Jay Gruden was quiet as he walked off the field Sunday afternoon, to a sullen locker room and a press conference and questions he knew he could not answer.
The first-year head coach wiped his hand across his face as he approached the stadium tunnel, glancing at the videoboard above him and grimacing at the sight. Niles Paul walked up next to him. Gruden pursed his lips and reassuringly slapped his tight end on the back.
There was not much for Gruden to say after the Washington Redskins lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-7, in a chilly stadium that had long since started to empty. There was no way to adequately explain the nine penalties, three turnovers and two missed field goals. Or the numerous blown defensive assignments leading to 56- and 36-yard Tampa Bay touchdowns. Or the resounding loss at home to a one-win team on the heels of a bye week.
“I have no explanation right now,” Gruden said. “It was a struggle today. It was a struggle all the way across the board.”
Any remote hopes the Redskins had of surging through the second half of their schedule and making the playoffs went up in spectacular flames Sunday. Three weeks after beating the Dallas Cowboys on “Monday Night Football,” they are now 3-7 with trips to San Francisco and Indianapolis looming. The playoffs are off the table. Now, they’re playing only for pride.
“We’ll get angry. And we have to be,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “We’ll strap up our boots and realize that we’re 3-7. Hey, playoffs are out the door. We have got to find what we’re going to play for, and I think we know what it is. It’s each other in the locker room, and I think the guys will bond together and be ready to go. But it’s not like it’s easy.”
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Griffin was visibly emotional both during and after his postgame press conference. He was one of the last players to leave the locker room, sitting and staring blankly at his locker long after nearly all of his teammates had left.
“It was a travesty,” Griffin said. “It was a travesty out there today.”
For nearly two weeks, Griffin and his teammates had insisted they were capable of repeating what they had done in 2012, when they returned from the bye week in a similar situation and rattled off seven straight victories to win the NFC East. That run helped Griffin earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
On Sunday, that same player threw two interceptions in a span of 11 minutes. And the players around him weren’t much better. Forget nuances — the Redskins at times struggled to line up properly for a play or hike the ball without drawing a penalty.
“Really, it looked like the first preseason game is what it looked like,” Gruden said. “It was not good by anybody on our staff, offensively, myself. … We have to first initially take the blame and then hold some accountability to the players to find out where the confusion is and why we’re having this much trouble saying, ‘Set, hike,’ and snapping the ball.”
Before Washington’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 2, an anonymously sourced report claimed Griffin had “alienated himself” in the Redskins locker room. Repeated questions about the team’s leadership, which had been asked for several weeks, resurfaced.
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Now 3-7 and recovering from the worst loss of their season, those questions will only continue. Questions about the team’s focus, preparation and weekly effort will follow.
“We need to do something,” safety Ryan Clark said. “I said it a long time ago: They’re going to keep playing these games, they’re going to keep rolling out these teams to beat our tails if we don’t get it fixed. … And that’s on us. I know people are going to blame the coaches and stuff. That’s on the players. We get paid to play a game, and you need to come out and play hard every week.”
Though Griffin struggled, the offensive line was porous, kicker Kai Forbath missed two field goals and the secondary botched multiple coverages, Gruden said it was impossible to single out one player or position group for the team’s failure. Griffin agreed, reiterating the importance of each player focusing on his own individual performance.
“We can’t do what 3-7 teams normally do. We can’t throw knives and stab each other in the back,” Griffin said. “We have good people in our locker room — men of God who are going to stick together and stay strong.”
A loss like Sunday’s can have a debilitating effect on the psyche of a locker room, forcing players to walk a fine line between dwelling on defeat and ignoring it altogether. Clark and Gruden both said the team must now adopt a long-term perspective.
“I think people are confused: We were 3-13 last year for a reason,” Clark said. “Jay had to come in, and it’s a hard transition. So this transition isn’t necessarily, ‘Do you want to win a Super Bowl?’ Yeah. But this transition is not about winning a Super Bowl so much as it is changing the culture, changing the way men work. … We’ve just got to execute.”
As the third quarter became the fourth and a two-possession deficit grew to three, the sparse crowd at FedEx Field either left to beat traffic or stayed to boo its team. Faint chants calling for backup quarterback Colt McCoy to enter the game rang out in the seats.
Afterwards, in a hallway behind the locker room, Griffin talked about changing this mentality, the losing culture that has long plagued Washington and its players.
“It’s not on any one person. It’s on all of us. It’s on all of us to turn things around,” Griffin said. “That’s one thing I learned at Baylor — it’s not one guy that changes the culture. I wasn’t solely responsible for going out there and changing the culture at Baylor University. It takes everybody — coaches, players, an organization. And I believe we can do it.”