The players trickled through the tunnel, one by one, some stopping on the field to exchange pleasantries with friends or former teammates on the other side.
Though it seemed as though it had happened weeks ago, the Washington Redskins’ season finally came to an end on Sunday with one last clunker — a 44-17 loss to the rival Dallas Cowboys, who will proceed into the postseason as the NFC East champions.
Washington, meanwhile, will again spend January at home, the last-place team for the sixth time in seven seasons. At 4-12, the Redskins’ record was an improvement over 2013, when they won just three games, but between injuries and indecision, their inconsistency was ubiquitous.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” left tackle Trent Williams said.
The Redskins continually appeared outmatched, made several significant gaffes and were atrophied by injury. The same held true Sunday, when the Cowboys throttled Washington’s defense for 457 yards, 310 of which were gained with seconds to play in the first half.
Both touchdown receptions by wide receiver Dez Bryant were the product of missed tackles, and a blown assignment nearly led to an 80-yard touchdown run by reserve running back Lance Dunbar before it was recalled because of a penalty.
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Early in the second quarter, the Redskins’ kickoff return unit was surprised by an onside kick that the Cowboys were able to recover. And, late in the fourth quarter, with Williams, right tackle Tom Compton and right guard Chris Chester all succumbing to injury, Washington trotted out an offensive line that had tight end Logan Paulsen lining up as the left tackle for the final three plays of the game.
Washington’s performance over the first two quarters, when it trailed 27-10, led to coach Jay Gruden challenging his players at halftime to do better. He said it was the worst half of football he’d ever seen from a defense — “and we agreed with him,” free safety Ryan Clark said.
“It’s a tough emotional thing to conquer, because yeah, you do feel confident coming into the game,” outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “You feel like you’ve got a good game plan. All you’ve got to do is execute it. When you don’t execute it and you get your tails kicked like we did in the first half, that was disappointing.”
Dallas, which somehow lost to the Redskins in overtime in the teams’ first meeting on Oct. 27, did not score in the third quarter. Yet it scored three times over the final 3:31, with a 65-yard touchdown run by Randle the final blow for a team that, at that point, looked wholly disinterested.
“It’s kind of a complex feeling, because in some ways, this really kind of horrible season has just come to an end, and it’s time to start a new beginning with next season and this offseason,” Paulsen said. “But in the same breath, it’s always difficult to lose, and it’s always difficult to lose to the Cowboys, especially at home and the way we did, kind of with a lackluster offensive performance.”
Very little went right this season for the Redskins, who entered training camp in July believing that they had the pieces in place for a turnaround under Gruden, their first-year coach.
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It was a fallacy. Quarterback Robert Griffin III, hampered for much of 2013 following surgery on his right knee, struggled to stay healthy and to show he could capably run the offense. The defense, which originally rallied around a newfound autonomy under defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, could not stop even the most vanilla of offenses.
In a brief speech after the game, Gruden told his players that the team has to start doing things differently if it hopes to succeed. Work ethic, he said, would be stressed. Practice and preparation would be overhauled. Evaluations, which will begin this week, will be stringent.
“It’s going to be a process, and it takes time, and we don’t plan on doing this in a day or two days,” Gruden said. “We plan on taking this very serious and taking a long time to do it.”
Many of the Redskins’ issues will not be easily fixed during the offseason. The number of quality players Washington needs in order to succeed cannot be obtained in one spring, and the matter of coaching and preparing them to merely be competitive will be a burden.
For several minutes after Gruden left the locker room, a handful of players sat pensively at their stalls, with some not yet removing their uniforms. They slowly showered, then changed their clothes, then packed their bags and left.
Equipment managers rolled large plastic chests and cardboard boxes around the room, littered with clumps of grass and balls of athletic tape. Name plates were slowly slid out of the brackets above the lockers.
Another long offseason awaits.
“I want to say we got better,” inside linebacker Perry Riley said. “We ain’t getting it done, regardless. We got better, worse, we ain’t getting it done. Point blank. Period.”