LANDOVER — When I wrote last week that Sunday’s game at FedEx Field would be an easy win for a Washington Redskins team fighting for a place in the NFL postseason against a New York Giants club with its playoff berth already clinched, I counted on a few things.
One, that Redskins coach Jay Gruden and his staff would have looked at the right game films to prepare for this game.
Two, that Giants coach Ben McAdoo would not foolishly put his starters at risk by playing them for very long in a game that should have amounted to a preseason preparation game for the Giants.
This 19-10 loss was arguably the worst loss for this Redskins (8-7-1) franchise in decades: A loss against a team with no particular reason to play to win against a Washington team with everything on the table, including a second-straight playoff appearance, with a win (barring a tie in the Sunday night game between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions).
And it wasn’t just the loss — it was how they lost. This Redskins team was so unprepared and lifeless in such an important game that it raises fundamental questions about Gruden and his coaches, beyond just the defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, who is expected to be looking for work following this season.
It was such a bad performance that you have to wonder if Gruden indeed, now finishing his third season as the Redskins head coach, can prepare a team to win. You also have to ask if Kirk Cousins, playing under the franchise tag this year, is truly the quarterback that can lead a team to win in a game like this — a game like the Green Bay playoff game last season where Cousins crumbled under the pressure.
Gruden, with the loss all over his face and eyes, was asked in the post-game press conference if he thought he had the ability to get a team ready to play such a high-stakes game — a legitimate question. “”I’d like to think so,” he answered. “But the results say otherwise.”
I jokingly suggested earlier in this column that Gruden and his staff might have studied the wrong game films to prepare for the Giants, but that would actually be a more palatable explanation for his woeful game plan to open up against the Giants than the real reason he and his brilliant sidekick, offensive coordinator Sean McVay, were outcoached on an embarrassing level.
The opening script of plays, which has been Gruden’s and McVay’s strong suit, usually resulting in Cousins methodically moving his team down the field, was more “Ishtar” than “Casablanca” Sunday afternoon against the Giants (11-5).
The one time Gruden finally got it right — winning the coin toss and electing to receive the ball, rather than defer and volunteer to put his defense on the field to open the game — he wasted that opening opportunity with an opening series of plays that began with a one-yard run by Robert Kelley, an eight-yard completion to Jordan Reed short of the first down and then another run by Kelley for no gain. Three and out, the Washington Redskins.
The next time Gruden and McVay got the ball on offense, the series opened with a five-yard sack of Cousins, a five-yard run by Kelley and then another eight-yard Cousins pass short of the first down, this one to Chris Thompson. Three and out, the Washington Redskins.
“I don’t know what happened,” Gruden said. “They (the Giants) made us flat.”
The Giants, with Eli Manning and the first-teamers on the field, would put three points on the board on a 22-yard field goal by Robbie Gould for a 3-0 lead at the end of the quarter. New York had four first downs to one for Washington and 73 yards of offense compared to 22 for the Redskins.
Still, how much longer would McAdoo keep his starters on the field? Whatever point he was trying to make, he had already made it. Why risk injury to Manning, his prize receiver Odell Beckham and other starters?
What if the Giants had such little regard for the Redskins defense that they didn’t think it was a risk? After all, in order to injure Eli Manning, you have to first hit him.
You don’t have to be Richie Petitbon to come up with a game plan that would have blitzed Manning, at any cost, early and often, to hit him early and often. No matter how much of an idiot McAdoo was for keeping his prize quarterback on the field for the entire game, even Forrest Gump would have pulled Manning out early if he was getting hit often.
Then, maybe against Giants backup quarterback Josh Johnson, the Redskins might have had a chance.
Instead, the Giants marched up and down the field with no fear of anything. The Redskins crawled on the field as if they were scared of everything, and went into the locker room down 10-0.
The count and the amount? New York had 12 first downs in the half, compared to four for Washington. New York had 194 yards of offense, compared to 83 for Washington. And that Redskins defense was on the field for nearly 19 minutes of the half.
And then it got worse.
There was Eli Manning, back on the field to open the second half, and Cousins, showing little ability to muster his teammates on any kind of offensive run, wasted a 49-yard completion to Pierre Garcon in the third quarter with an interception by D. Rodgers-Cromartie. Then came the death knell — Rodgers-Cromartie’s second interception of a Cousins pass to Garcon on the Redskins drive down the field with less than two minutes remaining, down 13-10.
Cousins put up elite numbers for a second straight seasons — 25 touchdowns, 4,917 yard passing, breaking his own franchise record from last season. But games like Sunday’s raise legitimate questions about whether or not the Redskins should invest long-term elite quarterback money in a guy who could not do more in such an important game, with seemingly everything in favor of his team — playing at home against an opponent with nothing to play for except playoff preparation.
Gruden was asked about the future of Cousins. “I believe he is an NFL starting quarterback,” he responded, and then added the multi-million question — “hopefully here.”
And what about the general manager, Scot McCloughan, who put together this shameful defense? Whose No. 1 draft pick, Josh Doctson, only got on the field twice this year because of injuries and mysteries? Whose Marshawn Lynch look-alike draft pick from last season, running back Matt Jones, didn’t even dress for the second half of the season?
The trio of McCloughan, Gruden and Cousins may still be the long-term answer for this franchise to progress, but, as Sydney Greenstreet, the Fat Man, said in “The Maltese Falcon,” “In the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie and let their emotions carry them away.”
A loss like Sunday’s can let anyone’s emotions carry them away.
Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.