On another gray Sunday, the most recent of so many, Joseph Randle shook off two Washington Redskins defenders and raced downfield. His strides were powerful and succinct, one after another, pounding the decaying grass at the decaying stadium in a quiet suburb of Washington, D.C.
The Dallas Cowboys’ backup running back reached the end zone and flipped the ball with his right hand, giving his team a 44-17 lead. Chants of “Let’s go Cowboys” gave way to simple roars. Swaths of burgundy and gold jerseys headed for the parking lot. A light mist filled the air.
It was a surreal and sickening scene for fans of the local football team, a reminder of just how far the once-storied franchise has fallen. When the final whistle was blown, the Redskins were 4-12, last place in the NFC East division, much closer to dregs of the NFL than its elite.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” left tackle Trent Williams said.
In the past 10 years, the Redskins have a record of 64-96, which ranks 26th out of the NFL’s 32 teams during that span. They have finished last in their division seven times, including three of the past four seasons and six of the past seven. They have won a single playoff game over that period of time.
The losing has become symptomatic of a losing culture, and the causes are many. Interviews with more than two dozen people connected to the franchise in some way, many of whom were granted anonymity to speak more freely about the situation, revealed a number of recurring themes and problems they say have led to Washington’s demise.
The Redskins have had instability at core positions, cycling through four head coaches and 10 starting quarterbacks in the past decade. They have frequently turned over the roster while leaving the scouting department largely undisturbed. Their facilities are dated, their locker room routinely lacks leadership and their owner has meddled in personnel decisions.
Together, these factors have created an atmosphere of drama, dysfunction and disappointment — and there’s little hope for change.
“They’re still the biggest story, and the most polarizing and provocative stories and people and personalities in that market,” said former linebacker LaVar Arrington, who is now an analyst for NFL Network. “In a way, it’s almost like a business model that works. It’s kind of weird.”
Throughout Bruce Allen’s perplexing end-of-season press conference last week, the general manager said he would continue to evaluate every aspect of the organization this offseason.
He didn’t commit to change within the Redskins’ personnel department — a unit that has made questionable decisions for years in the guise of improving the team — but the organization is apparently taking that step. After negotiating for the better part of two days, the team hired Scot McCloughan, a highly respected scout, as its general manager, marking the first time an individual with a proven record of success will lead the personnel department since Dan Snyder purchased the team in 1999.
Otherwise, the Redskins’ scouting department has largely remained intact since Allen’s first full season in 2010. Scott Campbell, the Redskins’ director of player personnel, is primarily in charge of collegiate scouting and has been in that role for the past seven seasons. Each of the 10 scouts listed in the team’s most recent media guide have been in Washington for at least three years, and six of them have been employed by the team since 2010.
The lack of turnover within the department is notable especially when compared to the accomplishments of those who have left. John Schneider, now the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks’ general manager, was fired by the Redskins in 2001 after one season. Trent Baalke was a scout for the Redskins from 2001 to 2004 before joining the San Francisco 49ers, who named him their general manager in 2011.
When Mike Shanahan was hired as the Redskins’ coach prior to the 2010 season, he was given control over the roster — not a unique arrangement in the NFL, but one that’s not exactly prevalent, either. Allen was then primarily responsible for serving as a buffer between Snyder and the rest of the organization, handling promotional duties such as organizing the annual “Homecoming” game meant to honor former players while playing a minimal role in personnel matters.
That separation was, at least outwardly, designed to put an end to Snyder’s longstanding meddling in talent acquisition. His spur-of-the-moment, fantasy football-style of management over the years resulted in the signing of players such as Deion Sanders, Adam Archuleta, Albert Haynesworth and others to albatross contracts, nearly all of which didn’t pan out.
The gravity of those deals led to a widely held understanding among agents that if they represented a player whose contract was set to expire, their first call should always be to the Redskins. Over several years, agents learned that the organization would, without fail, raise the stakes with a competitive contract offer — occasionally one that was so far beyond the expected value for the player that it was hard to pass up.
An agent for a player who signed a long-term deal with Washington during Shanahan’s tenure said he followed that advice when negotiating a contract for his pending free agent. That agent was asked by the Redskins what terms he was seeking for that player, and he threw out a monetary figure he believed to be completely unrealistic but a high-end starting point in negotiations. With very slight modifications, the Redskins, to his astonishment, accepted that proposal.
Such extravagance suggests that input from Snyder, who has repeatedly declined comment this season through a spokesman, hasn’t completely been marginalized. Despite four seasons working mostly in the shadows, one player who signed with the Redskins in 2013 reluctantly shared that he did so because Snyder gave him a recruiting pitch over the phone — a tale corroborated by that player’s agent.
Hampered by a $36 million salary cap penalty levied by the league in March 2012 and split evenly over the next two seasons, the Redskins were forced to be thrifty. That caution disappeared this past spring, when, with cap room restored, they made several decisions that didn’t pan out.
Washington placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, which gave him $11.455 million. It signed defensive end Jason Hatcher, an eight-year veteran whose best season was in a different scheme, to a four-year contract with $10.25 million guaranteed.
Of the eight players the Redskins signed during the first eight days of the free agent signing period, one never played, two played fewer than four games, a fourth was cut after six games and a fifth played just 13 snaps before an injury.
The team’s two other notable offensive acquisitions — left guard Shawn Lauvao and wide receiver Andre Roberts — were inconsistent after signing four-year contracts. Only wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles three weeks after free agency opened and ended up in Washington, performed as expected.
After Shanahan completed his first year with the Redskins, he frequently said that he’d knew the team would be headed in the right direction when players who couldn’t make the roster out of training camp were playing elsewhere.
Since 2010, 117 players participated in at least one game for the Redskins who are no longer with the team. Of those 117 players, only 39 have recorded another statistic in the NFL since leaving Washington. Only 18 are currently on an active roster.
“We knew it was a process,” coach Jay Gruden said in an interview during the final week of the season. “Any time you [inherit] a 3-13 team, it’s going to be a process. Say what you want, but Coach Shanahan has won two Super Bowls. He knows football. There’s a reason they were 3-13, and it’s a combination of a lot of things. Throw in a bunch of the injury factors that we had early in the year to one side of the ball, and you’re going to have some issues.
“We’ll address all of that stuff moving forward, but the big thing is to get to know the guys my first year and the guys that I want to continue to build this team around, and then continue to add to it via free agency and make sure we get our core guys back — and then the draft is going to be gigantic.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, when the Redskins were among the NFL’s elite, the names of their starting quarterbacks were few and familiar. Sonny Jurgensen. Billy Kilmer. Joe Theismann — and that was just about it.
There was stability under center then, a proven recipe for success made possible by the extended tenures of two head coaches: George Allen, Bruce’s father, and Joe Gibbs.
Much has changed in the decades since, both in Washington and around the league, but consistency at the quarterback position remains an important ingredient for success. The question is not simply whether a team can find a capable quarterback, but whether it is also willing to commit to the same quarterback for long stretches of time.
In recent years, Washington has done neither.
Gruden was hired in part to work with Griffin, the former No. 2 overall pick who had struggled in his second pro season. But after Griffin dislocated his left ankle in Week 2, the shuffle began. The Redskins switched from Griffin to Kirk Cousins to Colt McCoy, then back to Griffin, back to McCoy, and, eventually, back to Griffin.
“It’s like a merry-go-round,” Gruden said in late November.
That instability was nothing new for the franchise. In 2013, Griffin was benched for the final three weeks of the season by Shanahan. In a 22-game stretch between 2010 and 2011, Shanahan shifted from Donovan McNabb, past his prime, to Rex Grossman and John Beck, a pair of journeymen. From 2000 to 2007, due in part to injuries, the Redskins never had one quarterback play an entire season.
Turnover at quarterback first puts additional pressure on the players themselves. Many of them are asked to learn an entirely new offensive system with an entirely new group of players in a limited amount of time. When they’re given an opportunity, regardless of the circumstances, they are judged only by whether the team wins. Mitigating factors like injuries or poor pass protection are often forgotten.
“It doesn’t matter. That’s your opportunity,” said Beck, who spent last season in the Canadian Football League. “If you don’t get the results, even if the situation may not be one that’s going to help you get that result, you’re still judged on that result.”
Many quarterback changes stem from coaching changes. Steve Spurrier, Gibbs and Shanahan all turned to new signal-callers when they arrived in Washington. Yet those changes can also work in reverse, with a quarterback’s dissatisfaction helping nudge a coach out the door, as Griffin’s benching did with Shanahan in 2013.
Some, like Griffin, may discover that change is not always positive.
“I don’t think he realized how good [the Shanahans] were to him,” one offensive starter said.
In the time period between pregame warmups and kickoff, the Redskins regularly circle up in the end zone for a customary pump-up speech from a team leader.
Before each of the final two games last season, that leader was Griffin.
As a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Griffin has had a leadership role thrust upon him since he first arrived in Washington. To his credit, he has embraced that role, even as a 24-year-old who has been benched in each of the past two seasons. Several teammates described him as a natural-born leader.
“If we had a lot more guys like him in terms of leadership and stuff like that, we’d probably be a better ball club,” fullback Darrel Young said.
Over the course of last season, Redskins players typically bristled at the notion of a leadership void in the locker room. But as DeAngelo Hall, Adam Hayward and others sustained season-ending injuries, that absence became increasingly noticeable. Washington had leaders, but they were few and far between.
In recent years, the organization has lost some of its most influential voices. Previous team captains Reed Doughty and Lorenzo Alexander were not re-signed when their contracts expired.
London Fletcher, who was widely perceived as the heart and soul of the team, retired at the end of the 2013 season and became a television analyst for CBS. He notably lambasted former defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and the organization during a pregame show on Dec. 7.
Last season, the Redskins struggled to find players who could serve as an example during games and in the locker room. They also did not have many players with winning pedigrees: Of the 66 players who finished the season with Washington, only six had ever played in a Super Bowl. Only three — Ryan Clark, Barry Cofield and Tracy Porter — have a championship ring.
“I just feel like you can’t rely on one or two guys to be a leader. You can’t rely on one or two,” Moss said during his weekly paid appearance on 106.7 The Fan two days after the season ended. “When it comes to the whole team, you have to have a guy in every room — from receivers to running backs to a quarterback. You have to have a guy everywhere on all phases of the game to be able to lead, so together we can mold that team and mold the players together. And that’s how you get the teams out here that are winning week in and week out. Because they have more guys.”
A dated approach
Not long after McNabb was traded to the Redskins from the Philadelphia Eagles, with whom he made eight playoff appearances in 11 seasons, he walked into the team’s locker room at Redskins Park.
“This is it?” McNabb said in astonishment.
The Redskins opened the facility, which has been seldom renovated, on 160 acres in Ashburn on Aug. 24, 1992. A practice bubble was constructed across the parking lot in 2012, and as part of an arrangement with the state to move training camp to Richmond that year, the weight room was expanded and the cafeteria was overhauled.
Little has changed in the locker room, where the carpet is worn and frayed, the linoleum on the plywood stalls is peeling off and large patches of spackle haphazardly cover holes in the drywall.
As players cleaned out their lockers last week, running back Roy Helu cycled through a combination lock before popping the door open. When told he may be the only player to actually use the small compartment, he reached over to the lockers on either side and pulled the doors of those compartments wide open.
“They don’t work,” Helu said.
Washington’s recent renovations do signal, at least, an understanding of the effect modern facilities can have on a team. The last two teams to open a new full-time complex were the Seattle Seahawks and the New York Jets, who did so in 2008. Last year, the Dallas Cowboys announced their plan to move into a new complex in nearby Frisco in 2016.
Such state-of-the-art amenities can not only woo players pondering signing with a team, but they can also help them reach peak physical condition. Developments in sports science now allow teams to track a player’s hydration, his sleep patterns and how far he runs during practice, all of which can allow for a tailored, specific training regimen.
When made aware earlier this season that the Seahawks have implemented such activity trackers into their daily routines, one longtime Redskins player scoffed.
They have that technology too, he said. They just don’t use it.
An uncertain future
As losses piled up this season, the atmosphere in the Redskins’ locker room remained consistently jocular. Loud music frequently blared from an iPod docking station, a basketball hoop was affixed to a support beam midway through the season, and some players took humor in yelling lines from a television newscast that went viral — including on Oct. 31, when a team spokesman had to move a group interview with Griffin out of the locker room because of the noise.
After the Redskins lost to the Seahawks on Oct. 6, the mood at FedEx Field was upbeat, with some players expressing satisfaction that they had played the previous season’s Super Bowl champions so closely. It was not a prevailing thought; some then walked out of the locker room that night more upset about their teammates’ behavior than about the loss.
“Losing sucks, man,” tight end Niles Paul, who completed his fourth season with the team, said recently. “Being a competitor — any competitor, whether you get paid or not — losing sucks. You get tired of it and you want it to change.”
Clark, who played eight seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining the Redskins last April, has frequently talked about changing the culture in Washington. He tried to build accountability among the team’s defensive backs last season by hosting group dinners each week, thereby applying a lesson he learned in Pittsburgh: Treat teammates like family so criticism will be taken positively and constructively.
Arrington said that can be difficult, merely because of the prevailing culture at Redskins Park. If anyone in the complex — players, coaches, administrators — wanted to try to change the way business has been done, so many of them wouldn’t even know where to look.
“It’d be like putting somebody in front of a book written in a different language and asking them to read the book and understand the book and answer questions properly,” Arrington said. “How is that going to happen?”
At least some measure of change will come this offseason, with the contracts of 17 players set to expire and a handful of others unlikely to make the team in August. More shake-ups in the coaching staff are expected as well, especially after the organization parted ways with Haslett three days after the season ended.
Yet the culture of a franchise cannot change in one offseason alone. It’s a reality that players like Young, who has experienced just one winning seasons during his six years in Washington, know all too well.
In December, Young was among the leaders in fan balloting for the Pro Bowl, and he reflected on the challenges he’s faced during his professional career. The constant losing can be a burden, he admitted, but when he was asked what it would be like to play somewhere else, the 27-year-old couldn’t fathom the idea of ever leaving Washington.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,” Young said.
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