On an afternoon that is expected to chilly and gray Sunday, the Redskins will finally, mercifully put an end to their miserable 2013 season.
On the surface there is nothing to play for when Washington faces the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. The competitive portion of the year ended long ago for both teams.
Within 48 hours of that contest ending, the Redskins could have moved on from Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff and turned in a new direction. Again. Players will have packed their gear and most will have headed back to their offseason homes to lick their wounds. The question between now and then: How do you get through that final game when there is nothing at stake.
“It’s the opposition. But it’s more than that - it’s a deeper sense of pride,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said this week. “People want to tell you that you don’t have anything to play for, but they’re full of…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Coughlin, a two-time Super Bowl winner, didn’t have to. After a pregnant pause he continued: “They don’t know what they’re talking about. You have everything to play for because, obviously, the scrutiny is very much involved and the powers to be are evaluating your every move.”
For pending free agents, maintaining their health is paramount. Millions of dollars are at stake for players like cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Linebacker Brian Orakpo’s status is already in doubt with a groin injury. He missed practice again on Thursday. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan isn’t a free agent. But he will likely play despite a wrist injury, among other maladies, and must find a way to put that pain out of his mind. It’s not a normal week. But they have to treat it as such.
“Every game you play you’re not necessarily playing for the record,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “That’s part of it. You’re playing for the record, you’re playing for the team, you’re playing for your coaching staff. But always, in every single game, preseason, regular season, playoffs, you’re playing for the league. You’re playing for the visibility that you get every Sunday when you get out there.”
Paulsen noted that there’s a balance between blocking out that fear of injury and finding a way to win a game after seven losses in a row. Redskins strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright used to be a scout and told Paulsen that a former general manager he worked for had a philosophy: He only wanted to see a player’s final three games on tape. When there’s nothing left to play for in the standings, front office personnel want to see the effort a player gives in spite of those circumstances.
“It’s easy to play hard when you’re playing for something. The more difficult thing is to play hard when there’s nothing on the line,” Washington linebacker London Fletcher, who is likely retiring, said. “Our fate is sealed from the playoff standpoint, nobody’s going anywhere. But you see guys go lay it on the line, a road game, last game of the season where there’s nothing to play for - those are the guys that you know are somebody you want on your football team.”
Of course, the uncertainty with the coaching staff is an added complication. The people doing the internal evaluations may be gone by next week. That’s life in the NFL, as coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the offensive coordinator, each said during separate press conferences on Thursday.
Maybe the one thing players cited most often when asked what they are playing for this weekend? This will be the last time this particular group is together. Whether the coaching staff remains in place or not, massive changes are expected for 2014 and every player in the locker room knows it.
Fletcher won’t be back. Many of the pending free agents, from Hall to Orakpo to veteran wide receiver Santana Moss, may not be, either. For one final Sunday they will band together and attempt to salvage something from the wreckage of this lost season. It is all this group has left.
“You never get motivated by anything fake,” Redskins wide receiver Josh Morgan, a District native and another pending free agent, said. “It’s always added motivation because me myself being from here, I take so much pride in putting that helmet on and putting that jersey on. I’ll always let my city motivate me. I play for the pride of my city, the pride of my family, I play for my God and play for my teammates. I never really let nothing else take my motivation away or help me.”