.
Griffin’s accuracy took a significant dip this year, and before being shut down by the team last week to keep him healthy for the offseason, he had thrown 12 interceptions over 13 games. Not once last year did he throw multiple interceptions in one game; he did so twice this season, including in the season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
That interception percentage increased this year to 2.63 percent, which is just shy of the 2.67 percent league average for starting quarterbacks. Kirk Cousins, who threw two interceptions Sunday in place of Griffin, has thrown seven career interceptions on 118 attempts, or 5.93 percent of his passes.
Cousins said after the game Sunday that the interceptions came on similar routes, and he didn’t lead either of his wide receivers, Aldrick Robinson or Pierre Garçon, far enough away from their defenders.
“I think I saw right,” Cousins said. “I think he was open on both occasions. I think the ball just needed to be thrown three, four, five yards further in and it’s a completion and we’re moving the chains. That’s something I would like to think I would never do again. Every in-cut I ever throw now will be where it needs to be.”
The Redskins also were hampered by turnovers committed by players who normally don’t do so. Wide receiver Santana Moss lost two fumbles, including a muffed punt in the second quarter, marking the first time he’s lost a fumble all season. Running back Alfred Morris also let go of the football twice, marking the first time he’s done so in his two years in the league.
Cousins was also sacked and stripped of the football in the first quarter — a play that ended the Redskins’ first drive of the game.
“Any fumble — I don’t care what the game situation, I don’t care if we were winning by 50 points — if I fumbled, I’m not gonna be happy about it,” Morris said after the game. “Both fumbles I’m very disappointed in myself about, and [I’ll] just do my best not to let it happen again.”
The Redskins’ defense forced an interception and a fumble on Sunday, running its streak to four consecutive games with a turnover. Only once this season has Washington failed to pry the ball away from its opponent, totaling 21 takeaways on the season. Even then, it still stands tied for 17th in the league.
Hoping to build on last year, the Redskins targeted players with an ability to force turnovers during their most recent draft class. Cornerback David Amerson and free safety Bacarri Rambo were expected to be key contributors; Amerson, who has intercepted two passes, is the only rookie defensive player who has seen steady playing time.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett mentioned in mid-October that the Redskins have continued to put an emphasis on forcing fumbles. They’ve forced and recovered eight fumbles on the season, but only two during their current six-game losing streak.
Only one team has won the Super Bowl in the past decade with a substandard turnover margin — the New York Giants, who, in 2007, ranked 26th with a minus-9 differential. Eight of the other 10 teams have been ranked in the top 10 in the category, with the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked No. 11 in 2008.
“When you don’t do those things, you lose,” Shanahan said. “That’s what happened Sunday.”